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Iqaluit Rock City

Iqaluit Rock City

The Jerry Cans intend to make their success Nunavut’s success—and that’s why they’re our Northerners of the Year
By Herb Mathisen
Nov 28
2017
From the December 2017 Issue

IT'S GETTING DARK just after 6 o’clock, the night before the inaugural Nunavut Music Week starts. In a large, bright home in Iqaluit’s Tundra Valley neighbourhood, the first wave of arrivals share what feels like a family meal. Nancy Mike, throatsinger and accordion player for the Jerry Cans, cuts frozen narwhal into cubes with an ulu for guests to sample. Across the crowded kitchen island, Mike’s bandmate Brendan “Dotes” Doherty is on pizza duty, pulling one pesto char pie from the oven and putting another in. Nearby, Tanya Tagaq is curled up on a sofa, napping beside a wood pellet stove. All the while, wild kids roam the house in packs, hyped up and sliding around the wooden floor in socked feet.

You wouldn’t blame the Jerry Cans for feeling jet-lagged, having only returned from a pair of gigs and steady industry schmoozing in Germany days before. But they’re not. Maybe they’re immune to the mind-numbing effects of air travel by now, considering their recent tours have taken them to Cuba, Australia, Scotland, Norway, Iceland and from coast to coast to coast in Canada. Or maybe they’re riding the adrenaline of what’s now just 24 hours away. There’s a mix of anxiety, anticipation, and a sense of relief that everything’s coming together.

Tomorrow, musicians will arrive from Rankin Inlet, Iglulik and Pangnirtung, along with music industry professionals from Toronto and journalists from Rolling Stone and the New York Times. They will spend three days together, in a conference setting and at performance venues, for a series of workshops, panels and artist showcases aimed at bridging the north-south divide. Southerners will get a firsthand look at the logistical and technical challenges Nunavut artists are up against when trying to establish their careers. And Nunavummiut will have a rare opportunity to learn the ins-and-outs of the industry—like where to go for funding and how to build up their profile—and possibly impress some movers and shakers with their music.

None of it would be possible without the Jerry Cans—Iqaluit’s unofficial world ambassadors—who have used their growing fame to promote Nunavut and the Inuktitut music scene and even launch a few careers. The event was organized by the band’s year-old music label, Aakuluk Music (the territory’s first) and involved flying in dozens of people from the south and around Nunavut, booking venues and lining up days of programming, all between their busy tour schedule and busier lives. Over the kitchen island, Jerry Cans singer Andrew Morrison organizes a panel discussion on music publishing, to be held at drummer Steve Rigby’s house, as he dips a chunk of mattaaq into a bowl of Sriracha sauce.

“I think it’s one thing for them to say, as a label, our mission is to build a market for Inuktitut music,” says Emily Smart, a publicist with Toronto’s Six Shooter Records—Tanya Tagaq’s imprint—who also works with Aakuluk. “But it’s another thing to actually do it. And this is one of those things—they’re actually doing it.”

In the North, things rarely go according to plan. And in the coming days, an unseasonal blizzard will blow through and shut down the town. It will force the cancellation of a big night of music at the Legion, and postpone the triumphant return of the territory’s biggest star, Tanya Tagaq, to a Nunavut stage.

But in true Jerry Cans fashion, they will shrug their shoulders and roll with it. The showcase at the Legion will wind up at Rigby’s house. Band members and tour manager Lauren Troutman will brave Iqaluit’s super-slick roads to grab guests—Rigby with his Ski-Doo and qamutiq—and the Jerry Cans, the soulful Trade-Offs and Iglulik’s heroic hard-rockers Northern Haze will cram into the living room, using gear cobbled up from Rigby’s high school days, and rock the house harder than the winds raging outside.

That, in essence, is the story of the Jerry Cans—if they want to see something happen, they make it happen.

