Canada’s most famous Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq, has been stunning audiences since first collaborating with Björk. Marc Fournier witnesses the unforgettable live experience and finds out about her revolutionary ideals
A couple of hours before her appearance onstage closing the festivities at the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver and I am sitting with Tanya Tagaq, a big chunk of seared tuna between us. “You cannot write this piece if you don’t see the show,” Tagaq says. The show is sold out and has been for a while. The event was scheduled in September and then, a month later, Tagaq won the prestigious Polaris Prize (the Canadian equivalent to the Mercury Prize) for her album Animism (reviewed in #105) and if there were any tickets left, they were gone the next morning. “Even if you have to sit on a chair by the side of the stage, you have to see it. Otherwise you can’t write about it.’’
Tanya Tagaq is a force of nature. A small, soft-spoken woman with caring eyes. But I wouldn’t mess around with her. She could transform any moment. When she is onstage, for example. “It’s an involuntary thing. It cannot be controlled. It’s a chemical reaction to sound. I can release my body completely. It is true peace.’’ So what happens onstage? I ask. “I watched one of my performances on video once and I had a hard time understanding what I was seeing. Because what I feel inside is completely different, it’s very nuanced with nice colours and soft paths. And outside, it’s like a monster! No wonder I scare some people. I almost scared myself!” While she first came to many people’s attention in the early 2000s when she toured and recorded with Björk, she is now in full possession of her creative process. Born north of the Arctic Circle in a town called Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut, Tagaq is arguably the most famous Canadian Inuk (the singular form of Inuit) artist. Traditionally, the Inuit were hunters and gatherers who moved seasonally from one camp to another and Tagaq herself followed a nomadic artistic path. She first began to practice throat singing at 15, after she left her community to study in the Northwest Territories. She later studied visual arts in the eastern maritime province of Nova Scotia and while there developed her own solo form of Inuit throat singing.
Inuit throat singing is not what you would call accessible music. But anybody who has seen Inuit throat singers perform will remember that moment forever. This friendly competition – called katajjaq – involving two women who sing duets in an entertaining contest to see who can outlast the other, has a hypnotising power. Imagine two women facing each other, usually in a standing position, and holding each other’s arms. Sometimes they will do some kind of dance movements while singing (eg balancing from right to left). One singer leads by setting a short rhythmic pattern, which she repeats leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. The sounds used include voiced sounds as well as unvoiced ones, both through inhalation or exhalation. The first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus lose the game. Tagaq brings this tradition to new levels and all by herself. Weaving her breathing and singing into a tapestry of sounds, she utilises technology in an instinctive way and viscerally demonstrates to what extent throat singing and other vocalising techniques can take the listeners. This soundscape is provided on disc and onstage by two veteran musicians she affectionately calls “my boys” – violinist and producer Jessie Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin. “We have a full language that we speak onstage. Our own language. It’s a real freedom.”
Sitting on a chair, by the side of the stage of the newly renovated York Theatre in an area of town nicknamed ‘Nativehood’ because of its important Aboriginal population, the vibes are friendly. It is the closing night of the Talking Stick Festival, a celebration of Aboriginal culture that showcases the new evolving contemporary work of today’s artists, may they be dancers, drummers, visual artists or musicians. Yellowknife singer Leela Gilday is opening the show, confessing her stories to the audiences with a gutsy voice and open stage presence. Tanya Tagaq appears from backstage. “I love Leela. She is like a mother. I feel humanity has made so many massive blunders. We have constructed a world where we believe we are above other creatures. We’re not. That’s the worst mistake. And then we consume in ugly ways and we think we can divide the land and own it. That’s foolish. We have forgotten how to be alive and we’re lonely and we’re sad. I am trying to give a little bit of – remember right now – living in the moment. Music is a beautiful way to build those bridges with people.” And then she disappears. It’s all very magical and quite grounded at the same time. During the interval, many friends and families of Tagaq and Gilday are exchanging greetings, sharing stories backstage, sidestage, even onstage. The usual hierarchy of the music business world is rather absent.
