Music of Greenland

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Julie Berthelsen, Greenlandic-Danish singer, performing in Copenhagen, 2007 Julie Berthelsen Tivoli Garden 15th June 2007.png
Julie Berthelsen, Greenlandic-Danish singer, performing in Copenhagen, 2007

The music of Greenland is a mixture of two primary strands, Inuit and Danish, mixed with influences from the United States and United Kingdom.

Traditional Inuit music, the music of the Inuit, has been based on drums used in dance music as far back as can be known, and a vocal style called katajjaq has become of interest in Canada and abroad. Yupik music is the music of the Yupik peoples. Eskimo music is Inuit-Yupik music. Iñupiat music is the music of the Iñupiat.

Denmark Constitutional monarchy in Europe

Denmark, officially the Kingdom of Denmark, is a Nordic country. Denmark proper, which is the southernmost of the Scandinavian countries, consists of a peninsula, Jutland, and an archipelago of 443 named islands, with the largest being Zealand, Funen and the North Jutlandic Island. The islands are characterised by flat, arable land and sandy coasts, low elevation and a temperate climate. The southernmost of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark lies southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and is bordered to the south by Germany. The Kingdom of Denmark also includes two autonomous territories in the North Atlantic Ocean: the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Denmark has a total area of 42,924 km2 (16,573 sq mi), land area of 42,394 km2 (16,368 sq mi), and the total area including Greenland and the Faroe Islands is 2,210,579 km2 (853,509 sq mi), and a population of 5.8 million.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.


Greenland's musical character has been described as "definitely a rock country, both musically and literally" according to Greenlandic drummer Hans Rosenberg. [1] The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes all Greenlandic music except the drum dances as influenced by external styles. [2]

Hans Rosenberg, who was born on February 26, 1904 in Hannover and died on June 26, 1988 in Freiburg, was a German refugee historian whose works influenced a whole generation of post-war German scholars.

Folk music

The Inuit and the Danish peoples of Greenland have both maintained their distinct styles of folk music. Country-wide folk traditions included storytelling, which declined greatly after the introduction of the South Greenland Printing Press in 1857.

Storytelling Social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment

Storytelling describes the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters and narrative point of view.

Traditional music which has best survived European contact can be found in the east and northeast of the island. It includes sacred drum dances played on an oval drum made of a wooden frame with a bear-bladder on top. [3] Drum dances are the "only truly indigenous music" in Greenland, and are part of a roots revival in modern times. [2] Shamans used drums as part of their religious affairs and sometimes organized singing duels between rivals in which the performer who got the most laughs from the audience won. [4] Inuit drum dances were a declining tradition and in modern Greenland are being replaced by amateur theater groups like Silamiut, who used elements of indigenous music with masks, face painting and other techniques. [5] Piseq are a form of personal song that comment on daily life; these are often handed down from generation to generation. Greenlandic Inuit folk songs are performed to tell stories, play games and tease or charm others. [3]

Bear Family of mammals

Bears are carnivoran mammals of the family Ursidae. They are classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans. Although only eight species of bears are extant, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere and partially in the Southern Hemisphere. Bears are found on the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Common characteristics of modern bears include large bodies with stocky legs, long snouts, small rounded ears, shaggy hair, plantigrade paws with five nonretractile claws, and short tails.

Urinary bladder internal organ in most animals

The urinary bladder is a hollow muscular organ in humans and some other animals that collects and stores urine from the kidneys before disposal by urination. In the human the bladder is a hollow muscular, and distensible organ, that sits on the pelvic floor. Urine enters the bladder via the ureters and exits via the urethra. The typical human bladder will hold between 300 and 500 mL before the urge to empty occurs, but can hold considerably more.

A roots revival is a trend which includes young performers popularizing the traditional musical styles of their ancestors. Often, roots revivals include an addition of newly composed songs with socially and politically aware lyrics, as well as a general modernization of the folk sound.

Inuit music

The Inuit of Greenland share a musical tradition with related peoples across the Canadian territories of the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, as well as the US state of Alaska and part of eastern Russia. Greenlandic Inuit are part of the Eastern Arctic group; the Eastern Arctic Inuit of Canada and Alaska are part of the same music area as the Central Arctic Inuit, as opposed to the distinct styles of the Western Inuit. [6]

Nunavut Territory of Canada

Nunavut is the newest, largest, and most northerly territory of Canada. It was separated officially from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999, via the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, though the boundaries had been drawn in 1993. The creation of Nunavut resulted in the first major change to Canada's political map since incorporating the province of Newfoundland in 1949.

Northwest Territories Territory of Canada

The Northwest Territories is a federal territory of Canada. At a land area of approximately 1,144,000 km2 (442,000 sq mi) and a 2016 census population of 41,786, it is the second-largest and the most populous of the three territories in Northern Canada. Its estimated population as of 2018 is 44,445. Yellowknife became the territorial capital in 1967, following recommendations by the Carrothers Commission.

