Lesson 11: Greenland

Greenland’s two main types of folk music are Inuit, created in the tradition of the region’s indigenous Inuit people, and Danish (mixing in a little influence from the U.S. and the U.K.), created by the Danes who colonized several hundred years ago and still technically rule the island.

Greenland’s Inuit share cultural and musical traditions with Inuit people all over the world’s north–the Yukon, Canada’s Northwest Territories, Alaska, eastern Russia etc.. Most Greenlandic Inuit music features singing and drums–mainly hand-held frame drums. Greenland’s musicians also use buzzers, whistles and even bull-roarers.

The main surviving Greenlandic musical tradition is the Drum Dance, a competition during which two musicians come to the town’s “qaggi,” which a snow-house built to host community events, and chant lighthearted songs while each beating a frame drum (made of an oval frame with a bear bladder stretched over the top as the drum head), competing to see who can get the most laughs from the audience. One of the best known Greenlandic drum dancers is Anda Kuitse. Watch him perform a drum dance, the story of which a YouTube commenter summarizes in the following way: “a raven and a goose whom fall in love one summer. When autumn comes and the goose must fly south over the big ocean the raven follows its loved one. But the raven cannot swim nor flote. So when the goose landed in the ocean to rest the raven also landed. But for each time the goose landed in the ocean the raven sinks deeper (the drumdancer shows with his drumstick how deep the water reaches the raven each time they land in the ocean) and finally the raven drowns into the deep for its love.” Watch a short of performance of the drum dance song we sing in class, “E Qee Qee.” The performer is Danish researcher Aviaja Larsen, who was also kind enough to provide All Around This World with a transliteration of what she’s singing. Learn a bit more about Inuit drum dancing.

Greenlandic “piseq” songs are personal narratives, often telling stories about daily life in a charming, slightly teasing way. These songs often replace real words with “vocables,” which are sounds that take the place of syllables. For example, a common Greenlandic Inuit vocable phrase is “ai-va-vainga,” which technically means nothing, but when Greenlandic vocalists sing it…well, what doesn’t it mean?

When the Danes came to Greenland they brought European instruments such as the accordion and, of course, the Danish fiddle, not to mention a steady stock of Christian hymns. Missionaries introduced brass instruments and violins. Danish folk-style Greenlandic bands often play to support an Inuit polka known as the Kalaattut–watch some kalaattut here. (the dancing starts at about 0:50).

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