By Sebastian Buzzalino
Reclaiming the north in concert with our histories
CALGARY — Like the brilliant Northern Lights that dance across her homeland’s ancient skies, Tanya Tagaq’s voice swoops and soars with such natural force that it hardly seems to originate from a single body. It’s a resplendent performance, one that bridges the confluence of her Inuk ancestors’ traditions of throat singing with more contemporary pop practices. Indeed, on her latest album, Animism, for which she was awarded the Polaris Prize in 2014, beating out popular heavy-hitters like Arcade Fire, Drake and Owen Pallet, Tagaq seems to be able to contain an entire world’s worth of pain and hope, eviscerating the line between the personal and the political, a refreshing call to action not only for female artists in Canada, but also Aboriginal artists — a grossly underrepresented category across our national landscape. Animism’s institutional victory last year was quickly co-opted as a win for the entirety of Canada on blogs and in magazines, seemingly raising Tagaq’s profile overnight and turning her into a household name — that is, if more people listened to throat singing while doing the dishes or tidying their room.
But Animism is not the kind of album that can be shuffled to in the background, barely listened to as you pick your way downtown for work in the morning. Tagaq’s fourth full-length is an arresting, deeply engaging listen, one that not only demands the listener’s full attention, but snatches it from the beginning, binding artist and audience together as one for the duration. It’s an album of striking singularities even as Tagaq herself moves between opposing poles — the practice of throat singing originating as a competition between two women, made singular in one artist; Tagaq herself at the intersection of Arctic communities, Inuk culture, Canadian feminisms, Aboriginal rights and independent arts — with the wry litheness of someone accustomed to being told that her identities exist on the margins.
“I’m always for the underdogs. I’m always for the alleviation of pain or pressure for people who can’t do anything about it,” says Tagaq from her current home in Brandon, MB, shortly before the holidays. Tagaq is easy to talk to, even though that which she tackles on Animism seems at times enormous. “When I see big things that other people may be afraid to tackle, I like to jump on them and help out. Even though I may be a little drop in a bucket, it’s a drop towards getting somewhere.”
To be sure, Animism feels like much more than a drop. Even following the politically charged fallout of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 2013 win, which prompted the Montreal band to release a statement regarding “this Polaris Prize Thing,” saying, “it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back,” and that “our country is fucked,” Tagaq’s album speaks volumes for the potential for Canadian music to be forward-thinking on a national level, not just obscured in weird scenes pocketed across the Canadian Shield. Hers is a national call to action, a call for awareness and connection, of basic humanity.
“We can keep change happening in a positive direction in Canada and for indigenous people in Canada,” she says. “Everyone should be doing the best they can every day to help people. It’s ridiculous. I like reading the news and being aware of what’s going on. I like forcing myself on the negative in order to come up with the positive. When I’m doing something about it, I feel it kind of releases the pain of the negative in the world… There’s this magic to being alive that we’ve kind of forgotten in our day-to-day basis. It’s really lovely to be able to enjoy the fruits of humanity and also to be able to deconstruct the idea of what we’re supposed to be.”
Tagaq’s critical voice shape-shifts according to her setting, no two performances alike. While her show at the 2014 Polaris Prize gala stole the evening, garnering an enthusiastic standing ovation after her short set, it is the full span of her performance that fully mobilizes the emancipatory potential of her music. So versatile, so powerful is her approach that, in 2012, the Toronto International Film Festival commissioned her to create a live soundtrack to the 1922 silent film, Nanook of the North, which will be touring through Calgary this month as part of High Performance Rodeo.
As can be expected, the original film is rife with colonial ideology as it depicts Inuit people as simple, happy-go-lucky caricatures, erasing countless generations of history and culture in favour of an identity that positioned them as inferior to the European settlers. Tagaq’s live score, however, works hard to reclaim the film itself, challenging the imperialist narrative within through her visceral performance without — the master of traversing binaries, Tagaq is both within and without the film, unravelling colonial themes from the inside by mobilizing her own Aboriginal traditions.
“The thing about Nanook that I love so dearly is that I get to kill two birds with one stone. I get to make a commentary on the racist outlook towards such an amazing culture that was so technologically advanced to be able to survive in that hearty environment. I also get to be part of my ancestors… I like to get people to understand that we’re alive right now: when people talk about me mixing tradition with modern, actually, it’s all modern. I’m alive right now and I’m an Inuk right now, we’re not these things from the past. We don’t belong in a museum. That’s also part of the colonial way of thinking about things, romanticizing the idea of being native. You have no idea how many people come up to me asking what their spirit animal or name is. I’m always like, ‘Fuck off, it’s a hot dog.’”
The singer from Cambridge Bay doesn’t mince words and is not timid about her reclamation process. In fact, bolstered both by her Polaris win and the continuing injustices and systemic atrocities committed against Aboriginal peoples, Tagaq is perhaps more resolute than ever about her position. “A lot of people don’t understand that it’s too close, that these atrocities just happened and are happening, and the echoes of it are existing in our everyday lives. People don’t understand that.”
Tanya Tagaq will perform a live soundtrack to Nanook of the North on January 17 at the Boyce Theatre.AB, Alberta, Boyce Theatre, High Performance Rodeo 2015, Nanook of the North, Tanya Tagaq