Sitting behind a drum kit composed of half acoustic and half electronic toms and pads, percussionist Jean Martin starts a rhythmic pattern, building a slow, wave-like ambiance. On the other side of the stage, standing in front of his mini computer and holding his violin firm by the neck, Jessie Zubot waits for the right wave and starts surfing the rhythm, providing an ethereal melody. The two musicians met in an impromptu jam session at a jazz-contemporary music festival a few years ago and have been collaborating ever since. Their ease with improvisation is the perfect musical soil for Tagaq to take root, momentarily. As an artistic nomad, Tagaq might not always be where you think you’ll find her… She appears from the back, moving in a sinuous motion. As she glides towards the front of the stage, her voice gushes forth and the rite begins. The transformation occurs. Her movements are punctuated by rhythmic breathing, gasping and growling.
The chemistry between her and her musicians allows each of them to give shape to it all. Zubot’s furtive strings and electronic soundscapes and Martin’s percussions create a living canvas on which Tagaq can freely paint with sounds. Some sounds, just like colours, can be primary, others, more nuanced. It’s that organic characteristic that differentiate Tagaq’s performance from other artists. One cannot really attend a Tanya Tagaq concert. One experiences it. And no one walks out the same afterwards. The connection between her and her musicians is so nuclear that the only time they stop, it’s at the very end. Ninety minutes of uninterrupted and intense creation and trialogue. During this trip, the audience is reminded why Tanya Tagaq’s latest album is called Animism. During her performance, there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world; between the human and the animal; between the musicians and the sound of nature. It’s breathtaking. Three minutes after the last note, the audience is silent. A little coughing from the back breaks the spell, and suddenly people realise they are in a concert hall and that the show is over. “I guess we must clap,” they seem to think. And they do. Thunderously. The stage manager, who’s seen it all in 40 years of show business, goes “Wow!” Nothing more.
It’s 1am and Tagaq is back to her former self. “I feel very hungry after a show. I am dying for a big piece of seal.” But we are in a southern city. Buying seal meat is not that common here. “The music of the Inuit people is a reflection of the landscape and climate. The music around the equator is more relaxed. People there are not trying to stay alive every second of every day. They can just go and pick up a fruit off a tree. In circumpolar regions we have to hunt. A diet of souls. It’s a harsh climate.”
I thank Tagaq for allowing me to experience her performance and ask her what her next project is. “I have the next album already made up in my mind. I know all the songs. They are patterns of sounds. I have a book too. And a multimedia installation. And two films. I am not in a hurry. Time will find me.” A woman passes by and her dog barks at us. Unannoyed Tagaq says “I feel sorry for the dog. It’s when they are afraid that they are dangerous. All creatures are like that. This dog shouldn’t be in a city. Why are we all still subscribing to systems that we know are flawed? Comfort? Habit? What is it?” These are questions that I certainly cannot answer but if someone has enough power to start a small revolution, it’s her. Never one to remain silent, her activism is now legendary. Well aware of the power of media, she couldn’t care less about fame but she doesn’t hold back politically. The names of missing Aboriginal women scrolled behind her during her Polaris Prize gala show last October and a photo she Instagrammed created quite a stir. The controversy began when Ellen DeGeneres, working with Samsung, took a selfie with top celebs at the Academy Awards, and aimed for it to become the most retweeted post ever. In exchange for the publicity, Samsung offered to donate over a million dollars to the charity of her choice. She chose the Humane Society, one of the most prominent critics of Canada’s commercial seal hunt. In response, Inuit people who rely on seal meat and fur for subsistence posted ‘sealfies’ — photos of themselves wearing seal fur — in protest. Tagaq Instagrammed a ‘sealfie’ photo of her baby lying next to a dead seal. Soon after, Tagaq found herself in a Twitter firestorm, with people writing ugly things including death threats. “It became quite hurtful. It’s just complete harassment. It’s not OK. Sometimes a shameful act like that can echo through generations. We have to be very careful of how we behave day to day. So we don’t give that same shame to our children.”
There has never been a better time to have artists like Tagaq be part of our aural landscape. As Canadian musician – and long-time friend of Tagaq – Geoff Berner said in his intro speech for the Polaris Gala: “There’s no musician in this world more powerful.” I couldn’t agree more.
Photo by Shelagh Howard
This article originally appeared in Songlines #108. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs