'An inspiration to us all': Musicians, friends remember Nunavut's Charlie Panigoniak

From his sense of humour to his knowledge of Inuit culture and traditions, Charlie Panigoniak is being remembered for his contributions to music and Nunavut. He died on Wednesday.

Charlie Panigoniak died on Wednesday, he had been living with Parkinson's disease

Charlie Panigoniak recently stopped into the Iqaluit CBC office to say hello. He died on Wednesday in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. (CBC)

There was an outpouring of condolences and memories across the North on Wednesday as word spread that Inuk singer Charlie Panigoniak had died.

The Nunavut legend was well-known across the Arctic and beyond for his songs in Inuktitut. For decades he played concerts around the North, many with his wife Lorna.

Inuk singer William Tagoona knew Panigoniak most of his life, playing music with him and working with him at the CBC.

"Charlie was a very easy person to be with. He wasn't at all, for a star like that, he wasn't conceited whatsoever," he said.

"I heard of somebody say that one time they told Charlie Panigoniak, 'you know that you're a big star now.' And Charlie said, 'No I'm only Panigoniak.'"

Charlie Panigoniak in Arviat, Nunavut, in 2016 during a benefit concert. Friends say Panigoniak was known for his sense of humour. He was also referred to as the 'Johnny Cash of the North.' (CBC)

Tagoona said Panigoniak was "very much an Inuk" and a good hunter.

"He sure knew the Inuktitut culture and values very well and it showed up in his songs. That's why people like him so much," he said.

"It's the lyrics he was portraying. It's the stories he was telling in his own language about our history and about the land and about children's stuff."

He really did help to open up the Inuktitut musical world.- William Tagoona

Panigoniak put out an album of children's songs, all written by him. Tagoona remembered the efforts his friend took to get albums out in the 1970s.

"Charlie Panigoniak was probably one of the first Inuk musicians to record his songs and sell them as a reel-to-reel tape. Now that takes a lot a lot of work to do that," he laughed.

Tagonna said Panigoniak's English wasn't great, but his Inuktitut was "very strong." He said he often helped Panigoniak navigate legalities with his music in English, like when he was fielding offers from producers.

"He really did help to open up the Inuktitut musical world," he said.

An undated screenshot of Charlie Panigoniak performing at a concert. 'He sure knew the Inuktitut culture and values very well and it showed up in his songs,' says friend William Tagoona. (CBC)

Disease was taking toll

Panigoniak died in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Prior to his death, he was living at a seniors' home in Ottawa. Panigoniak lived with Parkinson's disease for many years.

Tagoona said he kept his connection with Panigoniak over the years, and he saw the toll Parkinson's took on his friend.

"I saw him deteriorate. I saw the disease start to eat him up and eventually you're ready, you're ready with him with whatever is going to happen," he said.

Tagoona said Panigoniak was embarrassed by what the disease was doing to his body, and the shaking he was experiencing.

"Remember we're talking about a musician, we're talking about an entertainer that's used to being watched on stage and he was quite a comedian and that's the one thing that people liked about Charlie so much.

"He'll make you laugh. He was a comedian on stage. He didn't just sing."

A positive influence

Nancy Mike, a member of Iqaluit-based band The Jerry Cans, said Panigoniak was one of the Inuk singers who influenced her.

Growing up in Pangnirtung, she would hear Panigoniak on the radio and she said he was always upbeat and funny.

Nancy Mike, far left, of The Jerry Cans, says Panigoniak's music had a positive influence on her. (The Jerry Cans)

"It's not always easy living up here. But when you have people who are willing to take their time to create something fun and unique and cheerful, it makes a huge difference in your life," Mike said.

"He was an inspiration to us all."

She met Panigoniak once and said he was quiet and humble, and always funny.

"It was really neat to meet him."

'It tears me up'

Randall Prescott said he was a "lucky man" to have been able to meet, perform and produce records with Panigoniak.

"The loss is going to be very significant, not just in the North, but also in the south. I mean he influenced a lot of people."

He said he met Panigoniak in the late '70s, when Prescott first came north to what was then Frobisher Bay to perform at the Toonik Tyme festival. He remembers Tagoona telling him to never follow Panigoniak on stage, because it was a tough act to follow.

His reach was far beyond just North of 60.- Randall Prescott

"It was just so amazing to watch these languages come alive," Prescott said. He added that Panigoniak was often referred to as "Johnny Cash of the North."

"His reach was far beyond just North of 60, that's for sure."

"You can hear the emotion in my voice and I'm gonna miss the man immensely," Prescott said, his voice cracking. "It tears me up."

Like many others remembering the musician, Prescott noted Panigoniak's sense of humour, especially in the studio. He said his heart goes out to Panigoniak's wife Lorna and the rest of his family.

"Good luck trying to get along without that fella."

With files from Marc Winkler


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