Alaska U.S. state in the United States

Alaska is a U.S. state in the northwest extremity of the United States West Coast, just across the Bering Strait from Asia. The Canadian province of British Columbia and territory of Yukon border the state to the east and southeast. Its most extreme western part is Attu Island, and it has a maritime border with Russia to the west across the Bering Strait. To the north are the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—southern parts of the Arctic Ocean. The Pacific Ocean lies to the south and southwest. It is the largest U.S. state by area and the seventh largest subnational division in the world. In addition, it is the 3rd least populous and the most sparsely populated of the 50 United States; nevertheless, it is by far the most populous territory located mostly north of the 60th parallel in North America: its population—estimated at 738,432 by the United States Census Bureau in 2015— is more than quadruple the combined populations of Northern Canada and Greenland. Approximately half of Alaska's residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. Alaska's economy is dominated by the fishing, natural gas, and oil industries, resources which it has in abundance. United States armed forces bases and tourism are also a significant part of the economy.

Greenlandic Inuit music is largely based around singing and drums, the latter being generally reserved for large celebrations and other gatherings. Though there is much folk vocal music, there is no Inuit purely instrumental tradition with no accompaniment by singing or dancing. Greenlandic drums are mostly frame drums made of animal skin stretched over a wooden frame and decorated with decorative and symbolic motifs by the drummer. Aside from drums, whistles, bull-roarers and buzzers are also widespread, and the jaw harp and fiddle are both found, most likely recent imports. [6]

Whistle instrument which produces sound from a stream of forced air

A whistle is an instrument which produces sound from a stream of gas, most commonly air. It may be mouth-operated, or powered by air pressure, steam, or other means. Whistles vary in size from a small slide whistle or nose flute type to a large multi-piped church organ.

A buzzer or beeper is an audio signalling device, which may be mechanical, electromechanical, or piezoelectric. Typical uses of buzzers and beepers include alarm devices, timers, and confirmation of user input such as a mouse click or keystroke.

Fiddle String instrument

A fiddle is a bowed string musical instrument, most often a violin. It is a colloquial term for the violin, used by players in all genres including classical music. Although violins and fiddles are essentially synonymous, the style of the music played may determine specific construction differences between fiddles and classical violins. For example, fiddles may optionally be set up with a bridge with a flatter arch to reduce the range of bow-arm motion needed for techniques such as the double shuffle, a form of bariolage involving rapid alternation between pairs of adjacent strings. To produce a "brighter" tone, compared to the deeper tones of gut or synthetic core strings, fiddlers often use steel strings. The fiddle is part of many traditional (folk) styles, which are typically aural traditions—taught 'by ear' rather than via written music.

Historical recordings of this music are done since 1905. [7] This traditional Greenlandic music is performed also today. [8]

Drum dances

Greenlandic drum dances are, like the relatives found in Eastern and Central Canada, based around a single dancer who composes songs sung by his family while he dances, usually in a qaggi , a snow-house built just for community events such as the drum dance. The men's drum dancing skills are evaluated by his endurance in his lengthy performance and the nature of his compositions. Drum dances are an important element of Greenlandic Inuit cultural cohesion, and function as personal expression, pure entertainment and social sanction. [6]

Many drum dances are competitive in nature, featuring two song cousins who humorously sing and dance, while pointing out the flaws in the other. This is generally a light-hearted, convivial event, but is also sometimes used to settle serious duels between warring families or individuals; the jokes are prepared ahead of time and the person who evokes the most laughter from the audience is considered the victor. [6]

Other Inuit folk song traditions

Many Inuit folk games revolve around song as well, including string games, hide-and-seek, juggling and rhymes and riddles. The katajjaq tradition is also well-known; it is a vocal contest between two women, standing facing each other. They sing songs, using throat-singing and imitating animal cries or other sounds. Katajjaq is a game, but is often stopped because both women begin laughing. [6]

In addition to the drum dance and game songs, Greenlandic Inuit have a tradition of piseq (piserk, personal song) songs. These are expressive, spiritual, superstitious or narrative and may be composed for drum dances. Piseq and other vocal traditions aside from song games include a number of styles and tones, which vary depending on the social context of the performance. For example, a soft vocal tone is used both for character illustration in a narrative song and for personal songs in private settings. Many songs use only a few real words, interspersed among numerous vocables, or non-lexical syllables like ai-ya-yainga. Inuit songs are strophic and mostly use six different pitches; textual and melodic motifs are common. A song's word length and accentuation determines the rhyhm, giving the songs a recitative-like style. [6]

European music

With the arrival of Danes, new instruments and forms of European-derived music became popular like the fiddle, accordion and Christian hymns, while Moravian missionaries introduced violins, brass instruments and a tradition of purely instrumental music. The most influential Moravian importation, however, was the polyphonic choir, which has produced popular modern vocal groups like Mik. [5] Kalattuut (dansemik) is a long-stanting form of Inuit polka, which produced popular songs and virtuosos like accordion player Louis Andreasen. [3] There is also a modern style called vaigat, which is similar to country music. [2]

