Singing about Christmas and family

Susan Aglukark is a three-time Juno award-winning singer who sings songs in English and Inuktitut. Aglukark released her ninth album and second holiday album on Nov. 5. When searching for rehearsal space for her and her band before a concert in Saskatoon earlier this month, Aglukark came across Gallery House Concerts in Calgary. The Gauntlet stopped by during her rehearsal to talk with her.

The Gauntlet: The new album, Dreaming of Home, is a Christmas album. You’ve included some songs from your first Christmas album, along with some new ones. You’ve got a couple songs that were translated from a language other than English or Inuktitut. What was the reason for choosing the songs that you did?

Susan Aglukark: I made the commitment to do another Christmas album about five years ago. What happened about five years ago was I realized that my singing has changed — I go back and listen to my old recordings, I’m sure every artist does, and think, oh my God, we actually sold those CDs? The Christmas album particularly was a weak one. The first two albums were very weak but I was an artist coming up from no experience, nothing to work with. About 5 years ago after a good 15 years of touring and writing and singing under my belt I went back and thought, you’ve got to redo a Christmas album.

I moved away from Nunavut for very personal reasons — not to pursue this career, it was for totally different reasons. Over the course of the career and all the other work I’ve done, that part has recovered, has healed enough that the longer I’m away from home the more homesick I am. So when we started collecting songs I listened to songs like “Caledonia” and “I’m Dreaming of Home.” My favourite right now is Shawn Colvin’s Talking Heads song [“This Must Be The Place”]. That’s been a favourite since I heard it. They’re a combination of songs that bring me back home. And very rarely do we get back home for the holidays.

So, the decision was, for those reasons, I had to redo it because my singing had changed. I cringe when I hear that first album, my favourites are on there and I wanted it to be not just Christmas. There’s a lot of people who aren’t home for the holidays. Your heart is home but aren’t. So it’s not all Christmas.

G: So did it go from a Christmas album to a family album?

SA: A family album, yeah. A family, where ever it is. It is wherever you feel your family is. For me now it’s my band and my crew.

G: Do you often get to go home and see your family?

SA: I do. I get home to Arviat, where my parents are — I was home in September. I’m home quite often actually.

G: One of the things about Canada is that many families are scattered across the country and have to bring family members together for Christmas, especially very large families.

SA: And we are, we are a big family. I’ve got a sister who lives in Edmonton, until a couple of months ago a brother who lived in Ottawa. My poor parents especially, they’ve got seven children. So where do we go this Christmas? It’s always split up between two of the children and [they visit them] evenly over the years. And when they’re 69 and 71 they can only do that for so long. But that’s always been the challenge for us. Where do the parents go? And who is going to follow them? Some of us will say, we’re all going to Ottawa or we’ll all go to Edmonton. But that’s the beauty of Canada.

G: In a way, I guess the album is a bridge, bridging physical space or family or, because most of your music is in English and in Inuktitut, it’s bridging language and culture as well.

SA: I think that’s the beauty of being in my position throughout my music. I grew up in small-town Nunavut — a totally different mentality — and jumped into this shortly after moving to southern Canada and ever since the decision to pursue this career, when I crossed that, immediately it became about creating this cultural bridge through a song, “O Siem” for example. And the Christmas album is the same.

There was no Christmas to speak of for traditional Inuit people. There was no story of Jesus until missionaries came, so Christmas is a recent thing for Inuit people. Well, what is traditional Christmas? I mean feasts — everybody has a turkey dinner, everybody has the traditional stuff — but how do we create a traditional Inuit thing? Everything becomes an opportunity for people to see those connections and those bridges.

G: Do you translate the songs yourself?

SA: No. There’s one that I did, the “Huron Carole.” I did that myself. There’s one that was already done by what I would consider to be an Inuit expert. I’m not. I’m conversational level. Leena Evic did “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” She did several and I took two of hers. She’s at that professional Inuktitut translation level. But I did “Huron Carole,” I did parts of one other song but not all of them.

G: When you translate from one language to another you find new nuances to music, to lyrics. You add new meaning. Was there any songs on this album where you looked at the song in a different way after having it in another language?

SA: I think to a degree the “Huron Carole” would be, because that one was done in 2007 and was by invitation from a children’s author, David Bouchard — a Metis children’s author. Two things were different about it compared to my culture and what I was brought up in which was strict Christian, both parents are ordained pentecostal ministers. I’m looking at the story back in 2007 and I’m listening to these words which are First Nations, Huron and totally different from what I was brought up in. And I’m listening to it and thinking I want to write this. So it means, again, bridges. It means that yes, there is two totally different cultures, Inuit culture and First Nations culture, but there are a lot of similarities between their experiences and our experiences. And then to take a song like this and there’s such a deep spiritual meaning in the story and the song “Huron Carole” — not Christian, not Christian at all — their own interpretation of who Christ was at Christmas time, their own version of it. The challenge for me was at the time knowing mentally, this is going to stir some of the stricter older Christians, including my parents. Why are you singing a song like that? Why not? Who said it was just one Christ and one person to celebrate over the holidays, one entity or deity to celebrate over the holidays? There’s many. That was maybe, of all the songs, the one that was the most exciting for me to do for those reasons.

G: And again the main thing that comes out of this is a reason for families to come together, sit down, enjoy a meal and celebrate together.

SA: I find that it seems to be the time when there are no barriers. There are no cultural barriers. And that’s what Dreaming of Home was all about. It was a performance for the military, again in 2007, and watching film for the song “I’m Dreaming of Home” about during the Second World War on Christmas day when both sides agreed, for the one day, no fighting. That’s what Christmas seems to do for people, is to just stop. Let’s just stop and be for one day — all equal.

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