How does it happen that northern Canada has so many successful musicians, in a population of around 120,000 souls—or about the same number of people as Red Deer, Alberta?
One organization that can take some credit is the CBC Northern Service. Starting 60 years ago or more, CBC producers travelled to remote locations and recorded some of the earliest Northern musicians to be heard on the airwaves. The CBC would go on to record more than 600 broadcast recordings of original and traditional music. For years, they gathered entertainers together for concerts, starting with the first True North concert in Frobisher Bay in 1980. More concerts were held in Whitehorse, Inuvik, Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet over the next 25 years. Today, CBC North is still recording and promoting many of our newest artists.
Another factor is the inspiration musicians draw from the long dark winters, when Northerners have traditionally gathered to entertain each other. All three territories have their own musical histories and sources of support—festivals, community events, arts grants, bars, and a handful of theatres and recording studios. Original music and songwriters are being recorded in even the smallest communities, with the Internet, social media and studio software lowering the barrier to entry for artists. Today, a song recorded in a bedroom in Arctic Bay can reach the entire world.
Up Here has tracked down some illustrious Northerners, but we’ve had to leave many dozens of our favorites out of this listing. Tell us who we’ve missed and we’ll try to follow up in a future issue
A Northern Tutchone musician and member of the Selkirk First Nation, Alfred inherited the honourary role of Keeper of the Songs from his father—a title that conferred the responsibility of collecting traditional songs and performing at ceremonial events. A choirboy at residential school, Alfred would later be influenced by Bob Dylan, and his music became the song of his people. He recorded his first album Etsi Shon (Grandfather Song) in 1994. Nendaä: Go Back was released in 1996, and Kehlonn in 1999. He received a Juno as Jerry Alfred and the Medicine Beat in 1997.
Peters Drury Trio
Starting out as teenagers, this Yukon-based trio of jazz musicians toured across Canada and internationally. Singer Caroline Drury and brothers Graeme and Jesse Peters—on drums and piano, respectively—released two CDs, When Old Met New and Backbeat, highlighting an eight-year collaboration that ended in 2004. Caroline went on to study opera, while the Peters brothers have since formed Speed Control, touring widely and teaching the finer points of rock and roll to school-aged youngsters.
The Daddies first appeared at Frostbite music festival in Whitehorse in 2000. Post Atomic Hillbilly, their debut album, featured songs about murder and other disasters. It was released in 2001, blending roots, folk, country and bluegrass, and was nominated for a Juno. Their second album, Devil in the Rearview, was nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award. (Two Wheels in the Ditch, from that album, is a Northern road-driving classic.) The Daddies included well-known Whitehorse musicians Nathan Tinkham, Bob Hamilton, Kevin Barr and George McConkey. The band toured together in Canada, the U.S. and Europe for seven years.
Barlow migrated to the Yukon in the 1990s. A folk singer and songwriter, she has recorded six albums. Her second, Gingerbread, was nominated for a Roots and Traditional Music Juno in 2003. Barlow’s folk sounds combined with wry observations on Yukon lifestyles led to many collaborations in Whitehorse, in North America and beyond. Barlow returned to the East Coast in 2013, where she continues to collaborate with musicians. A tour to Whitehorse and other points in Canada was cut short by COVID in 2020.
Musician and sound-man extraordinaire, Matthew Lien records the natural world in the Yukon. In addition to two recent videos exploring the Yukon wilderness, Lien was commissioned to create an album in Taiwan, where he met makers of traditional music. Consonance, a multi-channel recording and audio display, re-creates a live performance of circle singers of the Bunun tribe. In addition to awards for music in Taiwan, he has received a Western Canadian Music Award.
Much-loved folk performer Gordie Tentrees is a songwriter and musician who has drawn comparisons to John Prine or a young Bob Dylan, according to some reviews. Originally from Hamilton, Gordie first found his poetic voice in Whitehorse. Several albums on, he’s a hit onstage in Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Australia. His 2018 album, Grit, includes songs that are, at times, funny, serious and nostalgic—a reflection of his life before and after hitting the musical stage.
