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Experimental band WHOOP-szo combine healing with art

By Gloria Song on May 3, 2014

I’m trying to call WHOOP-szo frontman Adam Sturgeon from my cell phone in western Nunavut to his cell phone in Port Greville, Nova Scotia, where the band is recording between gigs. The cell phone service, he warns, is “coming in and out” in little bits. It’s a challenge – there are lags in conversation while the signal is bounced back and forth all over the country, and sometimes his voice cuts out. But despite the technical issues, his enthusiasm for his art comes through clear.

It seems that’s what the recording process was like for WHOOP-szo’s latest double album, Qallunaat/Odemin, which was recorded in the Nunavik community of Salluit in collaboration with local Inuit youth. “There were lots of issues recording it,” Sturgeon says. “Getting supplies to the north for recording was difficult.” At times, there were other kinds of problems, like when the school was out of water. But in spite of all the interesting challenges, the album was produced, with the kids participating in the making and packaging of the album.

Cover art for WHOOP-Szo's Qallunaat/Odemin.

Cover art for WHOOP-Szo’s Qallunaat/Odemin.

The story of how Qallunaat/Odemin was produced is an unusual one.  Sturgeon and fellow WHOOP-szo member Kirsten Palm moved to the tiny Arctic Quebec community for two years, where Kirsten worked as a teacher and Sturgeon received funding to develop a community workshop program for local high school students, teaching them about the songwriting and recording process, such as how to work a drum machine, as well as silk-screening and business skills.  Sturgeon also received a grant to make an album, and so the album was developed in this context.

“Our goal was to travel around and learn about other cultures so I can learn about my own culture in a way,” says Sturgeon, who identifies as Anishnabe and took an on-reserve based program on dealing with indigenous communities.  “I can incorporate healing into art, which is a given in my mind.”

I asked Sturgeon how receptive people were to the outsiders coming into the community. “The project itself started after a year of us being there, and getting to know the community in order to earn their trust and respect, and learning to implement things in a good way,” he explained. “And the program continues today, which is important for empowering marginalized communities.”

Many people translate the word Qallunaat to be a somewhat derogatory term for white people, but Sturgeon doesn’t see it that way. “For me, Qallunaat doesn’t mean white person, because I’m not white. For me, it means I’m a stranger and a guest, and I had to honour that as much as possible. And the community really accepted us.”

The double album was a fascinating result. The band itself has been described as having an “experimental psych avant-garde” sound. The album has a lo-fi feel as WHOOP-szo tried to capture a vibe of what was happening at the time. And because a lot of different things were happening, the feel is somewhat fragmented, like watching different kinds of fish swimming through the ocean. The album wanders from chill wave sound, with muffled voices in the style of Washed Out, to harmonic dual guitar lines reminiscent of math rock like Tortoise or Do Make Say Think, and then plunges into loud discordant noise. No matter where the music wanders, it never stays still. And through all that, there are glimpses of Salluit, buried in the background like old resurfacing memories. Excerpts from Inuit rapper Larry T. Throat singing field recordings of children playing (with one of them belting out Psy at some point).

And what about the kids? What do they think of the new album that they’ve helped to make? “Well, they’re mostly into hiphop,”Sturgeon admits. “But we’re proud of the kids that really wanted to participate in it. To be able to say one loves their job is not that common. But I know I do. For me, to be able to do that with art is a great thing.”

Listen to the first track, “here” off Qallunaat/Odemin:

WHOOP-szo will be playing at the Raw Sugar Café (692 Somerset W) along with Gatineau band RAAS on Saturday, May 3. Doors open at 8PM. Cover is $5. Follow them of Facebook.