Qilaat – The Greenlandic frame drum

The frame drum (qilaat) is the only known musical instrument in Greenland from before colonization and encounters with European sailors. A diverse repertoire of songs existed before colonization, and some of these were accompanied by this drum (Petersen and Hauser 2006: 11). The drum itself has been dated back more than 4000 years in Greenland, and it is assumed to have migrated with the Inuit from the areas we know today as Siberia, across Alaska and Canada to Greenland. It is however in Greenland that the oldest remains of a frame drum have been found (Grønnow 2012).

The Greenlandic frame drum has taken different shapes from region to region, and there are also differences in how the drum has been used. However, it basically consists of a frame made of bone or wood, attached to which is a short handle. On this frame, a membrane – usually made from intestines or skin from animals such as seals or polar bears – is suspended. The drum is played by hitting the rim with a small drumstick. The result is a treble sound made when the beat on the rim resonates in the membrane (Petersen and Hauser 2006: 63, 86; Hauser 1992: 29-1, 177-8;Lynge 1981: 16). A frame drum performance is usually a combination of drumming, dancing and singing. There are also often elements of altered appearance and acting in such a performance (Petersen and Hauser 2006: 25, 58, 89; Hauser 1992: 53).

Prior to the colonization of regions in Greenland, the frame drum was used in various ways both as entertainment and as an important tool for the Greenlandic shaman called angakkoq (Petersen and Hauser 2006: 22; Lynge 1981: 17). The frame drum was however also part of a system used for managing conflict through the use of duel songs. This system prescribed that antagonists of the same sex could duel with each other, using songs that were meant to incriminate and ridicule the opponent. Song duels often included elements of violence. The antagonists could slap each other in the face or do a wrestling-like dance, but the main purpose of the duel was to cleanse the air between them while maintaining set guidelines for accepted behavior. It was not considered kosher to kill your opponent once he had challenged you to a song duel, and tradition and religion prescribed that you had to accept the challenge.

During a song duel, the aim was to ridicule the opponent in front of the audience, but since both antagonists would bring their friends and family, it could be difficult to pick the victor. In some cases a humiliated opponent would move away from a settlement as a result of a duel, but usually cleansing the air and reviving an acceptable relationship between the antagonists was the aim of the song duel. It even seems that antagonists often gained a better and more intimate relationship afterwards. Song duels thus functioned as a form of conflict management, and were used to resolve problems such as adultery, but in some cases they acted as alternatives to murder and vendetta. Song duels could also be arranged purely for entertainment in social gatherings (Petersen and Hauser 2006: 68; Hauser 1992: 18-21, 79-82; Lynge 1981: 18; Larsen 1982: 68-82).

When the missionaries arrived in Greenland in the year 1721, and began the project of converting Greenlanders to Christianity, many attempted to ban certain forms of drum dance and song because they considered these a heathen practice. Some used physical punishment to achieve these ends, and this almost led to the disappearance of the frame drum (Hauser 1992: 116-8). But a degree of self-policing or monitoring has also been recorded in east Greenland, because frame drum performance along with long hair and indigenous names became symbols of paganism and primitivism amongst east Greenlanders after the arrival of the missionaries (Thalbitzer 1906 in Thisted 2004: 268-70; Sejer Abelsen in Wilhjelm 2008: 430, 436)

Today, performing with the frame drum has become an emblem of an imagined authentic culture that is supposed to have existed prior to external cultural influence in Greenland. As such, it is used as a marker of ethnic and national identity. It has, according to literate Kirsten Thisted, become ‘the sound’ of Greenland (Thisted 2002: 92). Such processes of appropriation of folk culture, is a very well described phenomenon within ethnomusicology (Baily 1994: 46-7; Bohlman 2011: 5).

The use of qilaat is today governed by rules. This was illustrated by the somewhat provocative band Small Time Giants when in 2011 they started having their drummer Jonas Lundssgaard Nilsson (the only member of the band not from Greenland) perform drum dance at live concerts for the introduction to their song “Profit Singer”. Nilsson did this reluctantly and quite poorly to begin with, but within a year he got much better and more confident performing with the frame drum. The band nonetheless received complaints about this feature of their live performances, from people asking them to refrain from having Nilsson perform with the qilaat. I expect that these complaints were grounded in a discourse on ownership of the tradition and hence access to perform with this instrument. This discourse was present when the national newspaper Sermitsiaq posted an article on a seminar for frame drum performers in Nuuk in May 2014. The title of the article read “Den grønlandske tromme diskriminerer ikke” (‘The Greenlandic drum does not discriminate’). While the need for this title suggests that discrimination has happened within this musical style, the title actually refers to statements by participants in the seminar who emphasize that it is also proper for West Greenlanders to perform with the frame drum, despite that the style was abandoned in this region during colonization. The article does not even address the question of whether foreigners have access to this cultural form (Sørensen 2014). The discourse underlying this article thus indicates the potential provocative impact it can have, to have an untrained Dane perform with the frame drum. However, the complaints Small Time Giants have received have not made the band change their minds on the issue (personal communication with Miki Jensen, 28 August 2013).

The positioning of the frame drumwithin an ethnic and traditional space lends tremendous significance to the object and its use, but simultaneously limits the possibilities for innovation within the tradition. As such, there is the risk that stability and authenticity will become the only signifiers of value attached to it.

Fig. 1: Anda Kuitse performing with the frame drum, for tourists in Kulusuk in East Greenland

Anda Kuitse