By Jaime Eisen
It’s soundcheck on Monday night during Toronto’s NXNE music and gaming festival and the back room of the Horseshoe Tavern feels like a family reunion. A tight group of smiling musicians are onstage jamming with Josh Q of Iqaluit blues outfit The Trade-Offs. Each member is taking their turn to solo before coming back together.
“I feel like I haven’t hung out with my buddies in a long time,” says Q into the mic with a laugh.
His buddies are The Jerry Cans, pioneers of the burgeoning Iqaluit music scene and curators of the second Nunavut Music Week, which ran from April 25 to 28, and its subsequent NXNE showcase. While Jerry Cans bassist Brendan “Dotes” Doherty and drummer Steve Rigby play onstage, frontman Andrew Morrison dances with his infant daughter to songs she obviously knows well.
They’re far from home, but they’re in their element.
Friends since childhood, Dotes, Morrison and Rigby started The Jerry Cans around a decade ago, playing classic rock covers at Iqaluit music hub, the Legion. Their self-described “Northern sound”—Celtic-inspired folk rock with reggae beats paired with traditional throat singing and lyrics sung in Inuktitut—didn’t emerge until Nancy Mike (accordion and throat singing) and Gina Burgess (violin) joined the group. The combined punctuation of Burgess’ high-energy fiddle and Mike’s throat singing give the roots rock base a distinctive cross-cultural feel.
Their sound may have many shifting influences, but it’s always pointedly indebted to their home.
Mike and Morrison—also romantic partners—write most of the lyrics together in Inuktitut, one of the principal Inuit languages of Canada, considered “vulnerable” by UNESCO. They rarely sing in English, even translating covers.
“We’ve gotten hate mail about how the frontman of this band is white,” Mike says. “But he speaks Inuktitut because my family was supportive of him learning it throughout our relationship.” Conversations about accountability are essential to the group, even more so after a group of Inuit artists boycotted this year’s Indigenous Music Awards over cultural appropriation concerns.
“We always try to listen to what our communities are saying these days about how we should move forward as a band,” says Mike. “We don’t ever want to move forward if people are uncomfortable with what we are doing.”
Mike and her bandmates want to make sure Inuit voices are being heard—across the country, but also at home.
“When you come from such a small place where there’s absolutely no history of this music business infrastructure, you have to figure out how to do it yourselves, and that’s what we did,” she says. “When it comes to Nunavut Music Week, our goal is to make sure the younger artists don’t have to struggle through the same shit we had to go through.”
Inuit Association executive director Brian Winters echoes this sentiment in between sets later in the evening. He’s a huge fan of The Jerry Cans and the lineup of Indigenous artists they’ve curated for their NXNE showcase.
“One of the biggest issues with the country we live in that we now call Canada is that it’s never recognized or made space for our languages or the things we’re saying,” he says. “The things we’re saying are so important—especially in our language. For people to hear that and respect that is just really beautiful.”
The crowd swells around the stage when The Jerry Cans start to play. Some are fans from back home, wearing hats that proudly say “Inuk” and singing along in a language they all seem to know well. Many are hearing the band play for the first time. Everyone is transfixed.
When asked how they approach bringing their unique northern sounds to a southern audience, Mike is quick to respond. “Do I have to explain anything to a southern audience?” she asks with a shrug. “Just hear it and feel it. That’s all.”
The Jerry Cans perform Sunday, July 28 at Squamish Constellation Festival and Saturday, August 3
at the Canmore Folk Music Festival