Inuit throat-singing sisters Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Kuliktana Ayalik are preparing for a summer full of festivals. In July, they return home to Yellowknife to perform at Folk on the Rocks.
The sisters’ band, PIQSIQ (pronounced pilk-silk), formed in 2018, merging traditional Inuit throat-singing with modern accompaniment.
Growing up in Yellowknife, the sisters were introduced to throat-singing at a young age. As they grew older, they learned about the damaging effect of colonization on the art form.
They see throat-singing as not just music but a form of decolonization and cultural revitalization.
Mackay and Ayalik say this year’s Folk on the Rocks audience can expect to hear “wacky, wonderful, ethereal, dynamic, fun, spooky, and haunting” music.
Below, read a transcript of Cabin Radio’s full interview with PIQSIQ, exploring how they create the atmosphere and spontaneity that marks out their shows.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Megan Miskiman: How did the two of you start throat-singing?
Tiffany Ayalik: We started throat-singing when we were small, small children. We grew up in Yellowknife, and we spent a lot of time on the land and a lot of time pre-internet. So, we had lots of time to make music together, even when we were kids.
Versions of PIQSIQ have been around for many, many years, and it was just officially in the last four years that we released our first album as PIQSIQ. We’ve been growing and touring and doing music, not just live, but we’ve been doing lots of different recording projects, and some film projects as well. So we’ve been able to grow into a lot of cool areas the last couple of years, but we’re always happy to be coming back and performing in the North.
Who taught you throat-singing? Was it self-taught?
Inuksuk Mackay: A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. We have a lot of people to thank.
We’ve benefited from the skill and instruction of several Inuit women over the years. Starting us off when we were really young, we had our cousin to thank for that. She’s from Kugluktuk and she’s an excellent throat-singer, just absolutely world class. She would ship us these tapes in the mail recorded on cassette, and we would use those to practise. And so, a little bit of instruction, and then we would teach ourselves from those recordings as well.
We would also play around with our own composition. Sometimes we were so hungry to learn a song and there was no one to teach us, so we’d be like, ‘You know what? Let’s just make one. Let’s just make a song, we’ll practise it, and we’ll get our fix that way.’
Why did you choose the name PIQSIQ?
Tiffany Ayalik: PIQSIQ is a very specific type of storm where the wind blows in such a way that it lifts the snow up from the ground and back up into the sky. It’s a really unusual phenomenon. It’s very disorienting, it’s very beautiful. It’s ethereal: is time going backwards? Am I watching something happen in reverse?
It has a really cool effect, scientifically and emotionally and visually, and we resonated with the concept of that. The music that we create is definitely very much in line with that phenomenon, a little unsettling at times, kind-of strange, ethereal, and magical. We felt that was a really great representation of the sonic storm that we like to create with our music.
What is the inspiration behind the music you make?
Inuksuk Mackay: We largely perform improvisation. Using that model, the shows that our audiences are privy to change and no two are the same.
Depending on where we’re at in life, where we’re at on that day, how we’re feeling going into that show, that all informs what we draw on to bring to the audience. When we enter our performance space, we really feel that we’re tapping into a different atmosphere and bringing forth something that’s not totally physical, not totally concrete, a little bit more abstract, a little bit more unknown, and channeling it into our present reality.
The inspiration for throat-singing itself is very environmental – the sounds of nature, animals – and we do carry that theme through, for sure. We are also informed by other elements in our environment, emotional elements, societal elements, and interactive elements as well.
With shows being improvised, do you find songs often go in a different direction than you were expecting?
Tiffany Ayalik: Before each show we take, we have our little rituals individually that we do. Then, we also have our team rituals, where we try to get grounded with each other and have a lot of stillness and listening and connect. That looks different every show as well, but the ritual stays the same, where we really try to just get grounded, find our breath, let the nerves happen or whatever we happen to be feeling in that moment, and take a deliberate moment of active listening with each other in that space. And it could be five minutes, it could be 10 seconds – it’s quite different show to show.
When we do our shows, we don’t have banter between songs. We’re not cracking jokes. We start the show and we buckle in, we buckle up for a ride and we ask the audience to come with us. So once we jump into this river, we are swimming along and we don’t always know where it’s going. I think what we’ve really learned and developed as our style is having no preconceived expectation of where something is going to go, and we take turns making offers and picking up an offer that the other person makes and running with it. ‘Oh, yeah, that was a great lick. Here, I’m going to throw a harmony onto that.’
Inuksuk Mackay: And you can’t be a control freak with improv. You can’t be a perfectionist, you really need to submit to the process and trust that your partner knows what they’re doing. It’s a two-person show, you’re both making offers, you’re both submitting to the other person’s direction at times and taking the lead yourself. We are lucky enough to have a great rapport with each other and be able to take charge and relinquish control, off and on, as we progress through a track.
