Published Oct 25, 2016On stage, Tanya Tagaq screams, pants, grunts and growls mostly wordless exhortations of intense emotion; her vocalizations balance melody and guttural screams. Jesse Zubot, often crouched and mostly hidden, acts as a secret conductor on synths, drum machines and violin, while Jean Martin alternates between subtle brush strokes and the pounding of a grindcore drummer. At every performance, every night, what comes out is entirely improvised.
It's a sound and feeling that combine the intensity of metal, the creative risk of jazz and the weight of Tagaq's history; aggressive, free improv jazz is the easiest genre signifier but for the presence of Tagaq, whose vocalizations pierce and redefine the musical context. Her unique vision has reshaped traditional throat singing into contemporary art.
"I grew up listening to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles; I went to university and was raving and I'm an Inuk woman and I love throat singing," Tagaq says by way of summation. "For many years, my whole shtick was trying to spread awareness for Indigenous rights and human rights, but when I was younger, people would just roll their eyes. So I [started] doing this wordless performance, to have people understand what it felt like to be an Indigenous woman. And it worked! People were leaving thinking 'Why am I feeling this? What's resonating within me?'"
For most of this century, Tagaq has been hailed as a visionary, collaborating with Björk and Kronos Quartet, amongst many others. She's won Junos and the Polaris Music Prize and played music halls around the world. And still, many people can't handle what's being presented to them.
"At every show, people walk out," Tagaq says. "Every show. Maybe they don't know what they're getting — they're there to see a sweet Inuk lady do a thing. They don't know what the thing is.
"People will cry at shows," she continues, "people will laugh. They'll walk out super pissed-off — I can't control any of those things. People say it's super sexual, probably because they're sexually repressed. People say it's angry because they're angry. People say it's creepy, because they're easily creeped out. It's a straight, flat commentary on existence."
Although she's not interested in placating anyone, nor in making her art more palatable, she admits, "I hold myself back at shows all the time. I'd love to take my blood and put it all over myself, put it on the audience, touch them." It's not an impulse to horrify but to connect, a quest for the deepest intimacy. And if you're not on board, you're not welcome.
"When those people are leaving, I'm so thankful. I wouldn't want to share that intimacy with someone who doesn't want to receive it. I want people that want to share and want to love to come into the sphere, and let's all fucking do this together and it's gonna be amazing. If it doesn't belong in your ears, if it doesn't belong in your spirit, your heart, your mind — please don't take part. Don't come into my world to hate it. I don't ever want it to be non-consensual."
Consent is a flashpoint for Tagaq, and it's wrapped up in her new album, Retribution. The title "has a karmic element to it, obviously," she says. "There's a general feeling of hurting the Earth and destroying the landscape and destroying ourselves, and that evil, non-consensual land grab, the take, the take. The rape of the land. The rape of residential schools, the non-consensual taking and where that originates from. It's all united."
Tagaq has always had the heart of an activist; the positive change she has witnessed fuels her optimism. "I remember when I was a young girl fighting for gay rights in the '80s in my tiny hometown, and I was totally shunned. People didn't like that — it wasn't acceptable. Now every mainstream TV show has gay people on it and you're considered an idiot if you're a homophobe. I think there's a dawn of an era where you're a fucking idiot if you're a racist."
Since she started using Inuit throat singing (traditionally a game played between two women) as a means of expression more than 16 years ago, combining it with the free improv approach she's developed with her collaborators, Tagaq has stood alone as an artist. With each record, her vision has grown more expansive and her creative expression more fascinating, but the critical success of her third album, 2014's Animism, catapulted Tagaq into a new realm of popularity and exposure.
Nothing had a greater impact than Animism winning Canada's Polaris Music Prize. Her performance at the ceremony was one of the most intense and revelatory ever witnessed in the award's ten-year history; as they performed, a scroll bearing the names of over 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women ran behind the trio.
On one of the biggest stages of her career, Tagaq wanted to make sure that one of the most crucial issues facing Indigenous people was at the fore. Instead, she got a lesson in how her words can be twisted and misinterpreted.
As she accepted the award, she offered a solution to a serious issue facing Northern communities: building sustainable local economies. "People should wear and eat seal as much as possible," she said. "Imagine an Indigenous culture thriving and surviving on a sustainable resource, wearing seal and eating it. It's delicious and there are a lot of them. Fuck PETA. I really believe that if hipsters can make flower beards in, then you can do it with seal."
The international headlines that followed focused on two words: "Fuck PETA."
