Songs evoke memories in all of us. On her latest album, Canadian Inuk singer and activist Elisapie shares songs that have deep emotional resonance, reminding her of her childhood in Salluit, in the Nunavik arctic region of Canada. Elisapie has reimagined ten pop and rock songs from the ’60s to the ’90s with her own delicate arrangements that she sings in Inuktitut, the native language of her people. The songs are a gift to her family and friends. They serve to recount the joys and sorrows of life in the remote North.
The album opens with “Isumagijunnaitaungituq (The Unforgiven).” The Metallica title reflects the feelings of the men in her village over the Canadian government killing all the sled dogs because of a rabies scare. A way of life was killed with the dogs, and that’s something that can never be forgiven. The song also recalls the time a 15-year-old Elisapie interviewed Kirk Hammet on the local radio station.
“Californiamut (Going to California)” is a tribute to Elisapie’s Uncle George. George found a sense of self and purpose playing rock and roll after the trauma inflicted by years in residential schools, where the official policy was to divorce the students from their indigenous culture. The Suglik Band was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and played all over the north in the ’70s and ’80s. Elisapie’s first gig as a musician was singing backup for The Suglik Band.
Many of Elisapie’s fond memories are related to dancing. Whenever there was a gathering, there was dancing. “Uummati Attanarsimat (Heart of Glass)” and “Inuuniaravit (Born to Be Alive)” remind her of good times in tiny improvised dance halls in tiny villages around Nunavut. “Taimangalimaaq (Time After Time)” reminds Elisapie of her Aunt Alasie and cousin Susie, who taught her about things like makeup and fashion.
“Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free)” was a special song Elisapie shared with her cousin Tayara, who was a fantastic dancer. Life in the far north is hard, and many young people can’t handle the strain. Suicide is an epidemic in native communities and Tayara took his own life when he was just a teenager. “Qaisimalaurittuq (Wish You Were Here)” is a requiem for all the people who left this world too soon.
The arrangements are built around drum and guitar, with keys and horns providing texture and color, and the most unique arrangement and my favorite song on the album is “Qaisimalaurittuq (Wish You Were Here).” On this song, Elisapie collaborates with the Westerlies. The trumpets and trombones remind me of playing liturgical music in churches as part of a brass choir. They give the song a majestic grandeur that emphasizes the spiritual aspect of the tune. With the Westerlies, Elisapie turns this Pink Floyd song into a communion with the soul of friends and relatives lost too soon.
Hearing these songs in these stark and delicate arrangements sheds a new light on the tunes. Hearing the songs sung in Inuktitut also gives them a surreal, otherworldly feel for a non-speaker.