Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

Trumpets on the Roof

Inuit brass bands once integral to Labrador's soundscape, were introduced by Moravian missionaries in the eighteenth century. Author Tom Gordon writes about how these bands evolved as a cultural touchstone, celebrating milestones, welcoming visitors, and marking tragedies. Read more to find out how after a decline, a revival project in 2013 reignited the Nain Brass Band, reaffirming its cultural identity and community ties.

© Paul Hettasch

Nain Brass Band on the roof of the Nain Moravian Church, 1923.

Long after an expedition with Adventure Canada, North Atlantic soundscapes continue to inhabit the ear’s memory: the colossal splash of a humpback’s breach, the throbbing pulse of the drum across the tundra, the thunderous crack of a calving glacier. But none is as unique, nor as captivating, as the sound of trumpets echoing off Mount Sophie in Nain Bay. For the past several years, travellers on Adventure Canada’s Greenland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition have been greeted by the Nain Brass Band playing “Jêsus Tessiunga” (Now Thank We All Our God), as the ship comes into the harbour. This sonorous welcome is the legacy of a centuries-old tradition adopted and adapted by Inuit musicians—a tradition that resonates to this day as a defining sound of Labradorimiut (Labrador Inuit) culture.

Brass instruments were introduced to Labrador Inuit at the end of the eighteenth century by Moravian missionaries for whom hymns played by trumpet and trombone choirs constituted a way of infusing daily life with spiritual reflection. Itself a distant echo of the medieval custom of Stadtpfeifer—town bandsmen who provided music to mark daily rhythms of civic life—the Moravian brass bands performed at important liturgical rituals. Among these were the pre-dawn procession to the cemetery on Easter Sunday morning, heralding the resurrection or trumpeting in the arrival of the new year at the midnight watchnight service.

Inuit musicians rapidly embraced the Moravian band tradition, just as they had several other musical traditions introduced by the missionaries: hymn-singing, choral anthems, string instrument and organ playing. By the second half of the nineteenth century, each Moravian community on the Labrador coast could boast a brass band of skilled players. Beyond the liturgical functions inherited from the missionaries, like the Easter sunrise service, Inuit brass bands created traditions of their own—traditions that transposed the brass bands from accessories to worship to a kind of voice of the collective. No community celebration went unheralded without the band’s resonant voice echoing across the community. Dedications of new buildings, Elder’s birthdays, festival days, an auspicious wedding anniversary—all were marked by a visit from the band and a sonorous greeting.

Especially noted across the historical record, was the band’s role in welcoming the arrival of visitors into the harbour. Until well into the twentieth century, contact from the outside world was rare in the Labrador coastal settlements. The sight of sails in the distance was the cue for the band to scramble onto the church rooftop to sound the greeting, both welcoming visitors and alerting the community to their arrival. Departures were no less a cause for musical tribute. Most ships sailed away from Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Hebron, or Okak to the strains of hymns like “Shall We Gather by the River?”—aural symbols of the fervent wish to meet again.


© Photo courtesy of Them Days Archives

Harry Webb's boat with Nain Brass Band in tow going out to meet an arriving ship, circa 1910.

While the bands provided the soundtrack to community celebrations, they were also called upon to give voice to the tragedies that all too frequently fell on these settlements. As the government ferry departed the village in the fall taking Inuit youth to residential schools in the south, the band played “Takotigilâmminiptingnut” (God Be with You Till We Meet Again) from the wharf, a collective keening for the community as its children were being taken away. For many Inuit who were evicted from their homeland when Hebron was “resettled,” the sound of their band playing “Jêsus Tessiunga” was the last thing they heard as they left home forever to face unknowable and too often tragic futures.

Across the closing decades of the twentieth century, the institutions associated with the Moravian church began to wane as the Labrador Inuit moved toward the creation of the self-governing territory of Nunatsiavut (Our Beautiful Land). The brass bands were among the casualties of this movement, as members aged out and new players were not recruited. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the bands had gone silent. But not long after that very silence came to offer proof of just how central the bands were to the soundscape of the Labrador coast.