Tiffany Ayalik: It’s scary. It’s a scary place to be and it’s very vulnerable, too. We really enjoy creating from that place of not knowing what’s going to happen, where it’s going to go, and that’s scary and awesome and incredibly electric and dynamic. I think audiences really like being in that place with us. It feels like they’re part of it.
Do you share a sort of intimacy with the audience that is unique to throat-singing?
Tiffany Ayalik: There’s an intimacy in the way that we frame the magic of the room. It’s almost like there are rules within. When we come out on stage, we immediately know what space we want to be creating, and then it almost creates this invisible framework that the entire room is agreeing to enter in with us.
Inuksuk Mackay: There is innately an intimacy in throat-singing because, if you’ve observed the way it happens, you’re standing very, very close to your partner, you can smell each other’s breath, you can see every little expression on their face, you feel their movements as you sway back and forth. I don’t think we’re unique from other throat-singers in that regard. I think that’s an element we share with our fellow performers. What we do is also heightened, though, in the fact that we are sisters, we’ve been through so much together. We share joy, we share pain, we’ve been through our own conflicts and ruptures and repairs. That adds an extra layer of intimacy that I’m sure is felt in the room while we’re performing.
Tiffany Ayalik: The other thing that is really beautiful about bridging technology with a traditional form that we’re doing is we have microphones. The faintest little breath or sigh we make can feel incredibly loud.
Even if an audience member is 30 feet away from us, through this style of singing, a whisper, a breath, a sigh can feel like it’s happening right beside them and can put a chill up somebody’s spine. There’s this augmented intimacy because technology allows the listener to close their eyes and imagine we’re two feet away from them, surrounding them with sound.
You were involved in a music workshop program earlier this month called AIRSessions. Is it something you do often?
Tiffany Ayalik: Oh, that was lovely. We had such a wonderful time with some really amazing artists who are working together to support each other in navigating the music industry in various ways as Indigenous musicians in Canada. We’re not experts, for sure, but we have areas where we do have knowledge and expertise, and we’re also learning all the time. We’re really happy to share and offer what we do know to help folks shape their artistic, creative music journeys, everywhere from managing social media to how to get your stuff on track. We enjoy doing that type of work.
Inuksuk Mackay: We do it quite a bit. The AIRsessions mentorship is organized by Ila Barker in Manitoba, and that was the second or third time we’ve done that. The nice thing about the whole world discovering Zoom, and that we don’t have to always be in the same spot together, is it enabled us to do probably 10 different mentorships and workshops over the past year. On one Zoom call there are throat-singers or musicians from Vancouver and Kugluktuk and Edmonton and Newfoundland. To get this instant community virtually happening and making connections across the country, where maybe I didn’t even know that there were throat-singers, is a really cool way to connect with different aspects of the music community.
Are the two of you excited for Folk?
Inuksuk Mackay: We’re so stoked. We haven’t performed in Yellowknife before as PIQSIQ so this is very, very exciting.
Tiffany Ayalik: People at Folk can expect to see and hear wacky, wonderful, ethereal, dynamic, fun, spooky, haunting Inuit-ness.
Inuksuk Mackay: Yellowknife is really unique, especially in the summer with the 24-hour sun. I haven’t experienced a lot of places that have that vibe: a festival that’s outdoors, near the lake, really in nature, and that ethereal effect of having sun at midnight and these performances going on. You see the photos and it could be 3pm or it could be 10pm, and that already has a pretty magical quality. To be able to perform in an environment like that, that we’re really familiar with, that we grew up in – I’m excited to see how it informs our improvisation.
Are you doing other festivals this summer?
Inuksuk Mackay: We have a packed schedule. We’re doing at least one, sometimes as many as three a weekend. It’s the busiest we’ve ever been and it’s going to be in contrast to the quieter, non-existent touring summers of the last two years, so we’re preparing for the madness and to hit the ground running and immerse ourselves in this for the next several months. I’m really grateful that we were able to do the live-streaming thing, but to have the interaction with the live audience is unparalleled.
Tiffany Ayalik: Most of the festivals are announcing their lineups, and we’ve been kind-of under wraps for a few of them. As all of the festivals are pretty close to announcing all of their lineups, people can follow us on our Instagram, Facebook, our website and our Bandcamp and we’ll be posting our entire summer and fall tour shortly. We are doing something like 40 performances over the next couple of months.
We’ve got shows coming up in the fall as well, and we’re working on finishing a full-length album. We are doing some really cool stuff with some different television composition and film composition that we can’t quite talk about yet, but you can stay tuned. We’ve been really lucky to be able to get our fingers into several different types of music and not just focus on the live performance aspect, so we’re really, really excited for it. There’s always lots on the stove.