The Jerry Cans rock the house in a blizzard. Photo by Jesse Kumagai

BILLY-JAY AMMAQ PULLS HIS PHONE from his black Adidas coat pocket. He’s a few feet back from the throng crowding the stage during Riit’s Friday night show at the Legion—one of the rowdier joints in all of the North. “This is the biggest song in Nunavut right now,” the young guitarist tells me, as the crowd bounces up and down to the infectious hook from the 20-year-old’s single, Imiqtaq. Billy holds his phone in the air and snaps a short video to send home to Iglulik. “For my daughter,” he says.

The place has been electric all night. Not long before Riit took the stage, the unassuming members of the legendary band Northern Haze enter the Legion and the room explodes with cheers. The elder statesmen of Nunavut rock and roll are mobbed by fans—some have flown in from Rankin Inlet and Pangnirtung just for their show. There are selfies, hugs, lots of “I remember when”—even a few tears. Northern Haze might not be a household name outside of Nunavut, but they are gods here. I’m told when they land in Iqaluit, it’s not uncommon for admirers to be waiting for them to get off the plane.

The gushing admiration is evidence of Nunavut’s love of music. The territory has produced its share of icons like Uvagut Band from Iqaluit, folksinger Charlie Panigoniak from the Kivalliq, accordion player Simeonie Keenainak from Pangnirtung, and fiddle master Colin Adjun from Kugluktuk. But with few exceptions, the prohibitive costs of travel have made it tough for musicians to break out of their communities or regions, other than to play small festivals.

“They were playing in a time when you could only get guitar strings once a year from the sealift ship,” says Andrew Morrison. “I know older artists that are 60 and 70 now who would go to the dump to find wires for their guitar or their fiddle. I know guys that would just call each other on the phone in the ‘80s because they had no jamming partners—across communities they would call each other just to jam together.” That generation of artists, he says, planted the seed for the current resurgence in Nunavut’s music scene. “These were people who were revolutionary in the way that music has progressed in Nunavut and in the North. They’re definitely an inspiration for us.”

There has always been an appetite for Inuktitut music in the North. When a band travels to a community with a box of CDs, they’ll often sell out before the show even starts. And the internet has changed everything. Now, with just a cellphone and some bandwidth, anyone can post their music to Facebook or YouTube so it’s immediately available to the world. This is true even in Nunavut, with its slow and unreliable connections. “It’s just gotten to this point where every day there’s some kid in a different town playing the most beautiful music that no one ever heard,” says Jerry Cans bassist Brendan Doherty.

The demand for Inuktitut music is growing outside the territory too. “We sing in Inuktitut. We write songs about where we come from and what things we do up here,” says Nancy Mike. (Jerry Cans songs celebrate country food and traditional life; there are also populist tunes that satirize the lives of Government of Nunavut workers and NorthMart ripping people off.) “There seems to be a lot of interest not only in Inuktitut music or throatsinging, but Indigenous music in general,” says Mike. Her younger sister, Riit, was the first Nunavut performer to ever play BreakOut West in Edmonton, an industry event for concert promoters and show bookers. And the Jerry Cans headlined a concert with Riit and the Trade-Offs in downtown Toronto in August as part of a Massey Hall patio series. It was one of the most popular shows of the run.

But pursuing a career in music is hard under the best of circumstances—and the small population and high travel costs in Nunavut are certainly not ideal. That’s what spurred members of the Jerry Cans to start the Aakuluk Music label, and to organize Nunavut Music Week. “There’s so much talent in Nunavut that there needs to be this kind of music business infrastructure,” says Mike.

Photo by Roger Hennum

The Jerry Cans have been ripped off. They’ve made mistakes. With no arts council in Nunavut and without a regional music industry association to lobby governments for support, they, like other successful Nunavut artists, have done it mostly on their own. “We’ve paid money to people to do things for us and realized we didn’t need to do that,” says Doherty. “We just learned a lot of lessons because we went on the road for so many years. We wanted to share some of that info with artists in Nunavut.”

