Before colonization and meeting Europeans, the frame drum (called qilaat in Greenlandic) was the primary musical instrument among Eskimo peoples throughout the north. A drum performance is typically some combination of playing the drum, dancing and singing, but it is also one part acting as sometimes the drum dancer changes his or her facial expressions and appearance. For example, drum dancers can put a stick crossways in their mouth so that the cheeks are large and misshapen, and the voice becomes altered.
Watch drum dancing here.
"A drum performance is typically some combination of playing the drum, dancing and singing, but it is also one part acting as sometimes the drum dancer changes his or her facial expressions and appearance."
"For example, drum dancers can put a stick crossways in their mouth so that the cheeks are large and misshapen, and the voice becomes altered."
The drum’s functions are many. One way it was used was in song fights where opponents expressed their dissatisfaction for each other through song. There could very well be violence during song fighting, such as hitting in the head or other physical impact, but the purpose was always to clear the air between the two. The battle was also about making the opponent break down and show weakness in front of the audience, which could perhaps be compared to the present day rap battle. In some instances, it was achieved with such great success that the loser subsequently had to move to another settlement.
When the first missionaries came to Greenland in 1721, their aim was to convert Greenlanders to Christianity. Many of them also worked to annihilate these forms of drum dancing and singing because they interpreted them as hedonistic rituals. The result is that the tradition has nearly been completely lost, but today locals are trying to revive it.
Kalattuut – Greenlandic polka
The first influences on the Greenlandic music culture, which came from the south, were from European whalers that landed on Greenland’s west coast, and so started contact and trade between locals and Europeans in the late 1500’s.
In addition to trading goods, the European sailors brought their own kind of dance and music, to which Greenlanders took a liking. Thus started another music and dance tradition in Greenland - the Greenlandic polka, or kalattuut.
In order to play the particular music which the polka craves, new instruments like the violin, harmonica, and organ got imported to Greenland.
Watch Greenlandic polka dancing here.
Kalattuut means “something Greenlandic in nature” and highlights the important role that music and dance plays in Greenlandic culture. Today, the Greenlandic polka is a standard cultural element and dancing the polka is a common free-time activity.
It was important to the missionaries that Greenlanders quickly learned to read and write so that they could understand The Bible. It is said to be one of the key events that contributed to the development of written Greenlandic language.
The first international influence
When the missionary, Hans Egede, came to Greenland to convert locals to Christianity, he brought with him the tradition of hymnal singing. The locals adopted this style of song, but interestingly, one can find elements of the Greenlandic hymnal singing that are completely unique from European choirs and hymns like, for example, the syllable aja which comes from drum dancing.
Over time, choirs and hymns have become an important element in Greenland’s national culture. Today, many towns have at least one performing choir.
Watch Greenlandic choir music here.
Contact with the greater world
When the Kingdom of Denmark colonised Greenland, it strategized to keep Greenland isolated from the rest of the world because Greenlanders were so-called ‘primitive people’ and should thus be protected from a sudden influx of modernity from Europe.
And so Greenland remained highly isolated, until World War II. When Germany occupied Denmark, Greenlanders suddenly lost access to the goods they had grown accustomed to. Germany saw great opportunities for its air force in having a station in Greenland, which Denmark did not want, so Denmark made an agreement with USA to oversee and protect Greenland in its stead. As a result, USA got permission to build military bases in many places throughout the country.
"Through the establishment of these bases, the radio became increasingly important in Greenland, and suddenly Greenlanders in most of the country were listening to American music."
Greenland's Music History, Part 2
In the next article, take a further look at how Greenland’s modern music scene, which dominates the industry today, developed after the Second World War.
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