Whitehorse songwriter and performer Paris Pick now has two albums to her credit, Feeling Love (2018) and Hope for the Best, issued this past summer. Pick toured Western Canada with her first album and, this spring, she hooked up with Whitehorse video artists to create a music video about the day-to-day life of pizza delivery drivers. She leads a six-piece Yukon-based band on her sophomore album, and plans to tour B.C. soon.
A unique singer-songwriter with multiple awards and four albums, Sarah MacDougall is originally from Sweden, but makes her home in Whitehorse. MacDougall has played festivals across Europe and North America. Her album, All the Hours I Have Left to Tell You Anything, won two Indie Awards in 2019, and was nominated for the Western Canadian Music Awards and a Canadian Folk Music Award. MacDougall operates her own studio, Dream Ship Sound, while also producing local artists, and collaborating on theatre shows.
Diyet, a songwriter and bass guitar player, sings in English and Southern Tutchone—her native language. Diyet has released three albums of her audience-pleasing alternative country, folk, roots and traditional melodies. Backed by her husband Robert van Lieshout and award-winning producer Bob Hamilton on her 2018 album, Diyet and the Love Soldiers, she received nominations for the Indigenous Music Awards, Western Canadian Music Awards and the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Diyet and the Love Soldiers have appeared on APTN, CTV, and in 2020, on CBC’s New Year’s Eve national broadcast.
One of the first performers to write and record only in Inuktitut, Charlie Panigoniak was a household name across the Arctic for 40 years. He toured in Canada and played all the major festivals and arts events in the North. Panigoniak took up the guitar in the early 1970s, singing about his friends and everyday happenings. CBC released six of his albums, including one for children. Panigoniak’s distinctive, fun-loving music is still played on national radio. He received the Order of Nunavut in 2012. Panigoniak died in 2019.
Their classic 1985 album Northern Haze is believed to be the first ever Indigenous-language hard rock album recorded in North America. Although the Iglulik hard rockers broke up in 2007, an independent label released a compilation called Sinaaktuq in 2012, which included the original album with some singles. Aakuluk Music re-issued the 1985 album in 2017. Soon after, three original Northern Haze rockers and two new members launched Siqinnaarut in 2018, 33 years after their first album. It was nominated for an Indigenous Music Juno Award in 2020.
Inuit throat-singers Madeleine Allakarialak and Phoebe Atagotaaluk, grandchildren of Inuit transported to Resolute Bay from northern Quebec by the federal government, wrote and recorded songs for a CD in 1994. The self-titled Tudjaat featured Kajusita (When My Ship Comes In), which describes the plight of the High Arctic exiles. Kajusita won the 1997 American Film Institute Award's Best Song, and was nominated for a Juno. The cousins continued to record in 1998, but later went on to other careers. One of their songs, When the Elders Sing to Me, is included on the 2000 CBC True North Concert album, Truly Something.
Iqaluit-based band, Night Sun, released a total of six albums. Beginning in 1991, the band’s releases—like Night Sun, Calling, Home and One Moment of Grace—garnered rave reviews. Much of the praise was devoted to lead singer and songwriter Ellen Hamilton’s voice and the Northern imagery found in her lyrics. The group’s energetic sound—a combination of folk, Klezmer, Celtic and Zydeco influences—was evident in the 2005 release, Drive. Hamilton, an educator and founding member of Qaggiavut, has received the Order of Nunavut and the Order of Canada.
Few Northern artists have reached the heights of Juno-winning songwriter Susan Aglukark, raised in Arviat. Her second album, Arctic Rose, won two Junos in 1995 and O Siem, from her 1995 album, This Child, was a number-one hit in Canada, selling some 300,000 copies. Aglukark’s sixth album, Big Feeling, garnered a third Juno award in 2004, the same year she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Blood Red Earth, her seventh album, was nominated for a Juno in the Aboriginal Recording of the Year category in 2007. Aglukark is a motivational speaker and advocate for Inuit children who have suffered sexual abuse.
A singer, songwriter, and climate change advocate from Igloolik and Iqaluit, Tatanniq (Lucie) Idlout’s second album in 2009, Swagger, won best rock album, as well as garnering seven nominations at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, a Juno nomination, and six nominations at the Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards. Her song, Lovely Irene, was reworked and renamed Angel Street, inspiring a campaign to call attention to domestic violence. Idlout has scored films and television shows, and served on Canada’s panel on Climate Change.