Classical music

Some composers of European classical music have Greenlandic themes in their music, including Poul Rovsing Olsen and Adrian Vernon Fish whose output includes over fifty works inspired by Greenland, its terrain, icescapes and music. Among his oeuvre are the four Greenland symphonies (numbers 3, 4, 10 and 13). The modern composer Mads Lumholdt (also member of the orchestra Northern Voices, singer in the orchestra Nowhereland and in No Offence, a vocal band) has become well-known, and his work Shaman, which debuted at the 2004-5 Etoiles Polaires Arctic Culture Festival was nominated for the Nordic Council Music Prize for its fusion of traditional Greenlandic music with modern styles and technology. The Nordic describes his work as "seeking to allow the traditional Greenlandic culture to be communicated through contemporary cultural language in such a way that respect for the original culture is preserved on the one hand yet passed on to a broader, contemporary audience on the other hand". [9]

Greenland's national anthem is "Nunarput utoqqarsuanngoravit", which translates as Our Country, Who's Become So Old. It has been official since 1916, and was composed by Jonathan Petersen with words by Henrik Lund, both Greenlanders. [10]

Local radio station in Upernavik, 2007 Radio upernavik 2007-06-01.jpg
Local radio station in Upernavik, 2007

Greenland was isolated from modern North American and European popular music until well into the mid-20th century. Early popular groups included the pioneering local Nuuk Orleans Jazz Band. [1]

Hip hop

Since 1984, American hip hop has had a major influence, and a hip hop crew, Nuuk Posse, has been one of the most successful groups of recent years. [4]


The Greenlandic rock and pop began in earnest in 1973, when ULO released the band Sume's Sumut ; it was purchased by an estimated twenty percent of Greenland's total population, and singlehandedly kickstarted the local rock scene [4] by uniquely singing in the Greenlandic language and using elements of traditional drum dances in the music. The singer Rasmus Lyberth did the most to change Greenlandic music by performing for simple entertainment rather than functionality; [2] indeed, he took part in the Danish preselection for the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest, performing in Greenlandic. Other local performers of note include G-60 and Ole Kristiansen. [5] The 1980s saw Greenland become home to a number of bands inspired by Jamaican reggae and African American funk, like Aalut and Zikaza. [2] Modern Greenland is home to the annual Nipiaa rock festival, held in Aasiaat, [11] and performers like Chilly Friday, throat-singer Sylvia Watt-Cloutier and Karina Moller.

Famous modern rock bands include Kalaat, Siissisoq, Angu Motzfeldt, Pukuut, X-it, Fiassuit, Nanook, Small Time Giants and UltimaCorsa. A growing metal scene has emerged in Greenland, with black and death metal groups such as The Perfect Mass, Moonlight Drowns, Failed to Failure and Silence.cold.alone. beginning to release music through the 2010s. One early pioneer of Greenlandic Metal is Arctic Spirits, who sing exclusively in the Inuit language.

Music industry

The largest record label in Greenland is ULO, from the town of Sisimiut; it was created by Malik Hoegh and Karsten Sommer. ULO releases both Greenlandic rock bands like Sume, pop singers like Rasmus Lyberth, and hip hop music crews like Nuuk Posse as well as Inuit folk music. [12] Elements of modern Greenlandic music have also been used in the music of Kristian Blak, a Danish-Faroese jazz musician.

Summertime festivals called aussivik have become an important part of modern Greenlandic culture, and are based on an older custom that was revived in the 20th century along with drum dances and other elements.

Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa (Radio Greenland) is the most important media institution in the country. It is an independent body administered by the Government of Greenland. [13]


  1. 1 2 "Searching for Jazz in Greenland". All About Jazz. Retrieved April 10, 2006.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Greenland". Udenrigsministeren (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Archived from the original on April 12, 2005. Retrieved August 26, 2005.
  3. 1 2 3 Bours, pg. 144
  4. 1 2 3 Bours, pg. 145
  5. 1 2 3 "Greenland:An Overview". Archived from the original on February 12, 2006. Retrieved April 1, 2006.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Beaudry, pp 374 - 382
  7. Traditional Greenland Music Ulo CD-75
  8. Jens Davidsen from Sisimiut sings a song from Eastern Greenland as a part of the ARBOS-Art-Music-Project "Inukshuk" at the Katuaq-Theatre in Nuuk
  9. "Nominations for the Nordic Council's Music Prize 2006". Nordic Council. Archived from the original on September 14, 2007. Retrieved May 16, 2006.
  10. "Greenland". National Anthem Reference Page. Retrieved August 26, 2005.
  11. "Kuujjuaq's Angava rocks Greenland music fans". Nunatsiaq News. Retrieved August 26, 2005.
  12. Bours, pg. 143
  13. "Radio & TV Greenland". Randburg. Archived from the original on March 11, 2006. Retrieved April 10, 2006.

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Further reading