Cry­ing wolf


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco I The New Mex­i­can

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.” ◀


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