VARNA GL | 5 Minutes With

VARNA GL is the Greenlandic multi-disciplinary artist on a mission to bring the spiritual power of her homeland to the world. Her debut album, PILARNGAR, recently landed and was inspired by the traditional East Greenlandic drum dance, passed down from elders of her family. The result was an utterly unique fusion of her heritage and a sound hundreds years old, alongside new-age electronica. For much of the western world, the musical history of Greenland is largely unknown and VARNA is dedicating her energy towards changing that. The album encompasses a life journey and is the result of her homelands struggles with imperialism – where their own culture has been sacrificed in the face of Danish ideals. 

PILARNGAR embodies the power music has to transmit messages when made with a serious purpose. VARNA goes even further with that message with an accompanying music video for the albums title track. Beautifully shot, the visuals contain stunning shots of her homeland and a place she holds close to her heart. Alongside being a contemporary singer/songwriter, experimental composer, actor, social researcher and councillor, VARNA is also the artistic and managing director of cultural organisation Qilaat. An organisation  committed to promoting, preserving and developing the heritage of drum dancing towards new platforms and minds.

With such a compelling, left-field project, we had to learn more about PILARNGAR. We spoke with VARNA about her cultural roots, her unique background in Greenlandic Inuit tradition, and the message she hopes to transcend with the project. You can read our conversation below. 

Could you tell us about how your journey into the world of music began?

I was introduced to a variety of music through my parents. My father supported and encouraged me a lot when I was learning new instrument during primary school. When I w a teenager, we had a youth community club called “Inneruulat” in Nuussuaq, where I played music with different people. We still “cheer” about that time today when we meet because it meant a lot to have a place to be creative and learn to play together.

Growing up in Greenland, what kind of sounds were you surrounded by?

In my childhood, we had vinyl, radio, and later tape and walkmans, where we could record songs played on the radio onto our tapes. So I had to be persistent and lucky to get a tape with good music. I listened to different genres depending on where I was. At home, mostly Johnny Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, and The Mills Brothers. In Inneruulat’s music room, we did all kinds of cover songs, and other days we stayed on the dancefloor, grooving to the 90´s hits. As a kid, I never thought of music in genres. I thought of music as different emotions. So I kind of listened to whatever I was around.

Your artistic output harnesses the traditional East Greenlandic drum dance, a musical style relatively unknown in the West. How important is it to you to pass on such a distinct piece of your heritage to the world?

It’s important! I feel that diving into my heritage has given me strength. It’s a mystery to me that this tradition could be banned. I truly feel it would strengthen our communities to revive our cultural heritage. Not only drum dancing but all the various practices that we have. I am here to do the little I can. Sometimes it’s healthy to create awareness outside of your own comfort zone. Especially, I hope that we in Greenland can find more ways to include our heritage in our everyday and educational system. It’s a strong way to connect and it´s a beautiful way to keep your spirit.

This style is prevalent on your debut album, PILARNGAR. What was the overall inspiration behind the project? 

Nature is a huge inspiration because that is where I load my energy. My heritage, our culture, the familiar sounds we are surrounded by. Our elders, who have supported me through all time, are always with me in spirit. My family and friends and their presence and support through time. Our well-being as people and a society. I often feel that music is the way I am best at expressing what my vocabulary can’t grasp.

We were immediately struck by the unique merging of sounds on the album. How did the creative process work and how long did it take you to complete?

The work of collecting different sounds and getting inspired by how the electronic soundscapes started in 2017, in Tasiilaq where I was living at the time. I thought of it as important sounds. At the moment I didn’t have a specific intention. Until I got to Berlin the same year, and took a course in Ableton with composer and musician Brian Smith. It was so clear to me that these sounds could then be incorporated as musical sounds. I imagined it. Later, I got the opportunity to make this new album “Pilarngar”. The first thought was to make it electronic, with a traditional touch and the nature sounds from East Greenland. This ended in collaboration with neonme (Salka Valsdottir). In the beginning, we sent files back and forth, then Salka came to Greenland, and meanwhile, I worked on a film production in Iceland, I spent all days off set to meet up with her. Until December 2022, I moved to Reykjavik, where I am currently based. It was a fruitful collaboration and the connection in the work shows. We were both open to the process.

Is there a message you hope to transcend to listeners with this project?
• Compassion
• Healing
• Heritage of Inuit – never forget your roots
• Stand together as a people
• Listen carefully
• Do what you can with your gifts
• Let’s share and teach our cultural treasures (Language and practices),
to enrich our cultural identity and strengthen our communities
• Let’s re-build a system that we believe in and that works for us!

This week you’re also set to release a music video, what story is behind the visuals?

The video is for the title track PILARNGAR. It is the east greenlandic inuit term for katabatic storm. It is an immensely powerful wind that sweeps down from the great Greenlandic ice cap to the east coast with tremendous force. I have a very special connection to this area where I was born, in East Greenland – Tasiilaq. The people, the energy, the nature, the fjord, the history, and the place of my ancestry. My spirit is very connected to this land. We went with a crew from our label Marvada this summer to shoot the video on location in the Sermelik fjord. It is a very powerful place where the natural and my ancestors spirit are very present. We see some shots also from the Ikkateq American airbase, a cold war relic. The oil barrels, car wrecks and ruins of structures left behind are still there and will deteriorate into the environment for many more years to come. The imagery is sort of a poetic visualisation of natural and spiritual power transcending and outliving the problematic man made material world. The outfit I am wearing in the PILARNGAR video and on the album cover was designed in a close collaboration with designer Sól Hansdóttir. I wanted to use the patterns of our traditional east coast inuit clothing and envision a futuristic morphing of these forms.  Sól’s  sensitivity to the material and imaginative craftmanship made these ideas really come alive in fabric.

During your time outside of the studio, you’re the artistic and managing director of the cultural organization Qilaat. Could you tell us a little about what the organization stands for?

Qilaat is a knowledge center, where I gather research, create art, collect archival material regarding drum dancing, lead practice-based teachings, etc. A collection of knowledge from then and with the current focus on the lived practice. The purpose is to build a solid sustainable place where the knowledge of our heritage can grow, and people who want to reconnect with their heritage can do so, in various ways. We have lost too much. I want to create a place that will keep growing to enhance our community and cultural identity. A space that allows the process of healing and where there is a room for storytelling, songs and empowerment.

Your unique background in Greenlandic Inuit tradition is compelling, how do you think this has shaped you as an artist? 

The Arctic vibes come through the nature, people, and experiences through my life. I am shaped by people who cared for me through difficult times and celebrated the good days. People who believe in me, meet me, support, and encourage me. These people are all in my community! I feel grateful and lucky. I am shaped by empowerment, overcoming adversity, and staying true to the process.

As 2023 begins to draw to an end, what can we expect from you next year? 

I will continue my artistic practice, do some performances, documentary work, and keep the drum sounding.

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Words: Jake Wright