In Conversation—with Thor Simonsen

Healing through Music in Nunavut

Thor Simonsen is a creative entrepreneur and the mastermind behind Ajungi (AH-YUNG-EE), a collective made up of 19 Nunavut singer-songwriters whose debut album is being released today (November 22).  The idea for the recording project came to Simonsen via his role as Creative Director of Hitmakerz, a record company in Iqaluit that supports the development of musical talent in Nunavut.  The album is beautifully engineered, manifesting a phenomenal degree of creativity and artistic authenticity, and showcasing a captivating mix of song styles.  The prevailing theme is mental health, and so a portion of the album’s sales will be donated to the Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut HelplineRecently Thor Simonsen took the time to answer our questions about the making of Ajungi

What was the spark of inspiration that eventually became Ajungi?

The project began in 2015, during a time when I was producing music for many artist friends in Iqaluit.  I discovered that it was very fun (and sounded incredible) when I began to merge, remix, and otherwise mix and match various artists together across different songs and genres.  The songs became bigger than the sum of their parts.

Why are music collectives becoming more relevant in today’s music scene?

I can’t speak for the industry as a whole, but in Nunavut, where air travel is prohibitively expensive, it’s sometimes the only way to give relatively unknown artists an opportunity to showcase their music to the world.  Even for this album we needed to secure funding for several $4,000+ flights to Iqaluit (to record) for the artists who were living in other Nunavut communities.

How did you come up with the name “Ajungi,” and what does it mean for you?

Ajungi is a modern Inuktitut word, derived from the traditional word “ajungittuq” which means “capable people.” The name is an homage to the incredible, undiscovered (and too often, unsupported) talent that lies dormant in the young population of Nunavut.

Why do you suppose most of the songs selected for the Ajungi album were related to mental health?

The songs on the album were selected solely on the basis of their musical and storytelling merit as well as on the professional potential of the various artists.  However, it’s no secret that the Inuit and Indigenous communities are facing incredible challenges, both mental, economic, and cultural.  Mental health issues are a big part of daily life in Nunavut, and I think the fact that so many of the songs are about mental health is simply a reflection of the people and the times.

How do you plan to get it the attention it deserves in a music world that’s swamped with monotonous, mediocre sounds?

Our mission is to create sustainable careers in the arts for Nunavummiut.  Ajungi is our showcase album, and we’re using all the tools and connections at our disposal to share the artists’ messages with the world.  The fact that the artists are from Nunavut and that the vast majority of them are Inuit already gives the music a very unique sound and story.  How the world received the music is out of our control – all we can do is try to stay true to ourselves and make the music as good as possible.

What is it about your background that made it possible for you to conceive of a project like this?

I was born in the Faroe Islands (just south of Iceland) and moved to Iqaluit when I was seven.  I was fortunate to have a childhood which was a pretty equal mix of Scandinavian, Canadian, and Inuit culture.  My family was Scandinavian, but my stepfather was Inuk, as were most of my friends and schoolmates.  Because of this, I was able to see many large cultural divides between the three cultures.

As a music producer my job was to bridge these gaps using the universal language of music.  Ironically, the fact that I’m not biologically Inuk (nor fluent in Inuktitut) helped me to produce music for a non-Inuk audience because it allowed me to view it from the angle of “southerners.” Ajungi was a natural progression of this work, and the fact that it helps us develop careers in the arts for fellow Nunavummiut is extremely powerful motivation.

How have you and your team been changed by the Hitmakerz initiative and the Ajungi project?

Growing up in Nunavut, we saw the rest of the country (“the south”) as being far away and very separate from our daily lives.  Working to connect Nunavut to the rest of Canada (culturally and economically) has been an eye-opening experience.  The two worlds are very different, but we’re very proud of our work that is (hopefully) bringing them a little bit closer together.

Do you believe music can make things better for the Inuit and other Indigenous Canadians?

Yes.  From a purely economic perspective, music can create local entrepreneurship (selling music), that in turn creates a viable, sustainable economic resource, and a great alternative to current exports like mining and fishing.  Culturally I think music can play an even more important role in strengthening language and keeping traditional songs, stories, and ways of making music alive.

Did anything funny or weird happen while you were preparing and recording the album?

The road to completion was long and winding.  Several artists dropped out, a few last-minute additions were made, and the overall process of completing all 12 tracks on time and budget was much more intense than we’d anticipated.

For the song “Change the World,” Ryan (N-16) had been flown to Iqaluit to record.  However, on the day of recording, there was a big blizzard in Iqaluit and taxis had gone off the road.  We only had one day to record, but Ryan was from Rankin Inlet – a notoriously cold community – and simply walked from the hotel to the studio wearing just a hoodie.  The blizzard didn’t faze him one bit, and he said he thought it was quite warm.

For the song “Monster,” scheduling forced us to record Mister (FXCKMR) in a makeshift studio in Montreal.  We couldn’t get good acoustics in the office room, so the verses were recorded in a tiny closet.  It looked, felt, and sounded very awkward, which is ironic since the final song sounds so cool and polished.

What’s next for Hitmakerz?

In the future, we hope to continue working with Inuit and Indigenous artists, creating amazing music and helping to launch and further sustainable careers.  We’ve got two artist albums coming out in 2020 and several others in the works.  We also hope to continue making Ajungi albums to help unknown artists in remote communities get a chance to have their voices heard and “get their foot in the door” of the music industry.

How can Canadians support Ajungi?

Canadians (as well as people all around the world) can help by listening to the album, sharing it with their friends, and following Ajungi on Facebook.  If they want to financially support the artists directly, they can also purchase albums and merchandise at Hitmakerz.