"Listen to my speaking voice," Tagaq says quietly about the reaction. "That was translated in the media as this screaming freak. I am very angry, but I am also very chill and I'm very relaxed. I have strong opinions, but unless you know my speaking voice, it gets translated into this screaming anger. I go through life with love."
The Polaris win transformed Tagaq's career. "People really love to tear down awards shows," she shares. "But the thing is, I've been doing this for 16 years now, and it was this non-stop struggle of 'When am I going to get a real job? When am I going to take responsibility for my life? When am I going to subscribe to the system?' And it's only because there was this collection of beautiful freaks that want to hear something different" — referring to the collection of journalists that make up the Polaris jury — "that I'm able to provide for my children."
Even using just the Polaris lens, Indigenous musicians have had a significant impact in recent years. In 2013, Ottawa-based DJ collective A Tribe Called Red's Nation II Nation was on the shortlist, Tagaq won the prize in 2014 and Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie won for her album Power in the Blood in 2015.
Giller Prize-winning Anishinaabe novelist Joseph Boyden, who has long maintained connections to the Indigenous music scene, introduced A Tribe Called Red at the 2013 Polaris ceremony and performed a spoken-word piece on their most recent album, We Are the Halluci Nation. In 2014, he wrote the ballet Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation, which was performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, to which Tagaq contributed some music. He and Tagaq are longtime friends.
According to Boyden, we're at a crucial moment of respect for and exposure to Indigenous perspectives. "In our country, in Canada, for Indigenous people, a tsunami in slow motion swept into all of our communities for seven generations: 140 years," Boyden says. "This slow motion tsunami was the residential schools — it drowned children, destroyed homes and attempted to destroy the social fabric of Indigenous people. That tsunami has finally stopped and is starting to recede, and it's artists like A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie who are now the beachcombers, who are wandering the shores, picking up the detritus and trying to rebuild something again.
"They know they're not going to rebuild it exactly like it used to be — nor do they want to — but what they're trying to create is something even more beautiful in their beachcombing and their picking up these pieces and building something amazing in this country. It's not just a dialogue that's happening — it's a sea change. The tsunami has passed and now it's time to work."
"If you oppress a culture for long enough, and they survive," Tagaq says, "they're gonna come out stronger. Their legs have been worked! It's always people that have something to say that are at the forefront of contemporary art."
Though Tanya Tagaq, Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin use their long-standing creative relationship to connect with each other in performance, capturing that magic on Retribution was a different beast entirely. That responsibility largely falls to Zubot in his role as producer.
The Retribution track "Cold" uses sound sources from Tagaq's father in Cambridge Bay, who recorded walking on and drilling into the Arctic ice. A poem he'd written about global warming became a spoken word piece she performs on the song. The addition of Mongolian throat singer Radik Tyulyush expands the global cultural context of the song, deepening the resonance of its environmental message.
Wrestling the "extreme emotional differences" contained within Retribution engulfed Zubot for a time, as he struggled to balance ingredients as disparate as rapper Shad, the 40- to 60-piece improvisational collective Element Choir, and Tagaq's soft-spoken, emotionally devastating cover of Nirvana's "Rape Me," which closes the album. "I got to a point where I didn't realize that other things in life existed," Zubot says. "I was wrapped up in the sound so hardcore.
"There isn't a serious, preconceived composition technique happening," he continues. "It's more using subliminal ways to compose these pieces. It's kind of amazing when it seems like it all comes together, because there are moments when we have no idea what it's going to be."
"A lot of the political stuff overshadows the actual musicality of what's going on," Tagaq says. "It's all said in the music — it's all there."
Traditionally, the Polaris Music Prize is awarded by the previous year's winner; Tagaq was on tour the night that Sainte-Marie won — a missed opportunity that could have been one of the most powerful moments in Canada's often dishonourable history when it comes to Indigenous people — but there's no doubt that they are all, collectively, on the vanguard of significant change in this country.
"There's been a lot of silence in this country for a lot of years," Tagaq says. "I think that Canadians are going 'Okay, it's time for us to acknowledge our history, it's time to acknowledge the present, it's time to acknowledge our future when it comes to equality and human rights."
Indigenous rights are at the forefront of our national conversation in ways heretofore unseen: in the success of our Indigenous music community; in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; in the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women; in the sports world's conversations about inappropriate mascots. Even national rock hero Gord Downie is forcing the spotlight off of himself and toward the tragic fate of Chanie Wenjack.
"I'm hoping and praying that this country doesn't ever erupt into violence — that the violence that's been inflicted on us isn't echoed back in desperation to save ourselves," Tagaq says. "Retribution on a cultural scale is going to be having highly educated, super healthy, forward thinking amazing people that thrive. That's retribution."