• Beyond the Gallery

How Inuit Community Members Respond to Elisapie’s New Album

Nov 01, 2023
by IAQ

This article contains a discussion of suicide. Support is available 24 hours a day for those affected and/or who may be triggered by this content at Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566.

Debuting at number one on iTunes’ Canadian chart, Nunavik singer-songwriter Elisapie’s new album Inuktitut (2023) was an album that came with serious buzz. Filled with 10 Inuktitut versions of classic rock and pop songs adapted and translated from musical icons like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, it made waves months before the September release when the initial single “Uummati Attanarsimat (Heart of Glass)” went viral, endorsed by no less than Blondie’s Debbie Harry herself.

Inuktitut is the fourth solo album from an artist whose last release, The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, was nominated for Indigenous Album of the Year at the 2019 Juno Awards and shortlisted for the 2019 Polaris Prize. Each track on Inuktitut is inspired by a person or memory from Elisapie’s past, captured in these songs that once filled the airwaves of radio stations across Northern Quebec.

“During the pandemic, I started listening to old hits when I went jogging, and I often came home with tears in my eyes,” Elisapie told Elle Canada about the beginnings of the album. “Certain songs brought back really pointed memories and started taking on special meaning for me.” She chose which songs to include on the album based on which of the tracks she was listening to made her cry.

For the singer, adapting these works into Inuktitut became an act of healing and cultural reappropriation, a deeply personal and emotional project meant to offer the songs back to her community as a gift. Here, four Inuit artists reflect on the album as a whole and the impact it has had on them.

For the first single off the album, Elisapie chose “Uummati Attanarsimat (Heart of Glass),” a cover of the famous Blondie song. “I have childhood memories associated with it—I see legs and butts swaying, bobbing hair and, most of all, colours. Babysitters gathered in the dance hall, and us kids found our way in too, because up north it’s a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to child care—everyone takes care of everyone,” says Elisapie about the memories that inspired the song choice. [1]

That sense of memory is shared by listeners like Lydia Audlaluk, a jeweller from Montreal, QC, who also grew up in Nunavik. “Listening to the album has been so nostalgic for me,” she says. “The songs that Elisapie translated are songs that my mom loves, so I grew up listening to them. To be able to hear them in my mother tongue is so meaningful. Elisapie's rendition of these songs are all so beautiful, it brings me so much joy.”

The second single “Taimangalimaaq (Time After Time)” also holds echoes of Elisapie’s childhood. “I couldn't separate the song or the artist from my older cousin Susie,” she told Exclaim. “I was in awe of my older girl cousins… One of my favourite memories is listening to the radio with them and hearing Cyndi Lauper's ‘Time After Time’ for the first time. It was like a lightning bolt… For me, the song was all about [Susie’s] search for beauty, connection, love and rising above pain.”

However, the path to recording this and several of the other tracks on the album wasn’t smooth. Creating versions of the songs in Inuktitut required securing rights from the original artists and publishers—a year-long process that involved using multiple channels to get in touch with artists and rights-holders. Lauper’s was one of the last rights they secured, accomplishing it just a week before Elisapie’s self-imposed deadline elapsed.

But that determination to secure rights to these famous songs has had huge payoff for listeners. “These are songs I grew up with, close to my heart, and they fill me with nostalgia,” says Deantha Edmunds,  a classical musician and performer from St. John’s, NL, whose own work has often involved adapting opera and classical music to other languages. “To hear such unique covers in these new ways—with different instruments, throat singing and in the rich Inuktitut language—just makes me so happy. ” Like Elisapie, these songs strike an emotional chord with Edmunds. “The rawness goes straight to my heart and I often find myself tearing up as I listen. What a wonderful release!”

Two of the songs on the album, “Qaisimalaurittuq (Wish You Were Here)” and “Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free),” are performed in tribute to cousins who died by suicide. In recording the album, Elisapie worked to honour their memories and embrace the healing that comes from talking about lost loved ones and telling their stories. “[In Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free)] I see my cousin who wanted to break free because we also all want to break free because we've suffered so much. We need to feel light again, and we're trying to find that lightness,” Elisapie told CBC. “It's so hard. But through dance, through this song, we're able to feel free, even if we're drunk at 3 a.m. and in a shitty bar."

“Elisapie has such a powerful voice,” says Simik Komaksiutiksak, a dancer and circus performer from Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU, who worked with Elisapie to translate this sense of freedom into dance for the “Qimatsilunga (I Want to Break Free)” music video. “Working with her was very inspiring…she’s such a natural talent and genuine person.”

Many other tracks on the album also tug at dark themes and memories, like “Isumagijunnaitaungituq (The Unforgiven),” adapted from Metallica. “As a teenager, I only wanted to hang around the gang of boys in my village,” Elisapie told Rolling Stone. “The band’s music allowed us to delve into the darkness of our broken souls and feel good there. It felt like we were being told it’s OK to be sad.” An understated and mournful take on Metallica’s heavy ballad, Elisapie’s version—softly sung, with sparse instrumentation that builds to a sonorous climax of vocals, drums, bass saxophone and synth—channels that acceptance of sadness, grief and feelings of alienation.

Despite or perhaps because of these heavier undertones, listeners describe how emotionally healing the album has been for them. “Reminiscently impactful, Elisapie’s new album Inuktitut is a melodic blend of modern songs sung gently in Inuktitut that fuses our worlds together and makes me feel whole,” says Katherine Takpannie, a photographer from Ottawa, ON.

The emotional resonance of the album continues to be felt back in Nunavik, where the tracks are playing across the airwaves just as the original English versions did. “I would love to be there every time someone in my community listens to a song from Inuktitut for the first time,” said Elisapie about her hopes for the future, sharing that when her biological mother listened, it was striking to watch her respond to “The Unforgiven” in Inuktitut for the first time. [2] “This 72-year old lady [was] recognizing the melody her children, nieces and nephews listened to in the ’90s and finally understanding the lyrics. That’s the kind of thing that touches me the most. That’s the beauty of music.”

[1] Laurie Dupont, “Elisapie Creates Songs for a Future Self,” Elle Canada, September 5, 2023, https://www.ellecanada.com/culture/music/elisapie-interview 
[2] Ibid.


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