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Nuuk power: the music of Greenland

An aerial view of Nuuk, capital of Greenland - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

SOPHIA DEBOICK on a place where music has articulated the angst of a colonised community, as well as addressed its more modern taboos.

Greenland is a place where colonial history is lived every day. The world’s largest island, lying mostly within the Arctic Circle, it was settled by Norsemen as early as the year 1,000 before being colonised by the Danes in the 18th century and officially incorporated into the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. Greenlandic society had already experienced 200 years of change when it accelerated at a terrifying pace from the 1950s as the nation became industrialised and urbanised as part of official Danish government policy. The legacy of all that for the overwhelmingly Inuit population is loss of culture and social deprivation.

The wounds of the past are far from healed, and culture has become a battleground. Last year the Black Lives Matter movement was the catalyst for an attack on the statue of Hans Egede, the Norwegian-born Danish Lutheran missionary, that stands in Nuuk, the nation’s capital which Egede founded. Standing looking out across the Davis Strait, with his back to the city’s utilitarian, low-level architecture, much of it painted in primary colours which stand out starkly against the snow, Egede was covered with red paint and the statue’s base was scrawled with one word: “decolonise”.

In fact the erasure of Inuit culture has been a subject of agonised debate for decades, with more than 35,000 Greenlandic artefacts repatriated to the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen over the last 40 years, and music is no different from any other area of the island’s contested heritage, long exploring culture clash and oppression of the indigenous peoples.

The story of Greenlandic protest music begins in the early 1970s not in Nuuk itself, but more than 2,000 miles away in Sorø, Denmark. The Kalaallit (Inuit Greenlanders) Malik Høegh and Per Berthelsen were in Sorø as students (post-secondary education was not available in Greenland as a matter of government policy at that time), and founded Sumé, meaning ‘Where?’ in the dominant, western Greenlandic dialect of Kalaallisut. This four piece in the folk-rock mould would bring a message that rocked Greenland society.

Sumé’s political agenda was deftly communicated through the sleeve image of their debut album, Sumut (‘Where To?’), released on Copenhagen underground label Demos in 1973. It reproduced a woodcut by 19th century Greenlandic artist Aron of Kangeq showing the legendary Greenlander Qasapi wielding the severed arm of a Norseman – the original image is on display in the Nuuk Art Museum. The record within was an angry manifesto for Greenlandic autonomy, attacking the injustices suffered by Inuit Greenlanders under the Danish minority, and, for the first time, doing it in the Kalaallisut language.



Sumé’s brief career catalysed the Greenlandic independence movement by exploring Inuit social problems (“Far away up north lives a man/ Who exists entirely on booze”) and calling clearly for a reassertion of the native culture (“It’s time to live again as Inuit/ And not as Westerners”). The band broke up in 1977, and the Home Rule Act came two years later. Greenland had achieved partial autonomy from the Kingdom of Denmark and the capital Godthåb (Danish for ‘Good Hope’) was rechristened Nuuk (Kalaallisut for ‘cape’). In the 1990s Per Berthelsen would enter politics proper, elected to the Inatsisartut (Greenlandic parliament) as representative for Nuuk.

But home rule was hardly the end of the Greenlandic independence fight, and Sumé’s influence would echo down decades of Greenlandic music, not just in their politics and their use of Kalaallisut, but through the ULO record label co-founded by Malik Høegh providing the essential infrastructure. Based at its 24-track recording studio in Sisimiut, just inside the Arctic Circle and 200 miles north of Nuuk, ULO’s maiden release was a 1977 compilation of Sumé’s material, and it has been dubbed the most successful record label in the world – it is indeed on a per capita basis, its most popular records selling as many as 10,000 copies among Greenland’s population of just 50,000.

ULO was the home of a whole roster of Nuuk-based acts in the 1980s who sang in Kalaallisut and dealt with the issues facing Greenlanders. Folk singer Rasmus Lyberth laced his songs with romantic notions and images of nature but also grappled with Greenlandic identity. Zikaza, a seven-piece rock band, released three albums on ULO between 1985 and 1990 exploring loss of Inuit culture and inter-generational conflict in the face of the changing way of life, before their final release in 1996 on Nuuk’s Sermit Records.

