Northern Haze pioneered Inuit metal in the '80s — but they're not done yet

The Nunavut band released its debut in 1985 — the first rock album ever recorded in Inuktitut.

The Nunavut band released its debut in 1985 — the first rock album ever recorded in Inuktitut

The members of Northern Haze, a metal band from the community of Igloolik, Nunavut, have been forging their own way for more than 30 years.

Written by Luke Ottenhof

DIY means different things to different people in the music community. The acronym has been cheapened over the years — the term is bandied about for any project with an underproduced aesthetic, regardless of budget or label support — but true DIY belongs to music created under constraints: budget, equipment, recording and distribution are handled by the creator, with little regard for profit or popularity. The music exists for the benefit of the artist and their community.

DIY in Canada's far north is the real deal. Artists in the country's northern territories, like the gorgeous, quiet Arctic reaches of Nunavut, work under some of the most restrictive conditions that can be found when making music. There are no dedicated recording facilities in the territory, which counts around 39,000 people across two million square kilometres.

Nor are there any dedicated performance venues for music; it's the only territory or province in Canada to carry such a distinction. Shows in the territorial capital Iqaluit (population: 7,082) take place at the local legion or in the auditorium at Inuksuk High School. There are no stores from which one might purchase instruments or gear — these have to be shipped up from the south by sealift, usually at an exorbitant cost.

But Nunavut finds a way — and the five members of Northern Haze, a metal band from the community of Igloolik, have found their way for more than 30 years. The band broke onto Canadian airwaves with its 1985 self-titled debut, which was recorded in southern Canada. But before that, they did things DIY northern style: a plastic Disney-branded drum kit, borrowed amps, old (sometimes broken) guitars. Over three decades later, the band members are still finding ways to make music for themselves and their community.

Northern Haze's current lineup is vocalist/guitarist James Ungalaq, drummer John Inooya, guitarist Naisana Qamaniq, bassist/vocalist Derek Aqqiaruq and keyboardist Allan Kangok. Ungalaq is the de facto leader of the band; soft-spoken, gentle in spirit and tough as hell. When reached over the phone earlier this year, Ungalaq explains that he's been dealing with severe back pain. It's on the mend for now, but he says he's due to fly south to Ottawa for knee replacement surgery.

"I'm looking forward to getting rid of this old knee," he says. But he doesn't pull any punches: "I'm expired. Been living on overtime with this stricken body for too long now. Won't be long before I leave it anyhow."

Pioneers of Inuit metal

In Nunavut, the members of Northern Haze are hallowed legends. With its 1985 debut, the band became the first ever to record a rock album in Inuktitut, and 33 years later, the members returned with Siqinnaarut, released in November 2018 via Nunavut's first and only record label, Aakuluk Music. In English, the album title means, "Return of the sun." 

The record comprises 10 tracks, beginning with the no-bullshit '70s Sabbath riffing of "Inuk." The track opens with a fearsome roar from Ungalaq, which he says expresses a "little bit of anger" on a track that addresses colonialism. The album then gives way to the martial kick and guitar crunch of "Qainna," a song for which the band made its first-ever music video with Iqaluit filmmaker and musician Josh Qaumariaq. Ungalaq calls the record "more laid back" compared to the "attitude, pride and youth" of their scrappy first full-length.

The record's title is especially apt given that Northern Haze is a nucleus of sorts for Nunavut's rock scene. The band, reared on Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, pioneered Inuit metal and created a heavy soundtrack for generations of Inuit youth. But the members rarely tour, and when they do, it's to communities in the north — a web of communities only accessible by plane, like Kuujjuaq, Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit or Igloolik itself. They play music for themselves and their communities. In many ways, it's an act of service.

For Siqinnaarut, the band holed up in a home studio in Iqaluit with producer Michael Wojewoda, who flew gear up from Toronto for the sessions. It was the first time Ungalaq got to record with Qamaniq, Kangok and Aqqiaruq. Kangok is his nephew; Aqqiaruq is his son.

"It just was so special for all of us," Ungalaq gushes. "It felt so homey, like we'd never left home. It was so relaxed, and everything felt so right." 
You can record anywhere [and] I think you still can capture the creative mind of someone.— James Ungalaq

Plenty of artists in the north opt to record in the south with advanced studio resources, but Ungalaq says wherever Nunavut artists cut a record, they bring the north with them. "You can record anywhere [and] I think you still can capture the creative mind of someone," he says.

In the 30-plus years since its debut, Northern Haze was content to tour around the north, with a stop as far south as Vancouver in 1986. (Ungalaq returned to the stage in Vancouver last year, performing with Iqaluit folk-rock favourites the Jerry Cans during the televised broadcast of the Juno Awards.) While a followup album wasn't necessarily planned, Ungalaq says the time was right. 

