MUSIC

Pride of the Arctic

Susan Aglukark sings about pain and joy among the Inuit

BRIAN BERGMAN February 13 1995
MUSIC

Pride of the Arctic

Susan Aglukark sings about pain and joy among the Inuit

BRIAN BERGMAN February 13 1995

Pride of the Arctic

MUSIC

BRIAN BERGMAN

The sight can be found in almost every small town in the Canadian Arctic. Perched on the tundra, aimed at the endless horizon, giant satellite dishes bring into the homes of the Inuit such standard southern fare as soap operas, sitcoms and the nightly newscasts. Susan Aglukark grew up in one such community, Arviat, on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay, and readily recalls being inundated with images of a lifestyle far removed from her own. Now, the 28year-old singer is experiencing life on the other side of the television screen, flying across the country on a whirlwind promotional tour and shooting music videos for her new album, This Child. But she still remembers the isolation she felt during her teenage years, which is one reason why her first major concert tour, scheduled for this spring, will be to the Arctic. “I know what it’s like to watch TV and want to be there,” says Aglukark. “I know what it’s like not to be part of the rest of the world.”

Ging before Aglukark signed a major recording contract with EMI Music « Canada in March, 1993, northerners ; considered her a star. They had 9 snapped up copies of two independently § produced albums, Dreams for You and Arctic Rose, and lit up the switchboards at CBC radio stations across the North with airplay requests. The appeal was obvious, starting with her springwater-clear voice—often likened to that of Anne Murray—the fact that she frequently sang in her native language, Inuktitut, and her fresh-faced beauty. But there was something else at work as well: many of the songs that Aglukark has written deal with the myriad of ills that are tearing at the social fabric of the North, including child sexual abuse and suicide. “The important thing to people up here,” says Northwest Territories Premier Nellie Cournoyea, a friend of Aglukark’s and a fellow Inuk, “is that the words of her songs fit very well with what people feel and what they are experiencing.”

Small wonder. The pain—and the hopein Aglukark’s songs spring from her own life. At the age of 9, she was sexually abused by a family friend. But she did not

Susan Aglukark sings about pain and joy among the Inuit

confront her abuser until 13 years later, when she learned that he was still doing the same thing to other girls. In 1989, her testimony in a Rankin Inlet courtroom helped convict the man. But even that result, she recalled in an interview last week at the EMI record-

ing studios just north of Toronto, was bittersweet: “You finally find enough courage and you can’t help but be angry. The justice system gives him a year-and-a-half sentence. The rest of my life and the rest of I-don’tknow-how-many girls’ lives are ruined. A year and a half?” That anger, coupled with resolve, is evident in one of the new songs from This Child, called Suffer in Silence: “Don’t you know that your heart can feel like an anchor/When you keep

it all inside/No, no, don’t suffer in silence.” Aglukark’s family has also been touched by the wave of suicide that sometimes threatens to overwhelm many native communities. In Kathy I, the most emotionally wrenching song on This Child, Aglukark laments the loss of a cousin and close friend, Kathy, who killed herself: “Kathy, I set you free/On your journey to find your peace/In my heart you’ll always be/Kathy, I set you free.”

For all of that, This Child, which received its national launch in Yellowknife in late January, is no collection of dirges. In both production values and subject matter, it is a quantum leap from Aglukark’s earlier albums. The result of eight months in a studio with the highly regarded Toronto-based producer Chad Irschick (who has also worked with the top-selling Rankin Family), the recording melds a number of diverse

musical influences and instruments, including native drums, electronic synthesizers and a string quartet. And tempering the sombre tone of such songs as Kathy I are celebratory numbers including O Siem— the first single release from the album— which revolves around an Indian exclamation of joy at seeing family and friends: “O Siem, we are all family/0 Siem, we’re all the same/O Siem, the fires of freedom/Dance in the burning flame.”

Such songs reflect the singer’s determination not to get typecast. “I don’t want to be dealing with heavy social issues all of the time,” says Aglukark, whose own musical preferences run the gamut from Sting to Pavarotti. The eclecticism of This Child has raised expectations in her record company that it could be Aglukark’s breakthrough album not only in southern Canada, but internationally as well. EMI Canada president Deane Cameron notes that affiliates of his company in the United States, Australia and New Zealand are committed to marketing This Child. Aglukark’s profile outside Canada will also receive a boost when she travels to Australia later this month to perform at the Melbourne Music Festival. “I think that she has real international appeal,” says Cameron. “I also think that some of her lyrics that relate to the Inuit are going to be of great interest to people in other countries.”

