Shina Novalinga is one of a handful of singers from her Indigenous tribe shifting the social media spotlight to Inuit throat singers in Canada.
Inuit throat singing was banned by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century who saw it as satanic. The ban was only lifted in the 1980s, and now Novalinga and her mother are using apps like TikTok and Instagram to preserve and celebrate the music.
Each song has a different meaning that imitates the sound of nature and animals, the Montreal native explains. There are all sorts of different throat singing sounds — many require controlled airflow while inhaling and exhaling, such as “The Little Puppy” song. Others, such as “The Love Song,” are higher pitched and can be performed with or without the throat, she says.
When she’s in rhythm with her mom, she feels connected “with my roots, my ancestors, my culture,” she says. “It feels very peaceful to throat sing with my mom.”
Traditionally, Inuit throat singing is performed by two women facing each other. Novalinga says her tribe encourages anyone to learn the skill.
Novalinga treats throat singing as a pastime, but others make it a competitive game of one-upping each other with techniques. One person will lead while another follows, attempting to mimic the same sound as the leader. She and her mom sometimes do it for fun.
“We're playing a game to see who can keep up, who can throat sing the longest,” she says.
During the strict ban on throat singing, Novalinga says four women in the Puvirnituq community in northern Quebec remained skilled in the practice. The four elders passed the ritual to younger generations to keep the tradition alive, she says.
Novalinga’s mother was a student of one of the elders, she says, and is now considered a throat singing professional.
While the sounds may sound guttural to some ears, the act of throat singing doesn’t feel tense to Novalinga. Throat singing actually has a calming aspect to it, she notes. “The Love Song,” for example, is soothing to sing, she says. It’s why many beginners turn to the tune to practice.
Since she started posting throat singing videos online, she’s seen more and more people recognize the beauty in the tradition.
“A lot of people are getting used to it and they're finally seeing the positivity coming out from it and they see what we feel,” she says. “It's just so beautiful to have this kind of connection with everyone.”
Canadian Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq has also been in the spotlight for her collaborations with Icelandic star Björk. Novalinga says she doesn’t fear the tradition will be appropriated with mainstream publicity, she believes sharing throat singing with the world brings awareness to the art and also to the injustices against Indigenous people in Canada.
In one of her posts, Novalinga shared information about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls after a 2014 study found about 1,200 aboriginal women had been murdered or gone missing since the ‘80s.
The massive report found that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada.
Novalinga, who grew up surrounded by supportive and confident women, says it’s in her nature “to help and uplift each other and just spread awareness about what's going on.”
It’s “heartbreaking” to see the problem — which some call a “genocidal crisis” — continuing today, she says.
With a couple million followers on TikTok and hundreds of thousands of fans on Instagram, Novalinga and her mom plan to give listeners even more throat singing content soon with an album. The record will feature traditional songs, some with a modern twist, she says.
She hopes she’ll be the one shepherding the next generation of Indigenous throat singers.
“We really hope that the CD and the music that we made will help people cope with anxiety or what they're dealing with,” she says, “and hopefully will keep our tradition alive as long as possible and teach other Indigenous youth to embrace their identity and want to make a change.”
This segment aired on April 15, 2021.