British Columbia

Throat-singing sisters meld Inuit tradition with classic Christmas tunes

The duo Piqsiq, originally from Yellowknife, have put their own spin on the Christmas album.

Duo called Piqsiq says the resulting music is both art and a political act

The throat singing duo Piqsiq are releasing a new Christmas album this month. (Dave Brosha)

An Inuit musical duo is finding the harmony between traditional throat singing and classic Christmas carols in a brand new album. 

Sisters Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik and Kayley Inuksuk Mackay make up the duo Piqsiq. Originally from Yellowknife, the two started throat singing when they were four or five years old. 

In the traditional practice, called katajjaq, two women sing together face-to-face in a close-up joust of resonating tones that is both competitive and intimate. 

"Sometimes it was really competitive and sometimes it was fun to just be challenged with the sound that was difficult to make, that people didn't normally make with their voices," recalled Mackay on CBC's On The Coast.

Ayalik says there are elements of game and competition, but says it's a bonding experience.

"One of my very favourite feelings is to be able to throat sing for a very long time with somebody because ... it does get a bit trance-like and it's just, like, a really beautiful way to bond with someone you love."

The sisters' choice to create a Christmas album, they say, is a complicated one.

Like many other Indigenous cultural practices, throat-singing was misunderstood, dismissed and banned by Christian settlers and missionaries.

"Well, if you picture way back when two women standing close making these guttural, sort of visceral sounds, you know and with the context of fear that a lot of ... Christian missionaries operate from, you know I'd be scared," said Ayalik.

"There was a misunderstanding and confusion about it...  It was seen as a demonic [and] pagan practice."

At the same time, they say some of their most cherished childhood memories include Christmas in the North, with the joy and hilarity associated with feasting, games and dancing. 

"This is a stitching together for us of a myriad of feelings that seem to be paradoxical and celebrate our joy of the haunting melodies that come in a lot of older Christmas carols and our cultural form of throat singing," Mackay said. 

The resulting album is both sweet and sorrowful. 

"It's really been a beautiful political act as well as an artistic expression to be able to take these things back and sing as we should be able to," Ayalik said. 

Piqsiq's Christmas album Quviasugvik: In Search of Harmony will be released on the music publishing platform Bandcamp Nov. 25.

Listen to Piqsiq's interview on CBC's On The Coast here:

With files from On The Coast