From the moment I departed Greenland on 2nd March
2017 I’ve been yearning to go back, so it was with great excitement that I
landed again in Nuuk airport, this time with husband and fellow viola player,
Nuuk was, of course, looking very different from when I left
it – then it was covered in deep snow and we had temperatures down to -24C,
this time it was the height of summer with temperatures into the +20s! The plus
point of that was the prospect of exploring some of the backcountry on foot and
We weren’t performing on this occasion, but it would, of
course, be impossible to visit Greenland and not be influenced by its vibrant
culture and stunning landscapes.
One of my aims of the trip was to get my hands on some more Greenlandic musical material and also learn a little bit more about the stories behind the music. A real find was a CD of Traditional Greenlandic Music recorded between 1905 and 1984 and collected by Danish ethnomusicologist Michael Hauser. The CD has music from all around the country and also from the Inuit of Canada. Songs from the drum dance tradition, innerutit, include songs expressing moods and feelings (anersaatit), songs for children (aqaatit), competitive songs from the Thule region in the far north (mumerutit) and the duel songs from East Greenland (pisit). It is one of these last group that forms the basis of an improvisation that I have performed on previous occasions. You can also watch an East Greenlander from Kulusuk performing here.
Most of the songs are strophic and conform to a local style,
though there are often suffixes that allow for personal expression.
Turning to music of a more modern style, David and I were lucky enough to attend the dress rehearsal at the National Theatre of a performance of songs by Laarseeraq Svendsen, courtesy of my violinist friend, Hanne Saandvig Immanuelsen. The music was a light jazzy style, and, whilst the songs were performed in Greenlandic, it wasn’t hard to see characters you’d recognise almost anywhere. The light-hearted humour came across from the wonderfully engaging singers and I also enjoyed songs about the Northern Lights and other aspects of Greenlandic nature. The production toured Southern Greenland and culminated with the annual festival “Grønland i Tivoli” in Copenhagen on 30th/31st July.
Culture and History
With an eye on Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters in 2020,
one of the topics I’m particularly interested in just now is the whaling
industry stretching back to the 18th century and its links all the
way across the North Sea and North Atlantic from Hull in my birth-county of
Yorkshire, England, up the east coast of Scotland, through the Northern Isles
and Faroes and on to Greenland. As the museum in Ilulissat stated,
“Blubber=Money”! Blubber was used for lamp oil and cooking and fur from hunted
animals was used in clothing.
But it’s not blubber I’m interested in, but rather the musical links. Sailors from Denmark and Scotland took their fiddles with them and danced and celebrated with the local people, exchanging dances including polkas. There are several Shetland tunes referring to Greenland (The Merry Boys of Greenland and Widefjord) and the Greenlandic polkas would certainly not seem so alien to Orcadians. When I was in Orkney I had met Len Wilson who had several relatives who sailed on the whalers to Greenland, so it’s interesting to visit the coastlines up the west coast of Greenland where these men journeyed and took their fiddles. There’s an excellent book on this subject by Shetland fiddle player, Maurice Henderson.
Nature and Landscape
Nowadays, of course, commercial whaling has vanished. Whale
is still an essential food source for Greenlanders but it is hunted to strict
quotas. Like any of us, the Greenlanders are also in awe of these beautiful
creatures and just as likely to watch them swimming in Nuuk Fjord or Disko Bay.
I’ve waited a long time to see a whale and so it was an incredible feeling to
finally see these magnificent animals at the Ice Fjord in Ilulissat. I was also
pleased to see them in the way I wanted to – quietly with just the two of us
rather than in a large tourist group. I’m pretty sure we were watching
humpbacks, though minkes and fin whales also visit these waters. They are big
and yet graceful, slipping through the water in a soft arc, brandishing their
large tails. I love the noise they make as they blow. A gentle yet powerful
sound which I could hear from my tent 15mins walk away in the middle of the
Emily Doolittle’s piece “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” is already one of my favourite pieces to perform – I’m not quite sure how it’ll feel to duet with a humpback now I’ve actually seen one – even more moving, I’d imagine. I plan to play this piece again both in Coll on 21st September and at the Shoormal Conference in Shetland earlier that week.
Another inspiring sound was that of the ice fjord. The
enormous icebergs in the UNESCO World Heritage site at Ilulissat become
grounded as they reach the end of the 1000m deep fjord and get trapped on the
lip of the trench, which is just a few hundred metres deep. Some of these
icebergs are as big as an island, so you can imagine the forces acting on them,
especially considering the glacier moves at a rate of 30-40m a day –
exceptionally fast in glacial terms. The ice is constantly creaking and
groaning and every now and again, something large fractures, letting off a “thundercrack.”
When the balance shifts in an iceberg, it topples, displacing water, sometimes
to the point of creating a mini-Tsunami.
Finally, the sound of dogs howling is synonymous with settlements north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland. It’s by no means constant, but come feeding time, all hell breaks loose! Throughout the day and night, small skirmishes break out in the packs, leading to more baying. Some people find it hard to sleep with this noise, but personally I love lying in my tent in the broad daylight of an arctic “night” listening to the sounds around as life never stops in the high-energy 24 hour daylight.
Last night I went to a performance of “Kiinalik” at the Edinburgh Festival by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry. These remarkable artists come from two opposites sides of Canada: Toronto and Nunavut and Laakkuluk is half-British, half-Greenlandic. In just under 2 hours they explored issues relating to the colonisation of the Arctic, climate change and intertwined histories. It culminated in an immensely powerful Uaajeerneq (Mask Dance) by Laakkuluk. She describes uaajeerneq as playing with “four main themes: our humility as human beings in the vastness of the universe and our connection to our ancestors, sex, fear, and hilarity”. I was privileged to share the performance with a close friend and this performance said more about the issues confronting the Arctic (and, by extension, all of us) than I ever could attempt. It was one of the most sincere performances, full of integrity, I have ever witnessed. Despite having visited Greenland on several occasions now, it left me with a lot of food for thought.