Return of Inuktitut rockers Northern Haze

by Derek Neary- November 8, 2018

“I’m getting old.”

That’s what happens when 33 years pass between one album and the next.

“We lived the Canadian dream. We’re broke but we’re happy,” says Northern Haze lead vocalist James Ungalaq. From left, band members John Inooya, Allan Kangok, Ungalaq, Derek Aqqiaruq and Naisana Qamaniq. photo courtesy of Aakuluk Music

On Nov. 23, revered Iglulik-based rockers Northern Haze, led by aging front man James Ungalaq, will release Siqinnaarut, their first album since the mid-1980s.

Much has changed over that span. Original band members Elijah Kunnuk and Kolatalik Inukshuk both died after Northern Haze’s self-titled debut album came out in 1985. Allan Kangok and Derek Aqqiaruq, Ungalaq’s son, stepped in to fill the void.

Nevertheless, Kunnuk and Inukshuk’s influence is still strong, according to Ungalaq.

“Imagine you lose two very prominent people in your group. Of course, they never go away,” he said. “They’re gone physically but their spirits are still very close to us forever… I grew up with them. They’re my relatives. Whenever we play music we think about them.”

Angajusakuluk, one of Northern Haze’s best-known hits, was inspired by Kunnuk’s battle with terminal cancer. The song became an anthem of encouragement for many people, Ungalaq acknowledged.
“Everybody just went crazy over it,” he said, adding that it was one of the highlights of his musical career.

Although Aakuluk Music indicates that people who like Black Sabbath, The Misfits and Blue Oyster Cult will probably dig Northern Haze’s gritty style, Ungalaq eschews comparisons to legendary bands.

“Those guys are rock gods. They’re way far higher than we are, for sure,” he said, but he did acknowledge that the Iglulik rockers have always aspired to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix.

One advantage Northern Haze enjoys compared to internationally-acclaimed acts is singing in Inuktitut, which creates a special connection with many Nunavummiut.

“I think the most appreciated part of Northern Haze is we play in our language,” said Ungalaq. “We’ve got to save our language – it’s saving ourselves. It’s survival.”

‘Amazing’ emerging talent

The Nunavut music scene has grown and evolved a great deal since Northern Haze was formed. Ungalaq said he’s in awe of the emerging talent and the increasing resources for Northern artists.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’m so impressed. I’m so happy with how it’s growing really fast now.”

Asked what he thinks draws Inuit to music, he suggested that it’s always been part of the culture through ayaya and drumming – another means to celebrate the land and the sun. Perhaps not coincidentally, Siqinnaarut is an Inuit word that hails the return of the sun after months of darkness.

But it’s not all euphoric. Some tunes communicate conflict and perhaps may be a catalyst to help find solutions to various challenges, Ungalaq said.

The lead single from Siqinnaarut, titled Inuk, conveys a deep sense of anger. Unqalaq shouts jarringly in Inuktitut for the first several seconds.

“It’s identifying with my struggles. I mean, I’m a complete Inuk. I have my uniqueness, and over the years it’s deteriorated because of assimilation, residential schools, churches and justice and everything else,” he explained. “Why I wrote that song is to really show myself that I’m a complete Inuk who is not less than anybody else – to fight assimilation, to fight colonialism. It’s a punch-back… I hope it shows that we haven’t lost everything.”

Inuk is one of 10 tracks on the new album, which was recorded in Iqaluit in January.

Now 54, Ungalaq said he can see himself performing the new and old tunes on stage during events in Iglulik, but his days of going on tour are over.

“I’m done. I’m finished… I can’t do this forever,” he said of his rocker lifestyle. “I’m not travelling anymore. I’ll pass on the good stuff, the touring and playing venues, to my son (Derek) and friends… I want to live a private life with my grandchildren. I don’t have many more years left. I’ve been away over 33 years, away from my children, away from my grandchildren. When festival season comes up, we had to prepare. I was away a lot of time.

“It’s time to come home and grow old. I want to spend my last few years very close to my family.”

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