A Musical Window into the Past

December 2016

Caroline Nochasak of Nain spent her summer connecting with her Labrador Moravian past - one song at a time. The 18-year-old was tasked scanning, describing and organizing hundreds of pages of music manuscripts that were first introduced to Labrador 150 to 200 years ago by German missionaries. At the hands – and through the voices of Inuit musicians, this music became an important part of Labrador Inuit cultural heritage. Working with the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership under funding from Inuit Pathways, Nochasak uncovered hints of the musical life of her ancestors from the dusty pages she was documenting.

“It’s part of my history, and I’m really honoured to be working with this,” Nochasak explains with excitement. “To think – my ancestors, they, sang these songs, and they had their favourite songs too. I can imagine them living their lives in Labrador, and how this music made them feel, and it’s really special.”

An accomplished musician herself, Nochasak says that she couldn’t help but give some of these songs a try. “I printed photocopies of some of the sheets I wanted to learn,” says Nochasak. “I wanted to learn it for myself, just practice a simple piece. There’s so many choir pieces too, and I love to sing. So working at my desk I would review some of the soprano pieces and I would sing them while I worked.”

The work Nochasak accomplished this summer is part of a much larger documentation project under the direction of Dr Tom Gordon, principal investigator for Tradition & Transition. In all, close to 30,000 pages of music manuscripts from the collections of the Moravian churches in Hebron, Okak, Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik are being digitized and catalogued. This music represents an important legacy for Labrador Inuit, telling remarkably intimate stories about the creative voice of Inuit musicians

Nochasak was the first to hear some of this music aloud in over 100 years. The collection comes from the Okak mission station, closed aver the devastating outbreak of the Spanish influenza in 1918. For almost 100 years, these manuscripts were boxed up in an attic in Nain.

“It makes me feel so wonderful because I could feel it, whenever I play a piece of music, I could feel the music,” says Nochasak with joy, “I could imagine how people in Okak felt playing it. Knowing that they did these notes with their fingers and, that they did sing these words; it just made me feel so close to them, close to my history.”

Between the margins of the handwritten pages were notes and clues to the past says Nochasak. Each detail hidden among the pages helped her piece together a little bit of the Labrador Moravian story.

“Some of the watermarks on the manuscripts say 1840 or even 1800. So they’re really old,” Nochasak explains. “I’ve been scanning and digitizing every sheet, describing it. We can find out so much history in just little details. Someone said I was a detective because I was looking for little hints in the manuscripts and recording every detail.”

Nochasak, like her grandfather and great grandfather play the violin. She says that musical culture has always been an important part of the Labrador Inuit way of life. Music is something she grew up with as many people in her family play in the Nain brass band, sing, or play instruments. She says while it was the German missionaries that brought this music to the Labrador Inuit, there was already a strong musical tradition alive and well.

“Even before the missionaries came over we did throat singing and drum dancing,” says Nochasak with pride, “music is the universal language, and when the Moravians first came over they must have shared their music with Inuit, it must have been a bonding experience [between the two groups].”

Now that the manuscripts are scanned, Nochasak says that she hopes they will stay in Nunatsiavut for a long time to come. She hopes that by digitizing the documents more people in Nunatsiavut - and beyond - will be able to access this important part of Labrador Inuit history.

“For so long these manuscripts waited for someone to look at them,” explains Nochasak, “I want an opportunity for people to have them back; to either listen to them, or be able to play at least one piece of music, to make the manuscripts come alive again.”