The first Nunavut-based record label was formed out of necessity, according to Aakuluk Music co-founders Nancy Mike and Andrew Morrison.
Both Mike and Morrison are members of the Iqaluit-based alt-country band the Jerry Cans. When the band was making its third album in 2015, prospective labels turned them away, fearing that Inuktitut lyrics would be a tough sell among English-speaking audiences and radio programmers.
"There is so much pressure to sing in English if you want to get on the radio," says Morrison, who founded the label alongside Mike, his wife and Jerry Cans bandmate Steve Rigby. "Even just pitching to station managers … The road to success is established through English."
So the trio took it upon themselves to forge their own way. "We decided to make this record label and see where it takes us," Mike says.
Inuusiq/Life was released this past November, marking Aakuluk's first official offering. Today, the label is home to five acts – the Jerry Cans, metal band Northern Haze, which released North America's first Indigenous language album in 1985 (Morrison calls them "rock stars," admiringly emphasizing the band's legendary status in the North), and blossoming solo performers Ivaluarjuk, Riit and Agaaqtoq. Most of the music released by Aakuluk is performed in Inuktitut. The Jerry Cans' lead single Ukiuq, from Inuusiq/Life, was released in both English and Inuktitut. Mike's first language is Inuktitut.
"We sing about life up north and we sing about all of the greater issues that Canadians are talking about right now," Morrison says, "whether it's songs about youth suicide or the seal hunt or how awful the government is sometimes. … We're very happy to translate that, because it allows people access to these stories." Morrison notes that English-speaking audiences do, in fact, sing along in Inuktitut at the band's live shows.
Currently, Iqaluit is the only Canadian capital that lacks a performing arts centre, so most concerts take place at the Royal Canadian Legion. Three or four sound technicians do live audio when needed. "That's progress," Morrison says with a laugh. "We used to have no sound guys."
Included in Aakuluk's ethos is a genuine interest in mentorship. The hope is that Nunavut youth can grow up to become audio engineers, publicists, music bookers and label managers without having to leave home, thereby strengthening Nunavut's increasingly self-reliant music-business infrastructure. Part of this plan is owing to logistics – Morrison and Mike note that the intermittent Internet strength in Iqaluit can slow productivity and make tasks such as Skype meetings or sending press images a challenge. At the heart of Aakuluk, though, is a mission to ensure that the culture, language and spirit of Nunavut music remain vibrant, so it never has to relinquish its essence to break through.
"[Aakuluk Music] acts as a microphone to the musicians they work with," says Nancy Guyon, the Government of Nunavut's director of tourism and cultural industries. "As many challenges and opportunities in Nunavut are specific to the territory, a Nunavut-based label was definitely needed."
"Young people still express themselves in Inuktitut and they should have every right and opportunity to do that," says Morrison, who moved to Nunavut at the age of 2.
"When we were starting out, it was a struggle for us, but there are so many talented artists in Nunavut," Mike says. "We hope that they don't have to go through that struggle."
One of those artists is Rita Claire Mike-Murphy, who performs as Riit, a 21-year-old singer from Panniqtuq, Nunavut. Her debut album, which was recorded in Morrison and Mike's home, will be released via Aakuluk on June 9.
"In the last few years, a lot of Inuit have been using music to save the language," Mike-Murphy says. "I'm happy to be a part of that. I think it's working. … I never thought I'd be played on CBC Radio."
Riit's song Imiqtaq played on CBC Radio 2's Drive show in April.
"It's funny," she continues, "I'll meet people when I'm travelling, and they call my music 'traditional.' There is throat-singing in there, yes, but when people sing in English is that considered 'traditional' English music?"
Mike-Murphy says she and other contemporary Nunavut musicians are stylizing Inuktitut lyrics in a way that is unique to this generation of songwriters.
"When I hear Inuktitut music, I think of the familiar experiences that all Inuit have been through, but I also see it becoming more poetic – rhyming more, using words that aren't often used in daily conversation, shortening words, using slang," she says. "Old Inuktitut music is about storytelling. I'm seeing changes now in the type of songwriting artists are doing."
Mike-Murphy cites the musician Beatrice Deer, whose EP Fox came out in 2015, as an example.
"I always say Iqaluit has the best music scene in Canada," Morrison says. "What we lack, we make up for in strong community. Everybody works together. … What the hell does reconciliation mean to the music industry? We all have a role to play."