In 2017, The Jerry Cans organized the first-ever Nunavut Music Week: three days of performances, workshops and networking between Nunavut artists and southern industry delegates. Ungalaq credits the week, along with co-organizer and Jerry Cans frontman Andrew Morrison, with inspiring the new record. Morrison arranged for makeshift studio construction for the making of Siqinnaarut

"It made it possible," says Ungalaq. "If Andrew didn't put a recording studio together —" he pauses for a moment, then summarizes: "It was a perfect storm."

Kangok and Aqqiaruq, who were both raised in Igloolik, grew up listening to the music of Northern Haze, which for them was a beacon of homegrown hard-rock excellence, and of possibility. 

"I thought they were from another community or something," chuckles Kangok. 

After losing two members tragically and suddenly in 2007 — bassist Elijah Kunnuk succumbed to cancer, and vocalist/guitarist Kolitalik Inukshuk was murdered days later — the remaining members recruited Kangok and Aqqiaruq to keep the band rolling. "I didn't expect to become a band member," says Kangok quietly, adding, "I was so stoked."

For Aqqiaruq, the new record's momentum is a new and welcome change. "It's been reaching everywhere, seems like," he says brightly. "Radio waves, people wanting to buy the album and asking about it, people wanting interviews, all that stuff. It feels like we have a lot more exposure. Back then, we'd just do shows. Since we got a new album out, we've been getting radio plays all over Canada."

It's endearing to hear this earnest and unironic appreciation for acknowledgement in the age of metric-driven music industries. This also establishes a difference between the southern music industry and Northern Haze's approach. Bands in the southern music machine are working themselves to the bone for playlist spots and record deals; bands in the north are working themselves to the bone for their communities — their friends, their families, themselves. If not explicitly anti-capitalist in its approach, it's at least community-minded and solidarity-building.

Ungalaq-sized shoes to fill

Like Kangok, Aqqiaruq idolized Northern Haze in his youth. "I grew up listening to those guys," he explains. "I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be them." Joining the band, he says, was a "dream come true." 

"It was hard work, but still it didn't feel like hard work for me because I enjoyed it so much," he says.

When Aqqiaruq was growing up, he and Ungalaq weren't connected. "I never knew my father, James, when I was a kid. It wasn't until I finished high school that we started seeing each other. When Elijah got sick, I was going through a break-up with my band at the time, so I started visiting them."

When Ungalaq isn't feeling well enough to travel, Aqqiaruq steps in on frontman duties, taking over for his father. "I didn't have much confidence in filling in my father's shoes. I felt like —" He pulls a long breath before continuing. "I have different qualities, you know? I felt small." 

Derek came to me [before] one of the trips I didn't go, and he said he's got big shoes to fill. [But] you gotta put the shoes that fit him in front of him instead of trying to put my shoes on. I think he understood.— James Ungalaq

It's difficult for Aqqiaruq to explain to longtime fans why his father isn't present. "I always have to come up with an excuse," he says. "It was hard for me to accept gigs without James because I'm not James, you know?

Even still, Aqqiaruq is working to get acquainted with his new role. "I'm trying to be optimistic about it," he says. "Ungalaq told me, 'Even though you're not me, just put yourself in there and be yourself.' That's what he said. So I think I just gotta be myself and sing from my heart, and everyone will follow." 

Ungalaq echoes the sentiment. "Derek came to me [before] one of the trips I didn't go, and he said he's got big shoes to fill. [But] you gotta put the shoes that fit him in front of him instead of trying to put my shoes on. I think he understood." 

'How would you live your life?'

For his part, Ungalaq is satisfied with his work in Northern Haze. There's no way to know what the future holds, but he plans to stay in Igloolik to spend time with his family. When he was younger, festival touring with Northern Haze took him away from his home at the best parts of the year, and he wants to spend those long spring and summer days close to home. 

"I did my time," he says simply. "I've got grandchildren who are just growing up, and I'd like to spend a lot more time with them, and with my wife and children. I want to spend the best days of the spring at home with my grandchildren, digging for ugly fish on the beach near our cabin."

The proposition begs a simple, eternal question: what makes for a happy life? It's a topic Aqqiaruq explored for "Inuusivut II," a track he wrote years ago that closes Siqinnaarut. "If you translate 'inuusivut' into English, it would mean 'our life.' 'How would you live your life?' It's asking that question throughout the song. There's a lot of things that can make a life happy, depending on the person, I guess."

Northern Haze has played a string of shows this summer, including in Kuujjuaraapik, Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and a recent hometown show in Igloolik, which was broadcast live by Nunavut's Isuma TV. Ungalaq hasn't been able to play the gigs, so Aqqiaruq has taken the helm, every bit as formidable and fiery as his father.

In late April 2019, with spring on the way in the north, the folks at Aakuluk Music hosted a second iteration of Nunavut Music Week in Iqaluit. Aqqiaruq and Kangok were there, but Ungalaq was still recovering from his knee surgery in Montreal. When we first spoke earlier this year, though, he said he would be trying his best to make the trip. 

"Anything for music," he said, his trademark grin all but audible through the phone.

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