The silence was broken when a community-driven initiative, Tittulautet Nunatsiavuttini (Nunatsiavut Brass Bands) organized a series of workshops beginning in 2013 that led to the revival of the bands. Now a full decade later Nainip Tittulautingit (Nain Brass Band) once again serves as the voice of the community in both celebration and commemoration. The band’s historical functions at the Easter sunrise service, welcoming visitors, and celebrating milestones have been augmented by a host of new community and private functions. The band salutes the arrival of the Nalujuit (wild “heathens” who arrive from across the ice on the evening of January sixth, demanding children sing them songs for treats); it leads off the festivities at the annual Christmas parade and again on National Indigenous Peoples Day. The band has travelled to the Torngat Mountains to add resonance to the fjords and to solemnize memory at the resettled mission of Hebron. Nearer to home they pay visits to Elders in their homes, in hospital, and even via FaceTime to Inuit residents in distant long-term care. In 2016, the band released its first eponymous CD Nainip Tittulautingit, a compendium of sixteen favourite hymns and seasonal songs. Reversing a centuries-old trajectory, the band travelled from Labrador to the Moravian mother church in Herrnhut, Germany, in 2015 to participate in the Brüderischen Bläsertag (Brethren’s Brass Days).


© Graham Blair

Nainip Tittulautingit CD cover, 2016.

To the members of the renewed brass band, participating in this revival has served both as an affirmation of their culture and an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their community. Speaking about playing in the band both for visitors and for her community, trumpeter Eva Obed says, “When we’re playing for our people—our Elders—it’s more whole. Like I feel more whole anyway. I have so much respect for our Elders—and I have respect for other people like tourists too...I find it good too, but there is a different feeling...heartfelt...heart-warming.”

Darlene Holwell, another trumpeter with the band, described the Elders’ reactions to the revived band in one word: “grateful...because when they were younger, they used to hear it all the time and then it just disappeared. And now it’s back again and they’re more grateful. And I mean that for visitors too...we just [play] the music we’re used to—familiar with. Not everybody could tell that when we play, we love the people we play for and why we’re playing.”

Simeonie Merkuratsuk is a young euphonium player who joined the band after it restarted. He connects his participation in the band securely to his sense of ancestral identity. “I got into brass band because I heard it, like I listened to the radio with my mum sometimes. I like the noise, and I got interested in it, so I asked one of the brass band members to see if I can join. I feel the spirit all around Nain; like I can just feel how my ancestors have been...they were around here. And they played a lot of instruments. They played piano; they played violin, and they were in the choir just as I am. I just love being part of the Moravian Church and the brass band. It just makes me happy.”

This sentiment of connection is shared by Mary “Binky” Andersen, a young trumpeter with the band and the great-great-great-granddaughter of Okak’s last band leader Jeremias Sillitt. Of her playing in the band she says, “For me, music has always been a part of my life; it’s part of who I am. It’s my identity. And when we play, we get too passionate about it. It’s our tradition; it’s our culture; it’s part of being Inuit in Nain when you hear this band. It brings us back to our history and makes us remember that things were simpler back then and music was something so valued because they didn’t have much back then. Our grandparents didn’t have much back then. When their band played, it was a treat. It was something so awesome, so different, you know? When I am playing, I try to remember that, and it makes me feel connected back to my culture.”

So, as you steam into Nain Bay with Adventure Canada, if you find the hills alive with music, you’ll be witness to an enduring tradition—a tradition that affirms a connection between generations of Inuit musicians, that has voiced the community through celebration and commemoration, and that joins you to a heartfelt welcome that spans centuries.


I am deeply indebted to the members of the Nain Brass Band, especially Eva Obed, Darlene Holwell, Simeonie Merkuratsuk, and Mary “Binky” Andersen for sharing their knowledge and insights, as well as to Mark David Turner for his work with the band, including the some of the interviews quoted above.

To hear the Nain Brass Band, pick up a copy of their CD Nainip Tittulautingit (2016) and for more about Moravian Inuit music traditions, see Called Upstairs: Moravian Inuit Music in Labrador (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023); both available in Adventure Canada’s on-board gift shop.

About the Author

Tom Gordon

Tom Gordon

Music Historian

Music historian, pianist, and arts administrator, Tom Gordon has worked closely with musicians and community leaders across Nunatsiavut for two decades on projects to sustain and promote Labrador Inuit culture. Gordon has been director of Memorial University’s School of Music, chair of the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council and, proudly, occasional relief organist at the Nain Moravian Church.