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Pisiit course teaches Inuit performers ancient language of songs

Seven elders, each with a pisiq they carry within them, arrived in Iqaluit in early August to teach 32 students some of what they know about these songs of healing, hardship and journeys.

Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
Francois Kaput of Rankin Inlet was one of seven elders who led a course on pisiit offered by the Qaggiq School of Performing Arts in Iqaluit in early August. Kaput, whose father composed pisiit. sang a song composed by his older brother.

More than 50 people from outside Iqaluit applied, but Qaggiavuut had funding to bring in 20. Anybody in Iqaluit was welcome to join.

"The most important thing to identify was who are the last knowledge keepers of pisiit," Qaggiavuut's executive director Ellen Hamilton said about the one-year process of developing the course.

"Annie (Petaulassie) and I just started with who we knew had pisiit. We were particularly interested in the pisiit that were at risk of being lost."

Petaulassie interviewed the elders – the interviews were recorded, as were the songs.

Pisiit Course: Inuit Ancient Songs from the Masters is the first course offered by the newly minted Qaggiq School of Performing Arts, a partnership between the Qaggiavuut Society, the Nunatta Isiginnaartitsisarfia (National Theatre School of Greenland) and the National Theatre School of Canada. This formalizes artist training by Qaggiavuut, which it has been doing here and there since 2012.

Hamilton says pisiit are the foundation of Inuit performance art.

"This is not music in the written form. We really wanted to film the elders because there's so much nuance," said Hamilton, adding it was essential elders be interviewed about the story behind the song, which could take an hour to tell.

The length of the story behind the song is because of the language.

Qaggiavuut's vice chairperson Rhoda Ungalaq has her own story about that complicating factor. As a young woman taking her Bachelor of Education, she was asked to go to Iglulik to document such songs and turn them into lessons, with information about the composer, a glossary, and written notations so they could be reproduced with any instrument.

"I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I don't like ayaya songs.' I was maybe in my thirties. I went anyways because I needed to get a credit for my program. I didn't like those songs because I did not understand the words, because those songs have their own language. Instead of saying 'polar bear,' 'nanuk' … in the song it's 'qakuqturjuaq,' the big white one. Instead of saying 'tuktu,' they would say 'nagjuligjuaq,' said Ungalaq, adding, "My sister's husband's grandfather, he used to sing them underneath his breath. People heard the tune, but were not able to hear the words.

Arriving missionaries essentially sought to erase these songs, because they didn't understand them. Those efforts were more successful in the Eastern Arctic and, moving westward, less so – as the east, especially south Baffin, was more intensely colonized from an earlier date.

"I don't know the reasoning. When they came they thought we were pagans and any activities, like those songs, habits and culture were suppressed. They didn't know they were just songs," said Ungalaq.

Yet, these songs served several important purposes – they are healing songs and sacred songs – and erasing them is equivalent to erasing the existence of the renowned composers and poets of the classical European world. Pisiit are no less complex than a European creation.

"It's like poetry, like Shakespeare," said Ungalaq.

"They are to be sung with specific protocols," said Hamilton. "There was one song we learned in 2012 when we did our first summit that was a 12-hour song. The elder, who has passed away now, sang us one hour-long version of it. But it was a song she memorized from beginning to end. She had learned it when she was a young girl."

Hamilton explains it was a song that would be sung in a qaggiq – a large iglu where people gathered – to heal people who were fighting. When the communities were falling apart the qaggiq was often used to bring people together to celebrate life and to heal.


Heard in public for first time in 50 years

Hamilton recalls starting the first Inuit theatre group in Pond Inlet with Pakak Innuksuk – the drum instructor for the pisiit course – about 40 years ago. No pisiit were sung in the community, and Hamilton and Innuksuk were told by elders they couldn't remember any. The songs had been banned in their lifetime. Hamilton and Innuksuk brought elders from other communities to teach the theatre group pisiit.

"When we did that first play, elders began to cry when they saw young people sing pisiit. We actually had to stop the play for a few minutes because the elders were crying so loudly in the community hall. They remembered their elders singing that music, and they'd been told to not sing it," said Hamilton.

Elders then began to come forward and share songs that are now more well-known. They are sung in schools and choirs. At the culmination of the week-long pisiit course, a graduation concert was held. The songs sung by the students and elders Aug. 9 hadn't been heard in public for over 50 years.

Ungalaq feels differently now than she did in her thirties.

"I feel great, because the young people who came to learn these songs are going to carry these songs," she said.

At the root of her original dislike is the ban imposed.

"I am going to be 70 years old. I only know one song because I did not grow up with pisiit sung in my family, my household. Even though my mother used to sing constantly, what she used to sing was mostly the hymn songs. Now and then she might sing a traditional song. But she never taught us those songs because when missionaries came they weren't allowed to sing them anymore," Ungalaq said.

As it turned out, it wasn't as simple as learning three songs a day as planned. The complexity of the songs meant 30 hours of class time just wasn't enough. The students learned the chorus of the pisiit. But each song has been recorded and filmed, and as the elders put it, the pisiit must be learned by listening, and one elder said it takes two years to learn a song properly.

"The notes are complex," said Hamilton.

All students will receive a written songbook and a flash drive with the recordings. Qaggiavuut will also be creating a digital application with all seven songs, including videos and learning activities. Another pisiit course is planned for November.

"Ten Inuit singers who took this course will return to do a more advanced course, and they will create a professional concert. We're hoping that show will tour Nunavut communities," said Hamilton.

Chad Hayohok, a 28-year-old drum dancer from Kugluktuk who created his community's first drum dance group Ualinirmiut several years ago, took this first course.

"Qaggiavuut's first pisiit course was something that struck me from the moment I heard about it. I thought to myself, What a beautiful opportunity to learn more from such beautiful knowledge keepers, and learning with peers. I am forever grateful to have been given this beautiful opportunity," he stated by e-mail.