David Serkoak: Talking to youth through drumming

Sharing his passion for drum dancing with younger generations is what has kept David Serkoak busy over the last few decades. The Inuit elder, originally from Nunavut and a teacher (retired since 2012), visits schools and remote communities to lead workshops in drum making and drum dancing. 

While the primary aim of these workshops is to teach the rudiments of drum making and drum dancing, David sees them as a way of reaching out to younger generations and passing on to them a part of their culture, their art and their tradition.  

More than 15 years after giving a workshop to young people in a Labrador community, David returned this past spring. The “reunion workshop” was an emotional experience for the elder and the participants alike.  

Last May, you returned to Happy Valley Goose Bay, Labrador, to give a workshop in drum making and drum dancing. How did that happen? 

David Serkoak: To answer that question, we first have to go back a few years, to 2006, when I was invited to give a workshop to primary and secondary school children in that community. A few years later, in 2017, I talked to the National Arts Centre and Natasha Harwood [now director of Arts Alive] about the importance of doing a workshop in Happy Valley Goose Bay. So when I went back last May, after 17 years, and found those same young people still coming to the workshop and having formed their own little drumming group, it was really beautiful to see! 

How did it feel to see them again after all these years? 

D.S.: I’ve visited a lot of schools and communities, but I don’t think I ever followed up or kept in touch; at Happy Valley Goose Bay, in Labrador, it was different. They kept in contact until we met up again this year. And one of the best moments of the reunion was the dinner they organized, at which they all had a photo of us dancing 17 years ago. Some of the drummers had even prepared a performance just for me. I was very moved! 

What was the response from the young people who attended this spring’s drum making workshop? 

D.S.: The atmosphere was very positive! Back then, they’d learned only how to use the drum. This time, my goal was to make five, but we finished 10 in just two days. I even had a bit of time to show them how to dance. They really enjoyed it! After all those years, they couldn’t wait to finish their drum. They worked tirelessly. And I have an indelible memory of the moment when, after a few minutes tuning their drum, the sound they produced was incredibly perfect! Seeing the satisfaction on their faces was so moving! 

You learned to drum with your father. Did you have any idea at the time that it would be part of your occupation for all these years? 

D.S.: As an Inuit, from my earliest memory, the drum was part of my daily life. When I became a teacher in 1978 and was able to choose what I wanted to pass on to the younger generation, I started dancing more, speaking and reading in Inuktitut more, and introducing more Inuit culture into my classroom and the school. It was a decisive moment in my career of over 30 years. I made sure that Inuktitut had its own place, that the language was learned and practised. And because I love drum dancing, I also made sure to include that in my teaching, until I retired in 2012. 

Is drumming also your tool for getting young people’s full attention and sharing stories with them? 

D.S.: Yes, it is—and it works! There will always be a generation gap, but the drum is my key to connecting with younger people. Of course it’s not for everyone, but there are many of them who take up drumming, who embrace their language. It’s also my tool for connecting with White people, with people from other cultures, with everyone. As soon as I start playing, the conversation begins, and I can talk to them about my story and about History. 

It’s also about connecting young people to their culture and showing them the importance of this instrument. 

D.S.: It’s always been part of Inuit life and part of our uniqueness. Even if the new generations on Inuit lands such as the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik (Nord-du-Québec) or Labrador have great-grandparents who were drummers, singers, and so on, today that’s a thing of the past. So I think it’s a good thing that young people in these communities are starting to learn more about drum dancing. 

Is drumming hard to learn? 

D.S.: Anyone can make a drum sound. But I always tell them that if they want to become good, there are a few basic, essential things they need to know, like how to set a rhythm, how to hold the instrument properly to make that back and forth movement. I remind them that they are transmitting something to the audience and that they need to be confident and capable. 

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