Multi-award winning musician and performer Tanya Tagaq has five albums to her credit, each one pushing the boundaries of throat-singing, over innovative and experimental soundscapes. Tagaq’s aggressive style and her distinctive voice, conjuring elemental spirits, have wowed audiences on stages around the world and been recognized for originality by the Western Canadian Music Awards, the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, and the Junos. In 2014, she took home the Polaris Prize—the prestigious award in the Canadian indie scene—for her album, Animism. Tagaq is an outspoken advocate for Inuit and women’s rights, and is a member of the Order of Canada.
The Jerry Cans
The Jerry Cans, a five-member band from Iqaluit, combine Inuit themes and throat-singing over a driving folk-rock sound. The band has released four Inuktitut/English-language albums, with accordionist and throat-singer Nancy Mike winning Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2013. The band was nominated for two Juno Awards in 2018, and toured Canada and overseas. Credits include music for APTN’s children’s series, Anaana’s Tent, and a bilingual children’s book. Aakuluk Music, established by the band in 2016, releases Nunavut artists and promotes Inuktut music to the world. The Jerry Cans’ most recent album, Echoes, launched in 2021 following Mike’s departure.
Rita Claire Mike-Murphy is an Inuk musician and APTN television personality from Pangnirtung, with two albums under her belt. Her sound is a blend of traditional throat-singing and electronic dance music. Her first self-titled album was released in collaboration with the Jerry Cans in 2017. Her second album, Ataataga, released in 2019, was a Juno Award-nominee for Indigenous Music Album of the Year in 2020, and longlisted for the 2020 Polaris Prize. Riit hosts APTN’s children show, Anaana’s Tent.
An Inuk pop singer and songwriter from Iglulik and Sanikiluaq, Kelly Fraser recorded two albums, Isuma and Sedna. Fraser was dedicated to sharing Inuit culture and raising Inuit rights issues through her music. She died by suicide in 2019, a victim of racism and cyber bullying, while working on a third album.
Josh Q. and the Trade-Offs
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Joshua Qaumariaq, bassist Jeff Maurice and a rotating roster of drummers and collaborators mix Inuktitut and English songs into a pleasing and powerful blend of Arctic blues. Qaumariaq’s deep voice has been described as Arctic Soul, highlighting the closeness and isolation, and the ups and downs of Northern life. Josh Q. and the Trade-Offs have been crowd favourites at major festivals all across Canada. Their album is available through Aakuluk Music.
Terry Uyarak grew up in Iglulik and began his performance career as an actor, juggler and musician with the Inuit circus troupe Artcirq. His debut album Nunarjua Isulinginniani was released in 2020, and nominated for the Indigenous Artist of the Year Juno Award in 2021. The 14-track collection features Uyarak’s songs in Inuktitut, with storytelling by elder Simon Qamaniq. Other artists on the album, recorded by Aakuluk Music in Iqaluit, include Becky Han, Celina Kalluk and Riit.
Ted Wesley moved north in the 1960s to work at Discovery Mine. He soon formed a band with Andy Steen, and performed as a singer in Yellowknife through the 1970s. His first album, Straight North, made him the first NWT musician to ever be signed by a major label. Blackflies and Mosquitoes followed in 1973, and North of Canada, in 1977, nabbed Wesley a Juno nomination for Country Male Vocalist of the Year. His nostalgic songs about young people experiencing the North were—and remain to this day—NWT anthems.
Thrasher, an Inuvialuk from Aklavik, is a residential school survivor who was a member of The Cordells, an Inuit rock group in the mid-1960s. Later, as a singer-songwriter, he travelled across Canada and the United States through the 1970s and ‘80s. His album Spirit Child was released by the CBC in 1981. It saw new life in 2014 on the Native North America (Vol. 1) compilation, by label Light in the Attic. Thrasher’s original hit, Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules, was covered by Nunavik artist Elisapie Isaac in 2018, bringing Thrasher back into the spotlight.
Founded in 2001 in Inuvik, Razzamajazz! released two albums, with some original compositions and plenty of old-time jazz favorites. Mike Whiteside, Bob Mumford, Miki O’Kane, Carrie Young and Christina Wilsdon played Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks several times and even opened for Rick Mercer at the Inuvik Oil and Gas Show. Sauna Sessions, recorded in 2005, was supported by Yellowknife legends Norm Glowach and Pat Braden as backup musicians. The group followed that up with Northern Lights in 2009.
