Charlie Panigoniak’s song
Charlie Panigoniak has died. Nunatsiaq News reports the story simply and truthfully: “Nunavut has lost a legend.”
The 72-year-old was considered the father of Inuktitut music for his recordings, which blended a folk and country twang with stories pulled from Panigoniak’s life in the Arctic. He was one of the first to write, perform and record music in Inuktitut—even now a rarity in Canadian songwriting.
Born near Chesterfield Inlet, Panigoniak learned to play guitar on a makeshift instrument gifted to him by his father and built out of a tin can. A battle with tuberculosis brought the Inuk musician south to Manitoba for treatment, where he was exposed to and inspired by a wider range of country music. His songs told stories of humour, love, even sadness.
“Panigoniak's music was sometimes religious, sometimes rooted in traditional stories,” reports the Canadian Press. “One song featured a talking seal. In another, he tapped his fingers on a guitar to imitate the sound of a traditional Inuit drum.”
During his career, he recorded three albums with CBC Northern Services (where Panigoniak also worked as a radio producer in the '70s) and released two CDS. Panigoniak also recorded several Christmas carols in Inuktitut, including his charming cover of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” By his side in a career spanning decades was his wife and musical partner, Lorna.
“Charlie’s legacy across Nunavut is one of great joy, good humour , and inspiring others,” Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said in a statement. “His music is more than well-known in Nunavut, it is beloved and treasured in our communities...I have and will always remain a fan of his songs, his spirit, and his many talents. Though we mourn his passing, we hold on to his music to inspire and move us for years to come.”
Panigoniak was given an order of Nunavut in 2012 for his outstanding contribution to the territory’s cultural, social, and economic well-being. Four years later, he was awarded the Nunavut Commissioner’s Performing Arts Award. It was the same year he would take the stage for the last time.
Organizers in Arviat held a tribute/benefit concert in 2016 to honour Panigoniak’s music and help raise money for his medical costs. The singer had been battling against Parkinson’s disease and other ailments for some time.
In an interview with Nunatsiaq News during the trip, Lorna said her husband had told her that one of his greatest accomplishments was not just the music he made, but that he wrote his lyrics in Inuktitut.
“He said Inuktitut, his language, he’s teaching younger kids to speak it through music. I loved it when I heard that. We’ve got to keep our language and it can be any way, through music, speaking and even writing.”
Panigoniak had been living in Ottawa at a seniors centre, but was brought back to Nunavut by his daughter shortly before his passing. According to CBC, his funeral will be held this Friday in Rankin Inlet.
In lieu of flowers, it’s requested that people bring guitar picks.