Ahead of Sundance Premiere, Teen 'Throat Singing' Star Talks Inuit Traditions -- And Justin Bieber

Wapikoni
Manon Chamberland andĀ Eva Kaukai in Throat Singing in Kangirsuk.

Friday (Jan. 25) night at Sundance Film Festival, teenagers Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland from the Inuit village of Kangirsuk, in northern Nunavik, Quebec, will enjoy the world premiere of their short film, Throat Singing In Kangirsuk, at the prestigious fest. The film has four screenings as part of Sundance Shorts selections, starting at Redstone Cinema.

Set against the gorgeous landscape of Kangirsuk and shot over four seasons, the three-minute short shows the pair engaging in throat singing (as you might've guessed from the title).

Opening with a wide shot of the vast snow-covered terrain, we first see the two at a distance and hear the hypnotic, engulfing sounds. Then, in a closeup, the teens start laughing, breaking concentration. 

"Let's try not to laugh," one of them says off camera, subtly offering the explanation for the traditional game — basically the first to run out of breath, or mess up and stop, loses.

The teens throat sing again, as the stunning visuals quick-cut to their rhythms.

Kaukai, 18, and Chamberland, 15, also co-directed the piece, alongside the team from Wapikoni, a mobile studio for training and audiovisual creation in Indigenous communities.

In 2014, the provincial government of Quebec gave Nunavik throat singing UNESCO's "intangible cultural heritage" designation.

Billboard spoke with Chamberland by phone in Kangirsuk, where she lives and goes to school.

I'm in Toronto. We're all complaining about the cold because it's -9. Supposed to be -21 tomorrow. How cold is it there?

It's about -30. Not that cold.

Not that cold?

[laughs]. It's not that cold.

Can you explain what it's like where you live?

I live in northern Quebec, Kangirsuk. The population is around 700. It's a small town. You would know everyone in the town.

How do you know Eva?

We grew up in the same town. She's my best friend.

How old are you two?

I'm 15. Eva is 18.

Before you made this short, did you both want to go into film or the arts?

Yeah.

In recent years, in popular music, we've heard throat singing by Tanya Tagaq and the Jerry Cans. As I understand it, as we see in your film, traditionally throat singing is two females face to face, holding onto each other's arms, trying to out throat sing the other, in order to make the other person laugh. It's a competition.

It is a competition between the two women. They imitate the sounds of nature or the landscape or any kind of animal to make each other laugh. Sometimes when you have your amauti [parka with built-in baby pouch] and your child in the back, they can feel the vibration of the throat singing and they can fall asleep.

How did you learn?

My grandmother. I grew up in a city [Montreal] and I came here for my mother when I was about five and we started learning throat singing because we wanted to keep the generation alive.

As a kid, were you learning it just because it's a fun thing to do or were you concerned about the tradition dying?

We learned because our grandparents wanted to show that the culture is pretty much alive and they didn't want to lose it.

How do you feel about an artist like Tanya Tagaq, who won the Polaris Music Prize, which is an important national music award, exposing throat singing to people that may never have even heard or witnessed it before?

For us Inuit, we got a little embarrassed by her. The different kind of throat singing she does because that's not how we see our Inuit traditions and throat singing ways.

You'd like to keep it more traditional?

Mmm-hmm.

So it's less music, per se, and more this game — or do you consider it music?

Sometimes we do the music, but it's more something we do for fun.

How would you feel if someone non-Inuit tried to learn how to throat sing? Would that be an homage or appropriation?

Everyone can learn throat singing if they want to.

You wouldn't be offended?

No, it would be okay. For us it's okay. If they change it up and do different things with throat singing, it's kind of disrespectful.

How did you get the opportunity to make the film with Wapikoni?

Eva came to get me, so I don't really know what happened. There were producers and students who were shooting the film.

Was the idea yours?

Eva did the whole thing. I just followed up with her.

Did you get to fly the drone?

That was a person who lives in the same town who gave us the videos.

Are you going to make any other films?

I'm not sure yet.

What other music do you like to listen to?

I don't really listen to music, but my favorite artist is Justin Bieber.

Of course. What do you like about him?

Everything. I've been a Belieber since 2009.

Have you seen him in concert?

Nope, not yet.

Screening times for Throat Singing In Kangirsuk:

Fri. Jan. 24 @ 6:30pm Redstone Cinema, Park City, Utah. In the presence of the directors and Wapikoni team

Sat. Jan. 26 @ 9pm Park Avenue Theatre, Park City, Utah. In the presence of the directors and Wapikoni team

Sun. Jan. 27 @ 3pm Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. In the presence of the directors and Wapikoni team

Thurs. Jan. 31 @ 6pm Park Avenue Theatre, Park City, Utah