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Tanya Tagaq plays the best punk show ever

By Lee Pepper on November 10, 2014

The folks at the NAC might be kicking themselves for having booked Tanya Tagaq into the small Fourth Stage instead of one of their larger rooms: the show was booked before she won the Polaris Prize, reignited the debate in Canada over the seal hunt, and changed the way many Canadians think about Inuit musical traditions.

Tanya Tagaq grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She is 37 years old and has been performing for over 13 years, collaborating with Bjork, the Kronos Quartet, and others. However, it was only this year that she came to the attention of many Canadians, when her third album, Animism, won the Polaris Prize.

Tagaq drew attention not only for her widely praised performance during the awards ceremony, where she was scheduled last, being deemed an impossible act to follow. She also attracted coverage for incorporating a list of the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women into the visuals accompanying her performance and for her acceptance speech, in which she spoke out in support of the seal hunt.

Across Canada, people were suddenly talking around their water coolers about an Inuk woman who performs improvisational music grounded in anticolonial politics and the tradition of throat singing. She’s perhaps not the type of breakout star that one would have anticipated, but her music and her beliefs have clearly resonated with many.

And those of us who did have the privilege of seeing Tagaq’s sold-out show at the NAC were treated to an intimate display of an inventive and challenging artist at the height of her powers. It was an overwhelming performance, sometimes frightening, sometimes uncomfortably sensual, always surprising and moving.

Introducing the show, Tagaq said, “It’s like being at Seaworld: people in the front rows have to be careful not to get sprayed”. Indeed, one audience member in the front row got up and left about two-thirds of the way through Tagaq’s performance, looking overwhelmed. Tagaq’s music is mostly wordless and abstract, drawing on Inuit throat singing, but reinventing it in a way that evokes in turn hypnotic electronic music, black metal vocals, and the types of sounds that might accompany sex, childbirth, or death.

Hearing Tagaq perform, I found myself thinking of Nina Simone, and how her music became more sonically challenging when her songs began to take on more overtly political topics. In “Strange Fruit”, describing lynched Black bodies in unflinching detail, Simone makes her rage felt in rejecting prettiness and allowing her voice to become dissonant and guttural.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Tagaq described her album Animism as expressing feelings about “colonialism, government and society”. Inuit throat singing is deeply challenging to ears accustomed to Western tonalities, but it doesn’t exist as a reaction or challenge to Western aesthetics, which it substantially pre-dates, it just exists thoroughly outside of them. It’s not a type of music that’s ever been appropriated or assimilated into Western music to any significant extent. It was also banned by Christian priests for over 100 years, and its revitalization is itself a form of resistance.

Tagaq was backed in her NAC performance by Jesse Zubot, who also produced Animism, playing violin and electronics, and Jean Martin on drums. Both Zubot and Martin have backgrounds in improvisatory jazz, and their playing reflected a keen attention to Tagaq’s performance while also providing it with a rhythmic framework. At the end of the show, Tagaq also demonstrated traditional Inuit throat singing with a friend. This was thrilling in itself, but also demonstrated the extent to which Tagaq’s other music departs from and reinvents tradition.

Inuit throat singing generally takes the form of a contest between two women, who stand face to face seeing who can continue for longest to embellish a rhythmic pattern. The first person to laugh loses. Tagaq lost to her friend, but she seems like she might, in general, be someone who is more inclined to want to laugh than to need to win.

Tagaq comes across as overwhelmingly sincere not only in her performance but also in her pre- and post-show banter. After her performance, which left her covered in sweat and most audience members visibly pretty shaken up, she laughed, and said, “Geez, that was a ripper!” Her performance juggled vulnerability and power, but always came across as fully sincere, without irony, self-consciousness, or withholding.

I spoke earlier this year to Simone Deneau, who is the producer of the NAC Presents series, of which Tagaq’s concert was a part. Deneau commented that the series reflects well not only on the music people in Canada are producing, but also on our catholic tastes as listeners:

“Fifteen years ago, I’m not saying there couldn’t have been an NAC Presents, but it couldn’t have been what it is. There’s just so much out there, and the variety is amazing. The quality and the breadth of what’s been coming out over the past ten years and how Canadians are embracing and listening to it is a whole new thing.”

The way Tagaq phrased it, talking after her NAC performance about her sudden popularity after over a decade of performing, was that when people understand and appreciate her music, she revels in realizing, “Wow, they’re freaks too.” I, for one, am grateful that there are freaks like Tanya Tagaq who generously make bold and intimate art, and freaks who enjoy and celebrate her considerable talents.