Music News & Reviews

Throat singer Tanya Tagaq to perform at UC Davis

“A lot of people don’t understand what’s coming out of my mouth … (it) could be mistaken for effects,” Tanya Tagaq said.
“A lot of people don’t understand what’s coming out of my mouth … (it) could be mistaken for effects,” Tanya Tagaq said.

It’s guttural, breathy, off-putting and intoxicating as it mixes the elemental with the experimental.

Throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s music carries more visceral power in three seconds than most pop songs do in three minutes.

Tagaq, who has performed with Björk and the Kronos Quartet, incorporates punk, metal and classical influences with throat singing. Her 2014 album “Animism” beat out releases by Drake and Arcade Fire to win Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize this past September.

Throat singing, as Tagaq points out after her interviewer refers to her sound as “modern,” still is evolving like other types of music.

“For some reason, indigenous culture tends to be put in a museum, and put behind a glass case, when actually, we are thriving and alive right now, despite colonization,” said Tagaq, who grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, in the Canadian arctic. Now a Manitoba resident, she talked to The Bee by phone during a stop in Calgary.

Throat singing, traditionally done by two women facing each other in what Tagaq calls “very friendly competition,” has assumed many dimensions, she said.

“Some people will throat sing and beat box at the same time, and some people are doing it completely traditionally. There is a whole rainbow of what is happening.”

On Friday and Saturday, Tagaq, violinist Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin will accompany screenings of the film “Nanook of the North” – itself a museum piece, though a highly respected one – at the Mondavi Center for the Arts’ Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at UC Davis.

Composer Derek Charke used Tagaq’s vocal reactions to the film – which she watched four times, recording vocals along the way – and Nunavut field recordings to create a new soundscape for the 1922 silent film.

The collaboration premiered in 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival, which had commissioned it. In the touring version, Tagaq, Martin and Zubot “improvise on top of” a backing track of the recorded score, Tagaq said, choosing when to bring it forward and when to let it recede.

“It is different every single time, and it is exhilarating in that way,” Tagaq said.

Martin and Zubot “rotate their instruments through electronics and various effects,” Tagaq said. “They’re pretty monstrous.” The main component, though, remains Tagaq’s percussive, transportive throat singing.

“A lot of people don’t understand what’s coming out of my mouth, because it so easily could be mistaken for effects,” Tagaq said.

Though the “Nanook” screenings are sold out, Tagaq will participate in the free UC Davis symposium “Arctic Indigeneities, Media and Social Justice” Friday and Saturday.

Some aspects of “Nanook” were staged by its director, Robert J. Flaherty. Yet the film still is considered a ground-breaking early documentary. It follows an Inuit hunter and his family in northern Quebec. It offers extraordinary scenes of the daily adventures and struggles of living in a beyond-inhospitable land, then counteracts them with a title card describing the Inuit people as “happy go lucky.”

With the live shows, Tagaq can “kind of reclaim an idea of a film that was shot through a 1922 lens,” she said. “And break open the stereotypes, and maybe create some new ones.”

The film allows viewers to “take a look at how beautiful the ancestry was,” Tagaq said. “The amount of technology and science and ingenuity required to survive in the harsh environment of Nunavut, which is minus-50 degrees, and 24-hour darkness in the winter time,” is astounding. “My ancestors had to be very, very technologically advanced to live in that climate.”

“Tagaq’s ‘Nanook’ project is fascinating,” said Jessica Bissett Perea, a musicologist and assistant professor in UC Davis’ Native American Studies department. “It is not just to say colonization is evil, and that is the end of the conversation. There is a huge spectrum of emotion and experience, both good and bad, and beautiful or angry.”

When Tagaq is onstage, “she is calling her ancestors,” said Perea, who grew up in Alaska, belongs to the Knik tribe and specializes in the Arctic. Perea will give talks on Tagaq’s music before the screenings. She also is co-directing the symposium.

It was only by happenstance that Tagaq took to the stage at all. Once primarily a fine artist, she was showing paintings in a Canadian art festival, and doing a bit of throat singing just as an aside, when friends of Björk’s happened by. They filmed her performance and showed the footage to Björk, who took Tagaq on tour in 2001. Tagaq appeared on Björk’s 2004 album “Medülla.”

Tagaq had begun throat singing not long before. She was aware of the art while growing up but did not participate in it. She took it up partly out of homesickness, she said, after moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for art school.

“Now when I go back to Halifax, it’s very small,” Tagaq said. “But it seemed like a big place. I remember I couldn’t stand one more car driving by and smelling the exhaust. I needed the fresh air. I needed the land. I needed a home. I needed my family.”

Initially self-taught, she later met and sang with throat-singing masters. She’s bringing a few of her throat-singing cousins from Nunavut with her to Davis, along with Tagaq’s two young daughters.

Her fellow musical innovator Björk has been an influence, Tagaq said. “She’s a really kind person and she is really smart, and she is a genius musically, so inevitably that was going to influence my outlook.”

But she’s been just as influenced by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the First Nations singer, Oscar-winning songwriter (“Up Where We Belong”) and activist.

“I get influenced by everything I see in the world. I love improvised music – I love John Fahey and Nina Hagen. I love metal and opera. It all has become this melting pot of expressionism.

“I am very lucky to have been born and raised in Nunavut – that I can have the base of my artwork have cultural roots. But it belongs everywhere. It comes from everywhere.”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.


What: Inuit throat singer Tagaq will perform on Friday and Saturday with screenings of the 1922 silent documentary “Nanook of the North” at the Mondavi Center for the Arts’ Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, UC Davis. Those shows are sold out, but Tagaq will appear on campus earlier Friday and Saturday as part of the free “Arctic Indigeneities, Media and Social Justice” symposium.

When: At 4 p.m. Friday, Tagaq will participate in a throat-singing demonstration and Q&A at the Gorman Museum/Hart Hall Rotunda; at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, she will take part in the panel discussion “Arctic Cultural (In) Securities” at Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.