Singer-songwriter Tracy Riley continues to enchant audiences at festivals and concerts across the North, the country, and the continent with her rich, soulful voice and energetic performances. A multi-talented musician, she has performed with the likes of Leela Gilday, Tanya Tagaq, KD Lang, Valdy and Rita MacNeil. Her music has roots in folk—with overtones of funk, blues and jazz—and a unique percussive style. Recently on tour in B.C. with Brodie Dawson, Riley returned home to Yellowknife for her latest album, released in 2020, called This and That.
Diga, a poet, artist and singer-songwriter, grew up speaking Tlicho Yatii in Behchoko—the Tlicho Government capital. Now living in Yellowknife, he works with local musicians and his band Digawolf, which has brought him acclaim from critics and fans. His sound is garage rock, or electric blues, with Tlicho heritage and language woven in. He has released six albums and toured the country. His first, Diga, in 2004, brought him a Canadian Aboriginal Music Artist of the Year award. Distant Morning Star, in 2010, and Yellowstone, in 2019, were both nominated for a Juno. The latest Digawolf album, High Arctic, was released in 2020.
One of the North’s most popular artists, Yellowknife-born, Sahtu Dene singer-songwriter, Leela Gilday has five albums to her credit—each one is an award winner, while two, Sedze, and North Star Calling, are Juno winners. Gilday’s powerful voice and strong traditional roots have captivated audiences around the world. She has toured extensively in Canada, the U.S. and abroad, as far as Japan. A storyteller, Gilday sings about the people and the Northern land that created her. SOCAN awarded Gilday their inaugural “Her” award for outstanding achievement in 2020.
Sisters Kayley Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik grew up in Yellowknife, with roots in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions. In their youth, they were nourished by recordings and performances of Inuit throat-singing, but they bring a modern take to katajjaq, the songs of everyday life. Their 2018 release, Altering the Timeline, led to collaboration with a Finnish duo, VILDÁ, adding Sámi vocals and accordion playing. Recent live CBC performances by the sisters include two new numbers, Seascape and Run. Ayalik also founded Quantum Tangle, with G.R. Gritt, winning a 2017 Juno for Indigenous Album of the Year for their EP, Tiny Hands.
An award-winning fiddler, Hardisty makes his home in Fort Simpson, but can be heard just about anywhere fiddle music is played in the territory. With roots in Northern, Metis and West Coast fiddle music, Hardisty also writes some of his own compositions. He won Best Fiddle CD for 12:12, at the 2012 Indigenous Music Awards. In 2021, he played at the Arctic Inspiration Prize award event broadcast on APTN, hit the stage at Folk on the Rocks, and he released Hittin Home with a live concert at NACC with Yellowknife musicians.
Nominated for Best Country Album at the Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Awards in 2014, Goose is originally from Aklavik, and makes her home in Inuvik. A Northern singer-songwriter, musician and producer, her music has blues, country and rock influences, with a nod to her Inuvialuit and Sahtu Dene backgrounds. Goose toured North America and, as a mentor, she reaches out to other Northern performers over the Internet to provide advice and support. Goose has two albums available online: Anywhere and This Time.
A musician and music educator, Bettger has a background playing classical, jazz and bluegrass violin. She moved from Toronto to Hay River in 2003, and began teaching Northern fiddlers. Bettger is in demand with Northern musicians, among them The Jerry Cans, Carmen Braden and Leela Gilday. Her first original fiddle album, Snappy Day, was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award in 2018. Bettger and her family live off-grid near Yellowknife. Her second album, Bush Chords, debuted in 2020.
Carmen Braden is a multi-talented Yellowknife composer/performer. She has completed classical and choral commissions from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Gryphon Trio, the Canadian Chamber Choir, and many others. She also writes and performs what she calls “little pieces,” among them Small Town Song and a catchy 2021 item called Kick Kick. Braden has won awards for Classical Composer, Album, Artist, and Composition at the Western Canadian Music and East Coast Music awards from 2017 through 2020.