INUIT THROAT SINGER TANYA TAGAQ
Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq
IN the frozen north, across the Arctic and halfway to the North Pole, director Robert J. Flaherty was on a 16-month-long expedition funded by the French fur company Revillon Frères. There he filmed Nanook of the North, his epic look at Inuit life. Considered to be a precursor to the modern documentary, but more accurately described as a silent docudrama, Nanook provided the world with the first feature-length look at the Inuit people, contributing some unforgettable imagery as it did so: sled dogs buried under the snows of a fierce winter storm; the Inuit traversing the ice and snow on perilous seal and walrus hunts; and Nanook, the titular star of the film, poised with spear in hand. Less dramatic but still captivating are scenes of Nanook and his family constructing an igloo, providing glimpses into the domestic life of a nomadic people. Although most of what was captured in the film, which premiered in 1922, has an aura of truth, Nanook is controversial due to certain scenes that were staged by Flaherty, his misrepresentations of its central characters, and some stereotypical portrayals of the Inuit. “Nanook’s” real name was Allakariallak, and he died at home in Canada — not, as the film would have you believe, from starvation during a long and fruitless hunt. Nyla, Nanook’s wife, was not really his wife, but one of two of the director’s common-law wives, conscripted by Flaherty to play the part alongside Allakariallak. Although the hunts portrayed were authentic, at the time the film was made the Inuit were hunting more often with rifles than with spears.
“It’s quite a pity because it was seen through the lens of Flaherty and through the lens of 1922,” Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq told Pasatiempo. “He didn’t realize that his film was going to end up influencing the entire planet’s view of Inuit people.” Tagaq has been touring with the film, providing improvised live scores to accompany it. She performs alongside a screening of Nanook of the North at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Monday, Aug. 29, as part of SITE Santa Fe’s 2016 biennial SITElines exhibition much wider than a line. “It’s such an honor to be able to perform a contemporary soundtrack over the film,” she said. “It’s so dreadfully important to have a contemporary soundtrack juxtaposed with the film to balance it out, to instigate thought and awareness of who we are, our land, and where we come from.”
Tagaq hails from Victoria Island in Nunavut, Canada, born to a family from the area in which the film was made. She’s one step removed from the hunters whose lives Flaherty portrayed on film. “The farther north you go, the later the contact was,” she said. “My mother was born and raised in an igloo until she was relocated by the government to Resolute Bay, where they moved into houses and stayed put. So what happens in the film is very relevant to my mother’s life. My mother is still alive, so she’s living history, but the change that happened, the assimilation, the cultural shift that made us what we are right now, is a little bit of an aftershock. She was born in an igloo and ended up with an education from McGill University.”
When she’s performing, Tagaq’s guttural cries are powerful, animalistic sounds that invoke the call of the wolf, the snarls of bears, and something deeper and more primal than any sound you’re likely to hear emanating from another human being. Her performances are hypnotic and thrilling, giving more weight to Flaherty’s attempts to capture something of the lives
of people living in close spiritual and physical proximity to the animal world in harsh Arctic environments. “Sometimes I’m not human, anyway,” she joked. “We’re animals, right? Only humans can be so ridiculous to think that we’re the only ones with language and animals are just making noise. They’re speaking to each other, too; we just don’t understand it.” One could argue that Tagaq, when invoking animal voices, does understand, in a visceral and perhaps subliminal way. “I was born and raised up here where human life completely depends on animal life. There’s three months of 24-hour darkness in the winter and there’s no trees, no vegetation. Even the ocean is frozen. Our entire life depends on animals, so we always want to take care of them. A lot of our traditional beliefs were about taking care of animals and their environment and ensuring their survival, using various hunting techniques and never taking too much.”
Throat singing exists in different forms around the world, but generally these singers produce two or more notes simultaneously to create uniquesounding timbres. Inuit throat singers make short inhalations and exhalations of breath to produce a deep, rhythmic sound. Tagaq’s throat singing is a type of “subconscious noisemaking,” she said. It has elements of traditional Inuit songs and Inuktitut language. “It embodies all those things at various times because the shows are improvised. It’s completely loose. I’ve been touring with my band so long that we’ve developed an alphabet of sorts. We have a specific language that we speak with each other that is very free to go wherever it needs to go.”
Tagaq has been performing Nanook since 2012, when she was commissioned to provide a score for a screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Accompanying her on tour are percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot. “I met Jesse after going to a few music festivals. Him being on tour with his band and me being on tour, we just eventually realized that we got along so well and that maybe we should work together. He introduced me to Jean Martin. It’s a very natural fit personally as well as musically. We have a very good time traveling together. There isn’t any drama on the road. We’re not hard partiers. It’s calm and relaxed and then we get on stage and try to destroy the universe. That’s typically how it is. We get everything out on stage.”
She was first introduced to Inuit throat singing as a high school student in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. Traditionally, throat singing was performed face to face by two women as a competitive but lighthearted game. “It’s a call-and-response laughing game,” she said. “It’s a test for stamina. It’s a jovial game. The songs are usually between three and five minutes long. I didn’t want that. I wanted to express my own musical thoughts, so I ended up working with improvisers who are, in effect, like my partners — but we don’t have to stop after a few minutes. We stopped adhering to the traditional songs and that’s how it bloomed into more of a subconscious stream of noise.”
Tagaq, a visual artist as well as a singer, did not consider throat singing as a career until she began touring with Icelandic musician Björk in 2001, with whom she collaborated on the 2004 album Medúlla. Since then, Tagaq has received numerous nominations and awards for her albums, including a Juno Award and Polaris Music Prize for her 2014 album Animism. “The throat singing was something that seemed to unfold on its own. Once I started touring and performing more, I realized that this is very much my vocation of choice. I started doing it a little bit later in life. I missed home a lot, and when I miss home, I sing and I feel like I’m on the land again.” ◀
TANYA TAGAQ HAILS FROM VICTORIA ISLAND IN NUNAVUT, CANADA, BORN TO A FAMILY FROM THE AREA IN WHICH NANOOK OF THE NORTH WAS MADE. SHE’S ONE STEP REMOVED FROM THE HUNTERS WHOSE LIVES [DIRECTOR] ROBERT J. FLAHERTY PORTRAYED ON FILM.