Generally then, the vocal games are competitive activities, done most of the time by two women facing each other and standing very close to one another; sometimes they hold each other's shoulders. Contrary to a widespread belief it does not appear to be true that the partner's mouth served as a resonator. On the other hand, in certain regions (the Netsilik and Caribou groups), people use a kitchen utensil to transform the acoustical properties of the sounds produced (formerly they would use bags for carrying water made of caribou skin). The game stops when one of the women runs out of breath or laughs. Even if the ludic dimension of the game remains predominant, the partners are nevertheless appreciated for their endurance and for the quality of the sounds they produce. One must win but with merit: certain sounds are considered more difficult to do than others. The game makes one even more breathless if the players drop on their heels and rise alternately. Whether or not these gestures are used seems to depend on the age and the physique of the players. In certain regions (around Cape Dorset), the game could be played in teams: women who belonged to different camps, for instance, assembled to play the game, and the winning group was the one that forced the opposing team to make use of all its women. Two points must be raised: the game is played in pairs, but nevertheless four or more can play at the same time (in multiples of two). It seems that these games are essentially used by women, but this gender specialisation results from the traditional way of life: boys also learned these games but they lost the habit of playing them when they reached the age of participation in the hunt with adult males.
Inuit vocal games can be divided in two major categories: katajjaq (or plural katajjait) - around the coast of Arctic Quebec, in the Belcher Islands, south of Baffin Land, and, in a rather scattered fashion, in the rest of Baffin Land (where it might be called pirqusirtuq or pirqusirartuq) - and the Netsilik, Igloolik, and Caribou Inuit vocal games which are of a less homogeneous style. Some but not all types make use of story-telling texts.
Katajjaq is basically constructed from repeated motifs and the succession of chosen morphemes, when they have a meaning, does not seem to follow a narrative logic. Katajjaq consists of the repetition of a motif (for example hamma) caracterised by a specific intonation contour and a pattern based on the alternation of voiced/un-voiced, breathed-in/breathed-out sounds. The motif is repeated an undetermined number of times. Most of the time, the second voice's motif is identical to that of the first, but with an imitation-like time lag (of a half-beat) corresponding to the breathing-in, breathing-out alternation. In this case, the most frequent, the total effect results from the motivic superposition of the 'dephased' voices. Since in general each motif contains a low-pitch sound followed by a high-pitch one (or the contrary) and since the two voices follow each other at a distance of a half-beat, those watching the game have the impression that they are hearing a chain of low-pitched sounds and a chain of high-pitched ones, whereas each sound has been produced alternately by each of the two partners. Without warning, one of the two players might decide to change her motif and the other partner must follow suit whitout breaking the rhythm. In spite of the competitive nature of the game, the resulting sound must project the feeling that there is perfect harmony between protagonists and such homogeneity of sound that listeners-spectators are not able to discern exactly who does what.
Concerning its meanings, it can be said that katajjaq acts as a sort of 'open structure,' receptive to many diverse and pre-existing sound expressions: meaningless syllables (or for which meanings are no longer understood), but also archaic words, names of ancestors or elders, animal names, toponyms, terms designating an object seen while playing the game, animal cries (sometimes but not always geese calls), sounds from nature, but also the melody borrowed from an aqausiq (an affectionate song composed for an infant), the tune of a drum dance song or of a religious hymn.
Katajjaq was or is done in all kinds of different occasions: anytime during the day, in any season, for sheer pleasure, to put babies to sleep or upon returning from the hunt, in the qaggi (ceremonial illu), in the form of team games, during extensive travels, or integrated within other series of games. We also know that it was used as respiratory training in bad climatic conditions. It is this author's hypothesis that in the past katajjaq fulfilled some shamanistic function, participating in a kind of symbolic task division: while men were out hunting, women played katajjaq to influence the spirits of natural elements or of animals (named or imitated in the game) and thus, from a distance, contributed to the success of an essential survival activity.
Among the Netsilik, Igloolik, and Caribou Inuit, the great majority of the games collected by researchers tell a story. Frequently the text is distributed with a precise rhythmic articulation which makes the game resemble what we call a sing-song. In many other cases, the same text is transformed with the breathing style typical of katajjait - the alternation of inhaled and exhaled sounds - without however their characteristic throat sounds. These games then act as enigmas and the listeners, children or adults, must reconstruct their meaning. In these regions, there exists four large categories of narrative games based on texts that are nearly similar from one village to the next, with variants of course: quananau, qiarpalik, illuquma, and niaquinaq. Next to these narrative games are those games based on the juxtaposition of repeated morphemes designated by the first motif used (amerniaktok, angutinguark, haqalaktuq, immipijiutuq, iurnaaq, marmartuq, pirqusiqtuk, sirqusurtaqtuk, ullu, umpi, etc); in these latter games, it is not possible to discover a clear discursive logic from one motif to the next.
The existence of vocal games in the 19th century in Alaska is attested by an explorer's report. It could still be found some 20 years ago in Japan, among the Ainu, under the name rekkukara. It was still being practiced in 1991 among the Tchukchi of East Siberia. The vocal games of Canada thus constitute evidence that the Inuit belong to a circumpolar cultural and musical civilisation which reaches far beyond the present borders of this country.
Author Jean-Jacques Nattiez
Inuit Games and Songs / Chants et jeux des Inuit: 1978. Philips 6586036
Inuit Throat and Harp Songs (Eskimo Women's Music of Povungnituk) / Chants Inuit - gorge et guimbarde (Musique des esquimaudes de Povungnituk): 1981. Canadian Music Heritage MH-001
Inuit Traditional Songs and Games / Chants et jeux traditionnels Inuit: 1984. 2-CBC SQN-108
Jeux vocaux des Inuit (Inuit du Caribou, Netsilik et Igloolik): 1989. OCORA C-559071 (CD).
Cavanagh, Beverley. 'Some throat games of Netsilik Eskimo women,' CFMJ, vol 4, 1976
Saladin d'Anglure, B. 'Entre cri et chant: les katajjait, un genre musical féminin,' Inuit Studies, vol 2, no. 1, 1978
Beaudry, Nicole. 'Le katajjaq, un jeu inuit traditionnel,' ibid
- 'Toward transcription and analysis of Inuit throat-games: macro-structure', Ethnomusicology, vol 22, May 1978
Charron, Claude. 'Toward transcription and analysis of Inuit throat-games: micro-structure,' ibid
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 'Comparison within a culture: the katajjaq of the Inuit,' Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Music, eds R. Falck and T. Rice (Toronto 1982)
- 'The rekkukara of the Ainu (Japan) and the katajjaq of the Inuit (Canada): a comparison,' World of Music, vol 25, no. 2, 1983
- 'Some aspects of Inuit vocal games,' Ethnomusicology, vol 27, Sep 1983
Links to Other Sites
Tanya Tagaq Gillis
The website for Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis.
The CanCon Atlas
An interactive map depicting some of the Canadian places celebrated in song. Click on the map icons around the country to view music videos by a cross-section of Canadian musicians. From the CBC website.
A brief description of throat singing, a guttural style of singing or chanting, as practiced in three cultures around the world. From Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.