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Canadian Throat Singer Gives a Voice to Inuit Culture
Tanya Tagaq delivers aboriginal music with rock swagger, drawing attention to issues impacting Indigenous people
When Tanya Tagaq’s Animus won the 2014 Polaris Prize – a prestigious music award annually given to the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit – it made international news. Not only did the Inuk throat singer unexpectedly beat out pop darlings Arcade Fire and Drake, but she used the opportunity to support traditional seal hunting, a critical livelihood for many Inuit communities, and criticize activists who oppose the practice.
“Why is it everyone else is allowed to live off their land and profit, but we're not?” she demanded, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “And is it because you think the seal is cute?”
Tagaq isn’t shy about controversy, often speaking out about racism and the impact of colonialism on Inuit culture. In a 2015 interview with The New Yorker she said, “My daughters are four times more likely to be murdered than any other racial demographic in Canada. So how do I change this, how do I help? That's what I'm projecting my voice for."
The names of 1,182 missing aboriginal women scrolled on the screen behind Tagaq during her performance at the 2014 Polaris Award gala event – a performance described by Montreal’s The Gazette as “euphoric,” “cathartic” and “a wordless juxtaposition of grunts, screams, whispers and flutters...[that took the audience] on a mesmeric journey evoking life and death, birth and rebirth, love and loss.”
Tagaq’s introduction to throat singing came in college, when she was feeling homesick and her mother sent a cassette tape of traditional Inuit song. She told The New Yorker, “I played it and it gutted me because it was home. I could hear... I could hear like, you know, the way I love the wind to blow. I could like sense the smell, the clean, clean smell of the land.”
Traditional throat singing usually involves a pair of female voices, but Tagaq taught herself the technique and cultivated it into her own fearsome, visceral style that incorporates elements of punk rock and electronica. And pop metal, she admitted in a recent tweet: “A lot of my musical training came from ironically singing to the guitar solos from 80's hair bands.”
Retribution, Tagaq’s latest album, is a contender for this year’s Polaris Prize, which will be awarded in September. Where Retribution is distinctive from her previous albums is in how these new songs themselves carry her political messages, which are more like warnings, many of them focused on the environment. A spoken word segment in the title song portends: “Our mother grows angry/Retribution will be swift/We squander her soil and suck out her sweet, black blood to burn it.”
Retribution closes with a staggering cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me,” which, Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald points out, possesses “a haunting tension set against the context of the abuse and murder of Indigenous women.”
Friend, David. "Five Things about Polaris Music Prize Short List." Chronicle - Herald, Jul 14, 2017, Canadian Major Dailies; Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central K-12.
Inuit Throat Singer Tanya Tagaq Tops Drake, Arcade Fire to Win 2014 Polaris Music Prize. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, 2014, Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central K-12.
Marchand, Franois. "Some Come to Praise, Others to Criticize Tanya Tagaq; Critically Lauded Throat Singer Opens Up on all Subjects." The Gazette, Oct 14, 2014, Canadian Major Dailies; Global Newsstream; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Central K-12.
Seabrook, John. "Free." The New Yorker, vol. 90, no. 46, Feb 02, 2015, pp. 21, Arts Premium Collection.
Check out a few of the audio recordings featuring Tanya Tagaq available from Alexander Street:
Sinaa [Streaming Audio]. (2006). Jericho Beach Music. (2006). Retrieved from Music Online: Listening.
Auk / Blood [Streaming Audio]. (2015). Ipecac Recordings. (2015). Retrieved from Music Online: Listening.
Hillbilly Bop, Boogie & The Honky Tonk Blues (Vol. 3, 1954-1955) [Streaming Audio]. (2012). Jasmine Records. (2012). Retrieved from Music Online: Listening.
Recommended resources for further research:
A sampling of books, music and dissertations for related pathways to explore.
Canadian Aboriginal music:
Canada: Inuit Games and Songs [Streaming Audio]. (1976). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/Audivis-UNESCO. (1976). Retrieved from Music Online: Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries.
Canada: Music of the Inuit - The Copper Eskimo Tradition [Streaming Audio]. (1983). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/Audivis-UNESCO. (1983). Retrieved from Music Online: Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries.
Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music [Streaming Audio]. (1973). Folkways Records. (1973). Retrieved from Music Online: Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries.
The Eskimos of Hudson Bay and Alaska [Streaming Audio]. (n.d.). Folkways Records. Retrieved from Music Online: Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries.
Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women [Streaming Audio]. (1995). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (1995). Retrieved from Music Online: Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries.
Heartbeat 2: More Voices of First Nations Women [Streaming Audio]. (1998). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (1998). Retrieved from Music Online: Listening.
Hoefnagels, A., & Diamond, B. (Eds.). (2012). Aboriginal Music in Contemporary Canada: Echoes and exchanges.
Inuit women’s issues:
Simonet, F. (2011). Caractéristiques communautaires et issues de grossesse chez les Inuits du Québec (Order No. NR88762). Available from Health Research Premium Collection; ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1095403401).
Thompson, C. J. (2010). Inside school administration in Nunavut: Four women's stories (Order No. AAINR50396). Available from PsycINFO. (622300192; 2010-99030-285).
Rojas, A. (2001). Iglumi isumatait: A reinterpretation of the position of Inuit women (Order No. MQ57995). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304743339).
Canadian aboriginal cultures:
Stern, Pamela R. Historical Dictionary of the Inuit, Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Hedican, E. J. (2008). Applied anthropology in Canada: understanding aboriginal issues.
Image: By Luis Alvaz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons