My best Arctic trips ever: Part I

There’s something about COVID-19, with its imposed lockdowns and social distancing—and advice not to travel anywhere—which makes me, as I sit in a two-week isolation, think of the trips I have taken: the good and the not-so-good.

I’ve gone almost nowhere recently. One year I remember taking 44 flights (I counted them) and since this past March I have taken none.

But, first, I want to get the worst trip (or one of the worst) out of the way here: it was a train trip that started in Finland taken when I was still in my teens.

I learned I could travel all the way from Helsinki to Vienna through Russia, with a two-day included stopover in Moscow, for $50.

I wanted to go on holiday after having worked all summer in the Marimekko clothing store in Helsinki. It was a hot summer and we sweltered between the racks of brightly-coloured dresses in the store, whose windows didn’t even open. On those steamy weekends, I would either spread myself out on the rocks by the seashore within the city or take a four-hour bus ride to the summer cottage of the friend I was staying with. It was located a small island called Nagu or Nauvo in Finnish near Turku. For a couple of days there we lived on a diet of fish and cucumbers and then headed back to the city.

That place was like paradise but the trip through Russia seemed like a good deal to me because 1) I had no money and 2) most visitors were still only allowed into Russia in groups. I’d been to St-Petersburg with a school group a few years before, but this time, I would be an independent tourist. Yes.

From Helsinki to Moscow, I shared a berth with two girls from Tokyo who were on their way to catch the trans-Siberian train. They spoke almost no English. but they shared their food with me and later they would send me postcards which I couldn’t read.

The Metropol in Moscow. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Once in Moscow, I was deposited by a guide at the Metropol Hotel, right around the corner from the Red Square. There was really no problem with the hotel at all: it was elegant and my room was enormous. That was good.

There bathtub was in the corner, I think. No hot water. The toilet was down a cold hallway: a woman, who sat on a chair, guarding perhaps, handed me sheets of newspaper to use as tissue.

She and no one else there spoke English or any other language I spoke at the time. So I don’t recall how I found out that the little tickets I had been given as part of my train trip also included a free bus tour of the city and two breakfasts at the hotel. I made it to the tour bus. But the patter was nearly all in Russian. I had no idea what we were seeing, the university? the Kremlin? And we visited many churches, one decorated with what looked to me like gold.

And soon I was back out on my own, at the hotel, with the rest of the day ahead of me. I walked to Red Square and somehow, because it was obvious I was a foreigner, I was put at the top of the long queue of people waiting to see Lenin’s body. We walked by quickly. He was under glass, his hands were folded over this chest and waxy.

The gaudy and gorgeous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

I walked over to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Its decorations were painted on! Strolling around the Red Square were many people dressed in their traditional clothing, one with a huge knife hanging from his belt, I recall (but of course I had no camera.)

I stepped into the large building, the Gum bazaar, then a dark maze of shops. I peered down into the metro. I wanted to go down the long flight of stairs to see where it would lead but all the signs were in Cyrillic letters. How would I get back?

I was only nn observer. My memories are vague, maybe because I was in a bubble, just looking and not understanding.

I watched as people went to a metal dispenser of liquid opposite my hotel that held a glass. They went over and over again. To me, the sign on the dispenser looked like it said “vodka” but it maybe was water. The people used the same glass over and over.

And somehow I managed with the little money I had to buy several buns at a kiosk: some were filled with cabbage and others with a sweet chocolate. That’s all I would eat for the next two or three days when I finally got back on the train.

The good part of the train: the endless hot tea I was served. The bad part: the Russian soldier who attacked me after I had chatted and then shared a cigarette with him (in retrospect a bad move on my part.)

Then, somewhere along the way, the train stopped for a long time. A nurse went from seat to seat with a big needle, vaccinating people or giving them a shot of some sort: I said “nyet.” She was insistent. I said no: I hadn’t yet learned about the dangers of sharing needles, but I had the feeling that wasn’t good.

I have no memory what I read or if I kept a journal or how I passed the time other than looking out the window. Every time we passed a village or town there were walls along the tracks, so I couldn’t see much. And finally, the trip, at a time of my life when I had too many hours, little life experience and hardly any money, ended.

My lessons from that trip included watching my back, making sure I had some money and learning the language of where I was.

I also learned to improvise, which would help me in the 1990s when I started to travel in Canada’s North.

But, let’s flash ahead to 2006. That’s when I decided to drive from southeastern Finland to Murmansk in Arctic Russia. (I never made it to Murmansk because I found out I couldn’t go over on a day pass as Norwegians did.)

But while I have no photos from that early Russian journey, COVID-19 has given me time to look over the photos I took in 2006…

I started after Midsummer with my Finnish family… we stood by the kokko fire far into the night.
Late June in Finland when you can go out at 3 a.m. and it looks like this scene from 2006 by Lake Saimaa.
Sometimes we sat inside, but usually only if it rained or the bugs were too bad.
I rented a small car and started driving north, stopping only for reindeer.

And then…

To be continued

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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