At a panel session on the state of Nunavut’s music industry, Chris Coleman, an Iqaluit-based music producer, says it’s often cheaper for him to travel to communities with his own gear to record albums rather than have artists come to his home studio. They find a quiet room and get to work. (The last time he travelled to Kugaaruk, it cost $6,900-return.) “You do the best you can with the situations you find yourself in,” he says.

Heather Daley, who organizes Iqaluit’s Alianait Arts Festival, a springboard for many Nunavut musicians, says they get creative to pay airfares. “We have to run Aeroplan pooling campaigns so we can afford to bring in artists from communities.”

And it’s a constant struggle for Nunavut artists to tour. Kathleen Merritt—the force behind Iva, which blends throatsinging and Celtic music—had to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her North Meets East tour through Nunavut and Atlantic Canada this fall. (Just flying her four-member band from Rankin Inlet to Iqaluit to Ottawa and back costs nearly $9,000.) As a reward for $200 donations, Merritt was offering one-hour throatsinging lessons.

James Ungalaq, the front man of Northern Haze, put it best when asked to sum up his 32 years as a Nunavut artist: “I’m broke, but inspired.”

James Ungalaq, John Inooya, and Derek Aqqiaruq from Iglulik‘s legendary Northern Haze. Photo by Jesse Kumagai

THE BIG RACK PITA SHACK is busy at lunchhour, serving football-sized wraps in the back of Iqaluit’s shiny new pool complex. A young woman in a backwards hat preps vegetables for the toppings table. She whistles along to a song blaring from behind the counter. It’s Ukiuq, from the latest Jerry Cans album, Inuusiq/Life. The driving folk song is powered by Nancy Mike’s throatsinging, and builds to an irresistible sing-along Inuktitut chorus, belted out by her partner Andrew Morrison. Down the block, the same song pumps out of a delivery van. The driver taps his hand, dangling a burning cigarette out the window, to the beat. 

The Jerry Cans are riding a wave right now. Songs from Inuusiq/Life and a summer single release—an Inuktitut cover of the Tragically Hip classic Ahead by a Century—are on steady rotation not just North of 60, but south of it. They’ve become festival favourites across Canada and overseas, while also promoting the unique mix of modern and traditional lifestyles in Nunavut through their music and advocacy. They’ve come a long way from their garage band origins, when Morrison, Doherty and Steve Rigby played Ozzy Osborne and Metallica covers to friends at small shows ten years ago.

When Nancy Mike joined the band in 2011, they began to write songs about everyday life in Iqaluit and the North. “Things took off when we started to play Inuktitut music and started to play music for the community—for everyone—instead of just wanting to rock out,” says Rigby. They began to draw bigger and bigger crowds in town. Still, they felt they were very much an Iqaluit band. “I can fill my house up,” Rigby says. “I can fill the Legion with all of my friends. That’s easy.” Could they do the same in a place where nobody knew them?

Their first show outside of Iqaluit was an eye-opener. “We went to Rankin Inlet and, even then, we weren’t sure how they were going to receive it because there were some songs in English, some in Inuktitut,” says Doherty. But that night, they packed the dance hall. They returned home with renewed confidence.

Then they met Gina Burgess—a virtuoso violinist who plays in a gypsy-punk band in Halifax. Burgess was teaching violin and, by luck, was billeted at Morrison’s mother’s house during a music exchange in Iqaluit. Burgess met the band and they jammed a few times. The Jerry Cans asked her to play a gig with them at the Legion. Something clicked. “We were just like, ‘Can we keep you?’” Rigby says, laughing.

The band now had its sound. Soon after, they were invited to play Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks in 2012, their first festival outside Iqaluit. Again, they worried the crowd wouldn’t understand their Inuktitut lyrics, that they wouldn’t be into it. They were proven wrong. “That was the moment for us when we were like, ‘Whoa, we can actually play outside of Nunavut?’” says Doherty. It was the first time the Jerry Cans thought this could be the thing, rather than a thing.

