November 28, 2015
Feel-good Iqaluit band, The Jerry Cans, have become bona fide darlings of the folk festival circuit. Good-natured cross-cultural ambassadors, they spread the joys of Inuk culture with fiddles, accordions, throat singing and a whole lot of dancing.
One thing you can count on seeing at a Jerry Cans show—whether it’s at the Legion in their hometown of Iqaluit or at a sold-out folk festival in one of Canada’s biggest cities—is the entire audience up on their feet, dancing madly. It’s hard to resist the high energy tunes—sung in a mixture of Inuktitut and English—and the geniality that spills off the stage. If you are in the splash zone at a Jerry Cans’ concert, you will, no question, be dancing.
“Suqutaunngilaq” performance at Aqpik Jam Music Festival 2014.
Part fiddle-burning Celtic kitchen band, part accordion-wielding alt-country rockers—with a hearty dose of throat-singing and a smidgen of reggae thrown into the mix—The Jerry Cans are defined by the diverse nature of the northern music scene in which they were raised. The sparsely populated yet sprawling landscape of Nunavut makes for a unique blend of musical influences, where everyone—be it Inuk elder, high school guitar hero or heavy metal drummer in town for a short-term job—is pretty much forced to play together.
Named for the ubiquitous gasoline canister that’s an essential part of life above the tree line (and from which they once tried to fashion an ill-fated drum kit), The Jerry Cans (Pai Gaalaqautikkut in Inuktitut) make lively music that celebrates both the collision of musical influences that occurs in the north and traditional Inuk culture.
Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Andrew Morrision, bassist Brendan Dohery and drummer Stephen Rigby grew up together in Iqaluit, back when it was still known as Frobisher Bay and when Nunavut was still part of the Northwest Territories. Accordionist and throat singer Nancy Mike (who is married to frontman Morrison) is the only Inuk member of The Jerry Cans. She was raised in Pangnirtung, which for years hosted the popular Pangnirtung Music Festival and was known as a centre for Inuktitut folk music. Violinist Gina Burgess commutes between her home in Halifax and Iqaluit. Together, The Jerry Cans perform an infectious melange of uplifting tunes that have taken them from one of Nunavut’s best kept musical secrets to a high-octane rising star on the Canadian folk festival circuit.
Performance set at Inuit Circumpolar General Council Assembly 2014.
After years of playing covers of southern rock songs in the Iqaluit legion, the band started to look more closely at their own community for musical inspiration. They began writing songs, in Inuktitut as well as English, which incorporated Inuk rhythms and spoke about Northern sensibilities. Almost immediately, their popularity around town exploded. They had tapped into a real hunger amongst the people of Iqaluit for hearing traditional music woven into a modern setting. And they got everybody, from youngsters to elders, on their feet and dancing.
“Nuqqarunnaqsivutit” – The Jerry Cans.
In 2012, The Jerry Cans recorded their first album Nunavuttitut (which roughly translates to “the Nunavut way of doing things”). The absence of any recording studios in Nunavut meant that the taping process was decidedly homegrown, mostly taking place in basements around Iqaluit.
It may have lacked slick production values, but the unique sound of Nunavuttitut did catch the ear of music industry insiders across Canada, and led to invitations for the band to play some gigs in southern Canada. One of these gigs, a showcase at the 2013 Folk Alliance International Conference in Ottawa, resulted in a shout-out in the Huffington Post for favourite find of the year.
That same year, Nancy Mike took home the hardware for Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Her skills in the traditional art of throat singing, along with her smoking hot accordion skills, have made her somewhat of a role model among young Nunavut girls.
After spending the summer touring Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Greenland, The Jerry Cans headed to Toronto to record their second album at Blue Rodeo’s recording studio, the Woodshed.
Behind the scenes of recording Aakuluk.
Kicking back against the norm of northern communities being the last in line to get nice things, the band released Aakuluk in April 2014 at a rollicking album release party/cancer fundraiser in Iqaluit. The album was dedicated to the memory of Nancy Mike’s father, Livee Kullualik, who had passed away from cancer the year before. It was Livee, a traditional Inuk hunter who spoke no English, who fast-tracked the band’s transition to writing in Inuktitut, when he insisted that Morrison learn to speak the language before marrying his daughter.
In the summer of 2015, The Jerry Cans took a swing through some of southern Canada’s largest folk festivals, affording them the opportunity—all too rare for a northern band—to jam with musicians from around the globe and to introduce uplifting Inuk music and sealskin politics to southern audiences. Beginning with a highly-covetted gig at the Canada Day ceremonies on Parliament Hill, where they performed their contagious single “Mamaqtuq” (a barn-burner about the joys of seal meat stew), they spent the summer wowing festival goers at the Mariposa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver folk festivals.
“Mamaqtuq” – The Jerry Cans.
Just ask anybody who was lucky enough to be there during a sudden downpour at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, when The Jerry Cans turned the only covered venue into a revival tent crammed with crazy jump-dancing converts. Small wonder The Jerry Cans were nominated in two categories at the 2015 Canadian Folk Music Awards: Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year and the Pushing Boundaries Award.
That buzz you hear? It’s the sound of Iqaluit’s best-kept secret rapidly spreading throughout Canada and beyond.
By embracing traditional Inuk sounds, by incorporating musical influences that range from throat singing to jigging to bon temps accordion, and by singing in Inuktitut and English about life in Canada’s remote north, The Jerry Cans are redefining the meaning of Canadian music. And they are doing it with a whole lot of sweat and stomping feet and mile-wide smiles.