Katajjaq (“throat singing”) is a form of vocal performance that is unique to the Inuit – and for which the Nunavimmiut are particularly well known.
A singing tradition that goes back many generations, katajjaq is performed by two or more women who produce short vocal patterns and motifs at a certain cadence, exchanging and interweaving the sounds so that they become a single rhythmic and sometimes melodic flow.
To sing a katajjaq song, partners stand face to face and hold one another’s arms, sometimes swaying to the rhythm of the music. The women must have keen ears, be able to adapt quickly and have excellent breathing stamina.
The patterns, whether voiced or unvoiced, can be based on words, meaningless sounds or the imitation of daily or animal noises. The songs may evoke a human or animal activity, but sometimes they are just a playful competition, with the loser being whichever woman stops first, either because she has run out of breath or bursts out laughing.
Here are four katajjaq illustrated with visual transcripts showing the various components:
Representing the sounds of puppies, this throat song is based on recognizable patterns (illustrated below by A, B, C, D and E). These patterns are made from the exchange of sounds between the singers. They are sung in sequences of variable durations, which are themselves repeated. In the visual transcription, the singers’ voices are represented by lines 1 and 2 and the patterns identified by the color changes.
This first Competition song is composed of patterns of exchanges between the singers.
In this transcript, singers are represented by A and B, around a central line. Patterns are identified by blocks of color. There are also sounds of rhythmic gasps, combining inspirations and expirations, which can be visualized, amongst others, by the white “hooks”.
The transcript of this second Competition song illustrates the general melody with the help of a simplified music staff of three lines, where differences in pitch can be visualized.
In this case, the exchange between the singers is shown by alternating colors and the different patterns identified by blocks of color.
This kattajaq evoques mosquito sounds. The following transcript illustrates variations in pitch, using a simplified three-line staff.
The exchange between the singers is illustrated by alternating colors. Note the whooping sounds (shown by the blue dots) as well as the rhythm created by the rapid succession of inhaling and exhaling.
Here are three more kattajaq songs, this time without visual transcripts.