Not enough, says Inuit reaction to American choir’s statement on throat-singing use

A debate on social media over the appropriation of Inuit throat singing—and the larger issue what constitutes of intellectual property—continues.

That’s despite an effort by the American vocal group Roomful of Teeth to diffuse a dispute over throat singing use earlier this week.

A statement they issued Tuesday did not have the desired effect on their Inuit critics who still accuse them of cultural appropriation.

“This statement smells of lip service and inaction,” said Tanya Tagaq, the award-winning Inuit performer, tweeting about the group’s Oct. 22 public statement.

Tagaq and other Inuit women, including filmmaker Althea Arnaquq-Baril, continued to post comments on Twitter, after they had read the group’s Oct. 22 response to their earlier criticism about the composition, Partita for 8 Voices.

In this composition, which has received Grammy and Pulitzer awards, throat singing, or katajjaq, can be heard.

They said the statement from Roomful of Teeth missed the point: that throat singing, which comes from a long oral tradition among Inuit women, belongs to Inuit as part of Inuit intellectual property rights, which the World Trade Organization defines as “the rights given to persons over the creations of their minds.”

Arnaquq Baril said on Twitter that while the statement from Roomful of Teeth contained some well-worded thoughts, it was “followed by zero commitment to stop performing one of the most famous and beautiful Inuit throat songs ever.”

In their statement, Brad Wells, artistic director, and Caroline Shaw, singer and composer, both from Roomful of Teeth, said they studied with master singers and teaching experts to learn new styles.

Some styles were specifically culturally-rooted, katajjaq, Tuvan throat singing, Korean p’ansori, and others were less so such as yodeling, belting, death metal singing, they said.

“In all cases, the intent is not for the Roomful of Teeth singers to become expert performers in any of these styles—or even to literally perform these styles in our music—but rather, in the process of learning to move the voice in widely different ways, to open up new sound possibilities as we build our repertoire,” they said.

In 2010, Roomful of Teeth invited (with compensation and travel, lodging and expenses covered, they said) Nunavik throat singers Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik to the group’s summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in Northampton, Mass.

In a performance program, the Nunavik throat singers were acknowledged as “vocal coaches.”

“We learned what we understood to be basic katajjaq techniques. We also learned about the genesis and purpose of these techniques and aspects of the Inuit culture,” Wells and Shaw said.

“As we began to construct music informed in part by our study, we included some katajjaq patterns (as we understood them.)”

They said they understood their music “nested in these patterns to be sufficiently distinct from katajjaq to constitute something new.”

“But thanks to the many voices we have heard in the past two weeks we understand that we cannot be the arbiters of that distinction. We have work to do,” they said.

And they promised various steps to recognize and support Inuit and other indigenous contributions.

But Tagaq said that wasn’t enough because the third movement of Partita for 8 Voices is entirely based on the Inuit throat singing piece, “the Love Song.”

“The Inuit who taught you that song are the composers of that section of your piece,” Tagaq said in a long thread on Twitter. “Intellectual Property is real. Do you understand this? Why are Indigenous songs reduced to mere gibberish and/or vocal techniques?”

Tagaq, said Roomful of Teeth didn’t cite any concrete ways their “teachers” would be compensated.

“I just would like to see people credited and paid. I want us as Inuit to be able to feed our babies and pay rent by having our songs known as what they are,” she said.

Tagaq remained critical, as well, about the Roomful of Teeth’s promise to acknowledge Inuit.

“So you will read aloud before every show that you are appropriating songs? Or will you just speak of Inuit being generous or give an anthropology class at the top of the show,” said Tagaq, who, like some other commenters online, suggested future proceeds from Partita for 8 Voices could go to a charity that focuses on helping Inuit artists.

You can read more in an updated story on Nunatsiaq News.

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