They are classics by Pink Floyd, Queen and Metallica like you’ve never heard them. Translated into her Inuit language, singer Elisapie uses them to convey the hopes and trauma of Canada’s Indigenous people.
“It’s funny – it’s an album of covers but it’s my most personal album,” the award-winning singer, whose full name is Elisapie Isaac, told AFP during a trip to Paris.
Elisapie, 46, grew up in Salluit, a small village in Nunavik, the northernmost region of Quebec, accessible only by plane from the big cities.
She already had a following in Canada for her blend of folk, pop and traditional Inuit music.
But her new album of covers entitled Inuktitut, the language of her region, has brought a glut of new fans internationally – not least after Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich shared her gentle but emotional version of their hit The Unforgiven (renamed “Isumagijunnaitaungituq”) on social media.
“Metallica were like our big brothers. They protected us for the duration of a song, telling us: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re sad, if you want to scream,'” she recalled.
Elisapie also got a personal message from Blondie singer Debbie Harry, praising her cover of their 1979 hit Heart Of Glass (“Uummati Attanarsimata”).
Like many Indigenous communities in Canada, hers remains haunted by memories of the residential schools into which thousands of children were forced from the 19th century right up to the 1990s.
Abuse was common and children were banned, often violently, from speaking their ancestral languages or practising their traditions – a system now condemned as “cultural genocide”.
Other songs on the album include covers of The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horse (“Qimmijuat”), Queen’s I Want To Break Free (“Qimatsilunga”) and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (“Qaisimalaurittuq”).
The latter is particularly poignant for Elisapie, bringing to mind the many Inuit people lost to suicide, including her own cousin.
“All the music that I listened to when I was young in the 1980s brought back warm, dancing memories,” she said.
“But it also awakened everything that was happening around us – the effects of colonisation, sedentarisation… residential schools. Everything that made my people suffer,” Elisapie said, who has also worked as a social worker, activist and journalist.
She described her region’s high suicide rate as the “Arctic pandemic” and recalled how her cousin had failed to find her place in a world torn between tradition and modernity, ultimately taking her own life.
The album is designed to heal old wounds but also bring hope to a community that has “been so ignored, as if no one lives in our northern regions, as if it’s just a big white wall,” said Elisapie.
“This record is meant to say that we are good, that we are beautiful, that we are worth something, that we can be listened to,” she added. – AFP