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Northern Haze

It was the early seventies in Igloolik, a tiny Canadian Arctic hamlet with a population of about 1000, when a group of young Inuit men began learning and playing some real, gritty rock and roll music. The self-taught musicians – Kolitalik Inukshuk, Naisana Qamaniq, James Ungalaq, Elijah Kunnuk, and John Inooya – played with various other bands before coming together to form their own ensemble in 1984, called Northern Haze. Jamming at first on homemade guitars and a plastic Disney drum set, the band gained local recognition while performing at community dances in their hometown.

In 1985, Northern Haze released their first record, the self-titled Northern Haze, through the CBC. All of the original music featured lyrics in Inuktitut, making this the first Indigenous-language rock album recorded in North America. Rousing guitar riffs reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin mix with traditional Inuit songs and stories to make a sound that is uniquely theirs, and a special representation of Canada’s far North.

After the release of the record, Northern Haze were invited to perform at large festivals across the country, including Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife and the 1986 Expo in Vancouver. They also continued to perform in Northern communities, including their hometown of Igloolik.

Northern Haze was hit with a double bout of tragedy in 2007, when Elijah passed away that year from cancer, and Kolitalik was murdered just a few days later.

The band’s three remaining members – James, John, and Naisana – continue to play and record music, with the addition of new bassist, Derek Aqqiaruq. Northern Haze recorded three new songs in 2010, and played a show every night at The Snow Festival in Puvirnituq, Nunavik in 2011. Most recently, Northern Haze released Sinaaktuq (2012) with the help of producer Jason Flowers, a record that contains all of their recordings, from the eighties into the 2000’s.

Northern Haze has recently signed to Aakuluk Music, Nunavut’s first and only record label, and in late 2018 released Siqinnaarut, Northern Haze’s first new recording since the 80s, the band delivers one of the most gloriously improbable and uncommonly special releases of the year. From the opening gut-rattling growl of Inuk to the final power chords of “Inuusivut II,” Siqinnaarutis a thrilling, riff-heavy treasure.

Northern Haze It was the early seventies in Igloolik, a tiny Canadian Arctic hamlet with a population of about 1000, when a group of young Inuit men began learning and playing some real, gritty

After 33 Years, Northern Haze Is Back With New Album ‘Siqinnaarut’

After 33 Years, Northern Haze Is Back With New Album ‘Siqinnaarut’

In 1985, an album from a decidedly far-flung place put the band Northern Haze on the map. James Ungalaq talks to NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about his band’s new album and their the music lives on.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On a week when some Americans experience bitterly cold temperatures, perhaps it’s appropriate we spend some time with a band that knows all about life subzero, Northern Haze.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SINNAKTUQ”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Singing in Inuktitut).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Northern Haze is from Igloolik. That’s a village in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. In 1985, they made a name for themselves with this debut album, said to be the first indigenous-language rock album recorded in North America. The group lost its bass player to cancer in 2007, followed just days later by tragedy when another player was murdered. Now, 30 years later, they have a new album. It’s called “Siqinnaarut,” meaning return of the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INUK”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Vocalizing, singing in Inuktitut).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Northern Haze bandleader James Ungalaq joins us from the studios of the CBC in Nunavut. Welcome to the program.

JAMES UNGALAQ: Thank you very much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first of all, the title of the album, “Return Of The Sun” – I can imagine that up there, when the sun returns, it’s a big deal.

UNGALAQ: Yes, it is. It starts to get bright again. People see more of the landscape. It’s beautiful during that time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s been 30 years since you were able to make an album. And so I guess the return of the sun is also the return of you to the spotlight.

UNGALAQ: That’s it. We had the idea go around amongst us for a while. And it was a perfect time for our new album.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did it take so long, these 30 years?

UNGALAQ: We’ve been playing music all along in our shed and our houses, John’s living room and Derek’s porch.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your band members.

UNGALAQ: We’ve been playing music all the time. We just haven’t come out in the open. Finally everything just connected together so well. And we had an opportunity to put out an album. So there it is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to take you back to a painful time, which is 2007. How did you and your band members cope with the loss of two players?

UNGALAQ: Oh, boy. We played a lot of tunes. We cried a lot. And after crying, we started to get happy again, you know, and get over the grievance.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHERN HAZE SONG, “ANGAJUSAKULUK”)

UNGALAQ: Music is wonderful. It’s a medicine. It’s – I don’t know how. But music, it helped us cope with all our troubles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There’s a song on the album dedicated to your bass player, Elijah, who died from cancer. Let’s listen to a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ANGAJUSAKULUK”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Singing in Inuktitut).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the title mean?

UNGALAQ: It means brother, older brother, step-older-brother, to be exact. We wrote that song to help him fight his battles to show him we’re with him during his struggles, and he’s not forgotten. After he passed, it helped us cope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “INUUSIVUT II”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Singing in Inuktitut).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking of family, your son Derek now plays bass in the band. And we hear him sing on the album. What was it like to bring your son into the Northern Haze band? Are you passing the torch?

UNGALAQ: I don’t know if I’m passing the torch, but he certainly stole a lot of the show. He’s very talented, for sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand in these 30 years that you haven’t made an album you actually make a living seal and narwhal hunting. Do you and your son spend time hunting together?

UNGALAQ: As much as we could – yeah. That’s what I want to do more when I get home. I mean, we’re regular Canadian Eskimo in Igloolik and just have our guitars and get together and have fun – what I love about my small community, isolated and frozen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Isolated and frozen – let’s listen to another track on the album. The liner notes say this is inspired by the band Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHERN HAZE SONG, “IRAQ”)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People may recognize the riffs from Boston’s “Peace Of Mind” in that one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you and your bandmates listen to a lot of American rock growing up?

UNGALAQ: Yes, we did. We listened to Jimi Hendrix and Thin Lizzy and Pink Floyd and Dire Straits and all those guitar players, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “IRAQ”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Singing in Inuktitut).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many native communities have gravitated towards hard rock. What is it about that genre that is so appealing?

UNGALAQ: I don’t know. I think, like, young people – everybody loved Elvis or Beatles, you know? I don’t know what makes us love rock ‘n’ roll, you know, in the North in isolated places. I think it’s raw.

UNIDENTIFIED NORTHERN HAZE MEMBER: We like anything raw.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can hear your bandmates in the background. You like anything raw.

UNGALAQ: The poetry and the music message, you know? – all those things together, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHERN HAZE SONG, “QAINNA”)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: James Ungalaq from the band Northern Haze, thank you so very much.

UNGALAQ: (Speaking Inuktitut). Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “QAINNA”)

NORTHERN HAZE: (Singing in Inuktitut).

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Correction Feb. 3, 2019

A previous version of this story misspelled James Ungalaq’s last name as Ungalq.

In 1985, an album from a decidedly far-flung place put the band Northern Haze on the map. James Ungalaq talks to NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about his band’s new album and their the music lives on.