Since then, they’ve been on an upward trajectory. They played Australia and New Zealand and were invited back. This summer, they toured full-time. “Each of us recently quit our jobs,” says Nancy Mike. “Steve worked as an electrician. I work as a nurse when I’m not playing music. We’ve decided, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this full-time and do Aakuluk Music.’”

The Jerry Cans compel crowds to move, to dance, and to participate in the shows. The band chants out choruses in Inuktitut. The crowd chants back. They played Norway for the first time in June. With what Morrison calls their typical “hilarious Iqaluit expectations,” the band thought two or three people might show up. They sold out the 500-capacity hall. “It was completely packed and we were just mind-blown that these people were interested in seeing us,” says Mike. “They sang our lyrics back to us while we were playing. And to be able to hear people who do not understand the language but they’re willing to support us that way, that’s one of the most satisfying feelings.”

Still, life isn’t easy for the Jerry Cans. Every single tour begins with the long and expensive flight out of Iqaluit. The band will generally book one anchor date in the south—a big festival or show—and then find other shows to play around it in the week before and week after. That means a lot of time away from home, which can be especially hard for Morrison and Mike, who have two young daughters—and a third child on the way.

But the band has no intention to move south. They’re trying to prove that you can still live in Iqaluit and do music full-time. “We need to be with our people, our land, what inspires our music,” says Rigby. “If we move to Toronto, we’ll become a Toronto band.” They wouldn’t be the Jerry Cans.

 

LAZARUS QATTALIK AND BILLY-JAY AMMAQ are seated across from the programming director for Massey Hall and the music critic for the Toronto Star. The two young musicians have just finished a short, foot-stomping showcase set, which concluded with Irnikuluga—a catchy song Qattalik wrote about his two-year-old son. The night before, at a party held at Andrew Morrison and Nancy Mike’s Happy Valley home, the duo played the same song in a living room full of delegates and artists, as tuktu was cut up on cardboard in the kitchen. (Kathleen Merritt jumped over a couch mid-song to lend a throatsinging rhythm section.) Now, Jesse Kumagai and Ben Rayner are telling the Iglulik musicians the song is stuck in their heads. Qattalik—passionate on stage, quite laconic off it—grins.

Iglulik musicians Lazarus Qattalik and Billy-Jay Ammaq jam in Andrew Morrison and Nancy Mike’s Happy Valley kitchen during the inaugural Nunavut Music Week. Photo by Jesse KumagaiSinging along at the Legion with the Trade-Offs. Photo by Sima Sahar Zerehi

Exposure like this just isn’t possible for artists living in Iglulik—or Iqaluit for that matter—with so much of the country’s music industry based in Toronto and other major cities. This event is giving managers, publicists and representatives from national funding groups a sense of how financial and logistical barriers hold Nunavut artists back, as well as a glimpse at some of the territory’s talent. And it’s giving musicians a crash-course in the music business.

Morrison moderates a panel with the owner of a Toronto music label, a publicist and band manager. He asks each panelist to describe exactly what they do. The conversation dovetails into a discussion about what management and publicist fees are standard in the industry, before getting into how artists can access funds in and outside of Nunavut.

Aakuluk Music‘s budding star, Riit, plays a showcase at Iqaluit‘s Legion. Photo by Sima Sahar Zerehi

Later, there are one-on-one sessions between bands and southern industry delegates—media, management, and publishing. Riit’s career has taken off since signing with Aakuluk Music; the Trade-Offs have played nationally televised shows on the CBC and APTN this summer, and are preparing to re-release their album on Aakuluk. Both are learning how to use social media to propel their careers. Rolling Stone and Toronto Star writers joke there might be a fight over who gets to write the Northern Haze story first, as James Ungalaq and Derek Aqqiaruq smile at each other, bemused. “The artists were really happy to not have to travel down south, to this place that doesn’t really reflect who they are, and pitch themselves,” says Morrison, after the event.

