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Charlie Panigoniak.

The Canadian Press

Legendary Inuk singer Charlie Panigoniak, whose music spanned Inuit legends, modern Arctic life and Christmas carols, has died.

Panigoniak, who was 72, died on Wednesday at his home in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, after a long career of singing about the northern experience in the language of his people.

Nancy Mike of the Juno-nominated, Iqaluit-based band The Jerry Cans, remembers hearing Panigoniak’s music when she was growing up in Pangnirtung.

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“I remember very clearly,” she said in a telephone interview.

“His music would often be played on the radio. Every time I heard it, it was always uplifting because his style of singing was unique and very true and human.”

Born in 1946 in a traditional camp on the land near Chesterfield Inlet, Panigoniak didn’t move into a community until the late 1950s. He learned to play the guitar on an instrument his father made from a tin can.

In 1967, tuberculosis forced him south to a hospital in Brandon. There, his ears were opened to the sounds of country and folk music.

Inspired, Panigoniak began writing Inuktitut songs about his friends, family and daily life and made his first recording in 1973. For decades thereafter, he filled radio airwaves and community halls across the North, often working with his wife and musical partner Lorna Panigoniak, who survives him.

John Main, a music festival organizer and now a member of the Nunavut legislature, said in a 2018 interview that Panigoniak was popular across the Arctic.

“He definitely draws a crowd. Everybody knows his name.”

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Panigoniak’s music was sometimes religious, sometimes rooted in traditional stories. One song featured a talking seal. In another, he tapped his fingers on a guitar to imitate the sound of a traditional Inuit drum.

Many of his songs were for children and he did an Inuktitut version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which translates as “Rutami tuktugaqalaunipuq.”

Mike said Panigoniak was one of a pioneering generation of musicians and bands such as Northern Haze that performed in Inuktitut and sang about local experiences.

“To be able to express my feelings or thoughts, my go-to was always Inuktitut music and Charlie Panigoniak was one of those people,” she said. “He was an inspiring man.”

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There was something special about his ability to write in his native language, she said.

“He was very passionate about songwriting.”

He was a special performer as well, recalled Main.

“He wasn’t a performer who would come up and just play the same songs. He would always be different – something that he was working on, themes he would perform around … he had that natural performer’s gift where he was so naturally creative that you couldn’t put him into a box.”

Panigoniak was given the Order of Nunavut in 2012, the territory’s highest honour.

He had dementia and Parkinson’s disease and had been in declining health for some years.

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But his music lives on. Mike now sings one of his songs, translated as “When A Baby Is Born,” to her own daughter.

“It’s very upbeat and funny. It’s so catchy. I grew up listening to it as a kid. That song I always go to when I want to hear Charlie Panigoniak.”

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