Nancy Mike knows the challenges of being a musician in Canada’s North all too well.
The throat singer and accordion player for Iqaluit band The Jerry Cans recalls when the band—whose fusion of Inuit throat singing, Inuktitut lyrics, and folk-rock sound have won them an international fanbase—recorded in home studios without adequate equipment, space, or support.
It wasn’t so much out of DIY spirit then because, being in Nunavut, the band didn’t have other options. “It was a struggle for sure,” Mike says.
After recording their second album in Toronto in December 2013, playing a whirlwind of festivals, and learning the ropes of the music industry along the way, The Jerry Cans returned home with a plan to put their newfound knowledge to work.
That’s how, in 2016, Aakuluk Music—Nunavut’s first record label—was born.
“When we started to explore the music business in the south more, that’s when we realized that it would be a great idea to develop something in place to help support local Nunavummiut artists,” Mike says. “Nunavut has such a tightly knit arts community. We’ve always supported each other, but informally, with very little resources or funding.”
A humble, home-run operation that currently has five artists (including The Jerry Cans) on its roster, Aakuluk Music is nonetheless a starting point in a territory bereft of any music industry infrastructure at all, a reality that’s forced many artists down south in search of better recording studios, booking agents, and exposure.
“When artists leave, they take great minds and ideas with them,” Mike says. “Our job is to try to build the knowledge and experience up here so that artists know that they don’t have to leave Nunavut to create something.”
Building that knowledge—helping artists put together a record, organize a tour, promote themselves and their music—takes time, a resource that Mike says is limited at the moment. Members of The Jerry Cans, after all, are still part of a touring band as well as parents and managers for the artists currently signed to Aakuluk, but Mike says the goal is to gradually expand the operation so it can sign and mentor more musicians.
And Aakuluk is already making waves. On top of creating the opportunity for artists to stay in the territory—signees The Trade-O s, Riit, Northern Haze, and Agaaqtoq all hail from Nunavut—the label flipped the script when it hosted the inaugural Nunavut Music Week last September, bringing music industry players from the south to Iqaluit for a change. (The next iteration is scheduled for spring 2019.)
For The Trade-O s’ frontman, Josh Qaumariaq, Aakuluk serves as a good launching pad. Although he thinks the band will still eventually need to move south to get the exposure they want, it feels good, for now, to keep it local.
“We’re all friends, and it’s nice to have that thing where we all know each other,” Qaumariaq says. “And that’s kind of what the North is.”
Nunavut’s music scene, Qaumariaq added, is growing every year and hopefully, with Aakuluk’s help, will continue getting the attention it deserves.
“There’s a lot of good musicians [in Nunavut],” he says, “that need to be heard and are hand-in-hand next to all Canadian music.”