Instrumental: Throat Singing Keeps Kathleen Merritt In Tune With Her Body, Land & Ancestors

September 11, 2019

Kathleen Merritt. Photo by: Matt Williams.

By: Matt Williams

I had the good fortune to meet Kathleen Merritt last April in Iqaluit, where she was a particularly active and vocal participant (as well as an active vocal participant) in the goings-on at Nunavut Music Week. Merritt is an Inuit throat-singer from Rankin Inlet, and besides making music as Ivaluarjuk—which blends Celtic folk, fiddle, and spoken word atop her throat-singing on Ice, Lines and Sealskin—she’s also collaborated with a number of artists like The Jerry Cans, Ptarmigan, and Riit.

Merritt tried throat-singing once as a child after she saw two Inuit women perform at a local talent show, but didn’t really get into the practice until her early 20s, when she was living and studying with Inuit from Nunavut in Ottawa as part of a program called Nunavut Sivuniksavut. In her first year of the program, she became friends with a group of second-year students from Nunavik, where throat-singing retains a strong presence, and started to learn herself, right around the same time she had begun to learn Inuktitut.

“I think it was my way of reclaiming some of the power that was taken away,” Merritt says over the phone. “Not power in the way you would think about it normally, but I think reclaiming my culture. Growing up in Nunavut, I never understood why our communities were in the state that they were in or why Inuit tended to be poorer than white people. So as a young adult, learning about the history of Inuit pre-contact with people—pre-whalers, pre-missionaries, pre-explorers, even—and learning right from the Inuit people about how things changed very quickly for them with different waves of change, and that era of colonialism, I could now understand some of the things in my life better and, in turn, myself.”

“I practiced every day for two years and fell in love with it. And over time it just became a part of who I am,” Merritt says. “I now identify as a throat singer.”

Anyone who’s witnessed a throat-singing performance has probably wondered, “How are they making those sounds?” A good follow-up question would be, “How does that feel?” For those of us who have a hard enough time trying to keep our throat from drying up during a karaoke performance of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” throat-singing appears to be an almost superhuman feat. But Merritt says it’s like learning to ride a bike, or learning to do anything, really—if you’re out of practice, your throat will get a little itchy and dry. When you’re learning, the typical singing rules apply: drink a lot of water, don’t push yourself.

“It’s just the most exciting when you’re finally able to get a sound,” Merritt says. “Everyone has their own particular sound. But in general, the sounds are basically a combination of your voice, throat, and breath, and some sounds are much breathier than others. Some have more throat—guttural sounds. And then some sounds are a combination. Qimmiruluapik, the poor little puppy, for example, is a combination of all three.”

Like vocal singing, Merritt says the only way to really damage your vocal cords throat singing is to do it wrong. But if you’re doing it properly, she says throat singing is more likely to strengthen your breathing techniques and the muscles in your throat. At this point in her career, taking care of her instrument is about something bigger.

“I think as a performer, and especially as a singer and throat singer, you have to take care of your throat and you have to practice it and work it and keep it safe. However, I relate throat singing now to my ancestors and my grandparents and the strength and the duty and the connection that they have to our land. And I realize this more and more maybe with age and experience that we have to keep that safe—that relationship with throat singing—and honour where that comes from. Also for voice and health reasons,” Merritt says with a laugh.

It follows then, that it’s a scary thought to imagine losing something that has become such an important part of her identity. The woman she was named after, Ivaluarjuk, survived throat cancer twice in her lifetime, something Merritt learned only after she’d begun performing as a throat-singer full-time.

“At the same time I was looking back at my family history on both sides and gaining inspiration from that. That’s when I learned about my Atiq, my namesake, and it stuck with me. Like, wow—here you are, a throat singer. They say we either take on traits of our namesakes in our culture or we are able to live a life that they weren’t able to. So I take that into consideration when I think about my relationship with my throat. I’m not gonna lie—I haven’t always taken the best care of it—but I think we also become wiser.”

During our chat, Merritt makes many, many cool sounds to show me examples of the sounds she’s explaining, but because of the limits of this particular form of media, she prefaces them by saying, “I know you’re not going to be able to write this out.” Rest assured, there are videos. There’s even a video on YouTube, Merritt tells me, that captures the very first time she performed throat singing. She says she could only do it for ten seconds at that point, and it was very vocal—the more guttural sounds hadn’t made it into her repertoire yet. Now, she also teaches the practice.

“I think I had good teachers, and it’s funny because if I’m teaching throat singing to a big crowd of people, for example, the way I teach it is different depending on who I’m teaching it to,” Merritt says. “I learned by listening and trying—trial, error, trial, error. That’s usually how Inuit learn. We watch, we listen, and then we give it a try. We might not get it right away, but we just keep at it. We surround ourselves with those sounds.”

The feeling of being surrounded by sound is an element of every throat-singing performance I’ve been lucky enough to witness. There’s a hypnotic quality to the unending cycles of breath that draws you in and keeps you there. And it’s meant to be that way, of course. “When you know that you’ve freely given your energy to the audience and they feel it and you feel it, and you all feel connected—that’s the good feeling,” Merritt says.

So how does she know for sure when she’s achieved The Good Feeling?

“When I open my eyes and I look at my partner and I’m in love,” Merritt says with a laugh. “That’s the best, honestly. There’s this feeling you get when you know you’ve put on a great performance and part of it is you’ve let yourself release completely—you’ve just fallen into the sound.

“There are so many times I’ve opened my eyes after a performance and I look at my partner and I’m just so in awe,” she continues. “It’s the best. And you know that they experienced the same thing you just did. It really is transcendent.”

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

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