Silamiut’s debut LP Inuugujoq (‘To My Friend’) (1987) was a slice of unremarkable soft rock but with politically conscious lyrics, and G-60 released their eponymous debut the same year, taking their name from the 1960 government report that resulted in Inuit resettlement in towns in the name of economic progress.

It was not until the 1990s that the angry spirit of Sumé was fully recaptured. The hip hop crew Nuuk Posse had a sound and attitude inspired by the original Bronx hip hop of Grand Master Flash and Rock Steady Crew, but their lyrics in Kalaallisut, English, and Danish were deeply rooted in the Inuit experience of modern Greenlandic life, deploying the universal language of rap to probe the specific injustices and frustrations of that time and place.

Nuuk Posse’s debut album NP was released on ULO in 1995, and the mystical, dance-influenced opening track Oqariartuut (‘The Message’) was typical of the group’s political thrust: “Sick and tired of street signs/ Written in a language that’s not mine/ I want to write in Greenlandic/ Be proud of who you are and open your mind.” The song used samples of traditional Inuit singing and the band said this use of songs from the past to confront the problems of the present was intended to “wake up the culture, and remind the young people that we after all are Inuits and we shouldn’t forget it”.

Music from Nuuk is not always sung in Kalaallisut, nor so politicised. Julie Berthelsen, of mixed Danish and Greenlandic descent and the step daughter of Sumé’s Per Berthelsen, is a product of Danish Popstars, her ballad Every Little Part of Me (2002) launching her as Greenland’s favourite popular singer. The English-language folk pop of Nuuk-born Nive Nielsen and The Deer Children, meanwhile, has attracted attention outside of Greenland, partly due to their frontwoman’s acting work, including playing the Inuit shaman Lady Silence in current blockbuster TV series The Terror. The sinister atmosphere of tracks like Room, the opener of the band’s 2012 debut, is befitting of that tale of Arctic horror.

Yet, even Berthelsen included Greenlandic songs on 2010’s Closer LP, and Nielsen too has recorded in Kalaallisut, and in 2016 politically-charged Kalaallisut music made a comeback with teenage rapper Tarrak’s debut LP FxGxS. The single Tupilak (an avenging monster of Inuit shamanism) attacked anti-Greenlander racism, the dominance of the Danish language in the educational system and the paternalistic attitudes of qallunaat (non-Inuit) Greenlanders. The song’s video found Tarrak commanding “My fellow kalaaleq/ Wake up/ Talk back/ Be mad” in front of the Hans Egede statue. Tarrak has gone on to tackle the taboo topics that have a huge impact on Greenlandic life today – alcoholism and the huge suicide rate, far higher than anywhere else in the world.

But the biggest issue Greenland faces today is climate change. The melting of the ice sheet that covers the island will change it forever, and the most popular Greenlandic band of recent years, Nanook, meaning ‘polar bear’, released a self-titled single in 2016 which dealt with the demise of these totemic creatures, revered in Inuit culture, in the face of climate change. But global warming is also being treated as an opportunity in Greenland – ideally placed to benefit from an opening up of the Arctic and its natural resources, it could revolutionise the island’s economy. Whether for good or ill, Greenland will change radically in the coming decades, and the words of a song by Silamiut are more pertinent than ever: “Be aware of the power of nature/ Because it is the very source of life.”

SONGS OF THE INUIT

Greenlandic Inuit music is largely based on the frame drum (qilaat in Kalaallisut), and drum dances of ancient origin are still played in the remote north and east regions of the island. Pisiq, a loanword from the Canadian Inuit meaning ‘personal songs’, are sung on all sorts of occasions. In the more accessible south and west, the accordion and fiddle of European seamen was incorporated into an Inuit version of the polka called kalattuut, while a choral singing tradition came with the Christian missionaries.

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