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Bringing it Nunavut style: The Jerry Cans bring the music of the north to Ottawa at Zaphod’s

By Gloria Song on February 26, 2014

One of the biggest bands out of Nunavut, The Jerry Cans, will be hitting the stage at Zaphod’s on Friday.

This beloved Iqaluit-based band features a mix of genres that they describe as “Inuktitut country swing, throat singing, reggae and blues”. It might sound a bit random, but it fits in perfectly with the diverse tastes of Nunavummiut (the residents of Nunavut), where musical entertainment at community feasts often feature square dancers and fiddlers which seamlessly transition into traditional throat singing and then a few rock covers.

It’s no surprise then that the Jerry Cans are adored in the north. “Everybody loves a dance party here,” guitarist Andrew Morrison explains to me over the phone. “People are very happy to hear young people singing in Inuktitut. When we play in Rankin Inlet, they yell at us all the time ‘Play your song louder!’ It’s fun to travel to the communities. We see a lot of kids singing along to our songs.”

The band with its current lineup has been around for about two years, but guitarist Andew Morrison, bassist Brendan Doherty, and drummer Steve Rigby have been playing together in Morrison’s old garage since they were twelve. All three grew up in Iqaluit. “We used to be in a ridiculous rock and roll cover band, doing covers,” Morrison reminisces. “We had really long hair.” They were later joined by Pangnirtung-raised Nancy Mike (who won Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year last year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards), and the band made a shift towards more originals and songs in Inuktitut.

The Jerry Cans’ music is fun, fast-paced and catchy, but their lyrics are unmistakably political. They sing about hot topic issues that are dear to the hearts of Nunavummiut, such as the seal hunt (“Dear PETA”), the price of groceries at the local grocery store (the doo wop tune “Northmart” with its memorable chorus “The Northmart is ripping us off / Go to Baffin Canners instead”), and the employee work culture of the Government of Nunavut, in “The GN Song”, where they sing about the forty-five minute coffee breaks and one and a half hour lunches there.

The Jerry Cans aim to challenge the rest of Canada’s understanding of the north. “The media often portrays the north as a negative place, with alcohol abuse, suicides, crime rates, loss of culture, and how we really need to help them. But our songs are also happy, celebrations of the north. Come celebrate with us.”

With songs like “Dear PETA” (“Dear PETA, you know we can’t stand ya”), and catch phrases like “Ol’ fashion seal clubbin’ music”, I asked Morrison if they ever get hate mail from animal activists. Surprisingly, the band does not. “People are very nice,” Morrison explains. “They say they might not totally agree with us, but they are grateful to hear the other side of the story. I honestly believe with these issues, there’s an imbalance in people’s understanding. Once we have conversations with people and explain how much hunting seals and polar bears is a part of life in the North, people are very understanding once they get access to that information.” Morrison’s own father was a full-time hunter who provided healthy meals every day.

The Jerry Cans have played previous shows in the South (which is what we call the rest of Canada below the treeline), including Ottawa. “We’re often a bit nervous about playing in the South but we’ve always been pleasantly surprised. It’s like meeting a new friend. For the first few songs, people are trying to figure out what it going on, while Nancy is throat singing and we’re singing in Inuktitut. But by the end of the song, they’re ready to dance and sing along the new Inuktitut words they’ve learned.”

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The Jerry Cans shows in Ottawa also serve as a sort of reunion for Nunavut “ex-pats”. Ottawa has one of the largest population of Inuit people outside of Nunavut. “The music almost becomes secondary because it becomes a reunion,” Morrison explains. “It’s a chance for folks to catch up with family members and catch up with the gossip.”

This Friday’s show at Zaphod’s offers a special incentive for people to come out. The airline First Air, who is sponsoring the show, will be providing 2 tickets for a lucky show-goer to fly from Ottawa to Iqaluit. These flights are normally pretty pricey, so it will provide a unique chance to visit Iqaluit, have tea with the Jerry Cans, and maybe even go out on the ice to shoot ptarmigan. “And then eat the ptarmigan with us,” Morrison adds slyly.

You can view their music video for Mamaqtuq below:


Celebrate the north with The Jerry Cans at Zaphod Beeblebrox (27 York Street), with opening act Saali on Friday February 28 at 8PM. Advance tickets are $10 available online or by phone 1-888-222-6608.