Nanook of the future

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Tanya Tagaq sold out two nights at Montreal’s Place des Arts, and both shows ended with standing ovations. However difficult Tagaq’s music may be for some listeners, she is loved by others.

Cambridge Bay’s Tagaq and her band were in Montreal on February 19 and 20 performing an improvised soundtrack to the 1922 silent documentary Nanook of the North, a film with which she says she has a complicated relationship.

“There’s a bunch of bullshit in there,” she said. “But it’s clouded over by my love for my own culture. There are a lot of layers and depths to the film, and also in how it makes me feel. I feel a lot of pride for my ancestors, that they could possibly maintain life in such a harsh environment. I also like the idea of commenting on the colonial lens – just really taking the stereotypes, and the different viewpoint from our own, and commenting on it sonically.”

Tagaq was generous with her assessment of Nanook’s director Robert Flaherty, who changed the name of the film’s main character Allakariallak, insisted he hunt with a spear instead of his usual rifle, and presented another woman as his wife. In a 2014 interview with the CBC, Tagaq described the film as full of “happy Eskimo stereotypes.” However, she acknowledged that her understanding of Flaherty and his motives was complicated by his years on the land, living alongside the people he filmed.

“I believe that [Flaherty cared about his subjects] only because he had to live up in Nunavut and I know that beautiful land – it’s so healing and so wonderful. He must have had a great time up there if he got to know the land and the people. It’s a wonderful experience. I can only imagine that any harm that would have come out of the interaction would have been unwillful.”

Tanya Tagaq

Inuit artist Tanya Tagaq

The film is 79 minutes long, and onstage, Tagaq sings all 79 minutes as one unbroken song in her unique avant-garde style, accompanied by the shimmering violin of Jesse Zubot and sensitive percussion of Jean Martin. What she performs is a long way from traditional throat singing. She is careful to underline that, because she knows some Inuit traditionalists are offended by her use of ancestral techniques in music that is so much about the present moment that it almost seems to be the future. In performance, Tagaq is nothing but herself – her own style of music, her own genre, her own atmosphere.

“The sounds of throat-singing are attached to our culture,” Tagaq explained. “It began a personal thing where it was a good conduit for expression. But it’s become something really inexplicable to me: it’s this other dimension that I get to visit for a while, another reality that we create with sound. It’s unrelated to the rest of the time. You know, when you’re giving birth, you’re giving birth in that moment and nothing else is happening. I kind of feel like that during the shows – like nothing else can exist for my reality when this is going on.”

Tagaq recognizes and respects that her music is not for everybody. Lovers of throat-singing may not like it because it departs so radically from Inuit tradition. But any listener used to the structure and predictable melody of pop, country, rock or hip-hop radio is bound to find it difficult to grasp her voice as it darts from birdlike melody to wolf-howls to growls to the heavy breaths of a portaging hunter to the shouts and laughter of children.

These sounds may be new in music, but they’re not new to the land or to those who know it. In order to exist in the moment along with her, the audience has to trust her and let her voice carry them across the landscape of her memory and her vision of the North. In Montreal, the entire room seemed to become the screen on which the film was showing, with Tagaq’s huge and human voice as the light of the projector.

“Sometimes it feels like a beacon, a little bit, to have comfort in our lives knowing we’re alive right now, that we’re blessed to be alive right now,” she told the Nation. “Our flesh is such an accumulation of this beautiful equation of time and all the torque that comes from behind us from our ancestors and has pushed us into the crest of the wave of life. How we only have a bit of time until we’re not at the crest of our wave anymore, we’re back underneath. So I think it’s a nice reminder to enjoy and be aware and be grateful.”

Crowds in Montreal made that gratitude plain. On both nights the standing ovations were loud and long.

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