It is heady stuff for the fine-boned, fivefoot, two-inch Aglukark, who took her first tentative steps into the music business only four years ago. Bom in Churchill, Man., the middle of seven children, she spent her early years moving from one Arctic community to another because of her father’s job as a Pentecostal minister. In 1978, the family settled for good in Arviat (formerly Eskimo Point), a town of about 1,300 on the shore of Hudson Bay, 125 km north of the Manitoba border. Although she was always an avid writer—of poems, diaries and journals—her musical experience was limited to singing in her father’s church and, briefly, as a member of a youth-group band.

After graduating from high school, Aglukark moved to Ottawa to find work, first as a linguist with the federal government and then as an executive assistant with an Inuit lobby group. It was during this period that she got her first big musical break. In the fall of 1990, Les McLaughlin, a producer at CBC North in Ottawa, was putting the finishing touches on a compilation recording of Eastern Arctic artists, when he received a demo tape from Aglukark. He was sufficiently impressed to arrange a one-day recording session. In the space of 10 hours, Aglukark recorded nine songs, all but one of them in Inuktitut. In addition to being included among the 29 cuts on the CBC broadcast disc, Aglukark later released the nine songs as Dreams for You, under her own label, Aglukark Entertainment Inc.

The Dreams for You sessions got saturation play on the CBC radio stations that service the Arctic and which, for up to two-

thirds of the airtime, broadcast in Inuktitut. “The response was instant in the North,” recalls McLaughlin. “It made her a star.” The second album, Arctic Rose, followed in 1992. Heavily autobiographical, it includes songs that deal candidly with her own experience of sexual abuse, with teenage suicide and with the cultural dislocation of the Inuit. And it ends with a haunting rendition of Amazing Grace, sung a cappella in Inuktitut. Distributed mainly through mail order, Arctic Rose sold nearly 14,000 copies—about 10,000 of those in the Northwest Territories, which has a population of only 60,000. Those numbers, together with Aglukark’s obvious musical talents, caught the attention of EMI Canada executives. After signing her, the Toronto-based company re-released Arctic Rose, which has so far sold an additional 30,000 copies.

Arctic Rose made Aglukark something of a role model for Inuit youth. Following performances in small communities such as Pond Inlet or Iqaluit, she would often be asked to address school audiences and groups of sexual-abuse victims. She did so, willingly, but found the experience sometimes draining. “It’s like everyone you’re dealing with has been victimized in one way or another,” she says. “And when it’s all you’re facing, it seems like it’s all there is in the world.” But she continues to draw strength from her Christian faith, which she says influences both her music and her approach to social issues.

Aglukark, who now lives in Toronto when she is not on the road, tries to return to the Arctic—where her parents and siblings still live—whenever possible. While she finds city life “incredibly noisy,” it gives her a chance to indulge in one of her other passions: movies. She also likes beading, sewing (she made her own parka) and cooking. As well, she is dating a local recording engineer.

Aglukark’s emergence as a recording artist coincides with a resurgence of interest in aboriginal music—reflected in the success of Kashtin, an Innu duo from northern Quebec, and a recent compilation album, Music for ‘The Native Americans,' put together by Robbie Robertson, a Canadian-born former member of the legendary rock group The Band. ‘Ten years ago,” notes the CBC’s McLaughlin, “anyone singing in a native language couldn’t get played except at midnight on a ‘roots’ station. Today, that’s all changed.” Asked about Aglukark’s potential for stardom, McLaughlin replies: “I don’t think potential is the right word. If s going to happen.”

Aglukark appears to be having similar thoughts. Until her work on This Child, she says, she felt ambivalent about the music business. But that is behind her, and she now feels comfortable calling herself an artist. “Once you accept something like that, it opens a lot of doors,” she says. “Now, I’m ready to take on the world.” She laughs selfconsciously at the boldness of her statement. But something in her steady gaze suggests that she will settle for nothing less. □