Lazarus and Billy-Jay have just finished recording a debut album. Delegates from the media table ask how they plan to promote it. Will there be an album release party in Iglulik? Will they post songs online? On what site? How big do they want to be? Do they want to tour Nunavut? Or beyond? Some of these questions they don’t yet have answers to. But they’re thinking about them now.

 

ONE MONTH BEFORE A SHOW in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Tanya Tagaq steps onto a stage in the mezzanine of Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School. Fans return to steel chairs set up on the floor or to bleacher seats that circle the room, following a brief intermission for juice boxes and cupcakes baked by volunteers. This is Tagaq’s first performance in Nunavut in years, since her Polaris Music Prize win vaulted her to international acclaim.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, she was viciously attacked on social media by some loud Nunavut critics—people who think her avant-garde music is an affront to traditional throatsinging. The most visible Inuk in Canada, possibly in all of the world, and one of the biggest champions of the seal hunt and Inuit rights, responds with grace. But she’s unapologetic. “I’ve never, ever said my music was traditional. It’s contemporary,” she tells the crowd, before pointing to the exit sign—if you don’t enjoy the show, you’re free to leave.

Tanya Tagaq wows Iqaluit at her first Nunavut show in years, with Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. Photo by Ivo Vigouroux

In many ways, Tagaq is the example of what’s possible—an artist from Nunavut who has found a global audience. Her Alianait performance helped to lure Rolling Stone and New York Times to a show in a high school. Nancy Mike says Tagaq’s success has benefited the Jerry Cans, too. Mike no longer has to explain what throatsinging is all the time.

Tonight, Tagaq captivates an all-ages crowd. Young girls watch attentively by the side of the stage, silently taking in the power of the performance. The efforts of Tagaq, the Jerry Cans and Nunavut’s contemporary artists are paving the way so one day these girls might find it easier—even possible—to make music for a living.

Since joining the Jerry Cans, Gina Burgess has been impressed with the band’s no-B.S. attitude. They often find themselves in community halls lacking sound equipment or a drum kit. But they don’t whine or get upset—they get to work. “Without complaining or grumbling at all, we just go and get all the sound gear, put it up and play a great show,” she says. (The Jerry Cans, after all, take their name from a disastrous attempt at building a drum kit from jerry cans.) That mentality—to not sit around and wait for someone else to do something—comes from the band’s roots in the North. “I think a lot of that is just a product of growing up here,” says Rigby.

The Jerry Cans made sure delegates got a taste of country food during Nunavut Music Week. Photo courtesy of the Jerry Cans

When it came to building up the Nunavut music industry, they’ve taken that very same approach. Instead of hoping government would take the lead, they started a label and got the right people together for a music conference. In typical Northern-style, Nunavut Music Week is casual, yet professional. The band made sure to include country food—pataaq, mattaaq, seal—at every meal, to give visitors an authentic taste of the North. They lugged gear between venues, chauffeured delegates and artists around town and rescheduled flights and meals on the fly. And the band’s humble approach—and genuine acknowledgement that they still don’t have all the answers—brought the north and south together professionally and personally. In a giant circle at the end of the week, local musicians are moved to tears when they think of how far they’ve come from early garage bands and music camps. Southerners, strangers just 48 hours before, dry their eyes too.

And then there was the party the Jerry Cans willed into existence on Saturday night, after the entire town was shut down. Rigby’s house—453—was packed shoulder to shoulder with promoters, journalists, publicists, artists and Iqalungmiut. Despite the blizzard, people kept coming. Rigby’s mudroom was shin-deep in rubber boots.

When word of the party made the Toronto Star the next day, an interesting thing happened—suddenly everyone wanted to be in Iqaluit, fearing they had missed something special. “We’ve gotten emails from all over the country, saying they want to be involved next year—SiriusXM, managers from across the country, other labels,” says Morrison. “It definitely surpassed all of our expectations.”

For one weekend, they managed to make Iqaluit the centre of Canada’s music scene.