Culture clash

Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq revels in the challenge of working with the ballet and the symphony


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Animism is the belief that plants and animals have spirits. It's also, fittingly, the name of Tanya Tagaq's third album, a visceral collection of songs that weaves together the primal and the ethereal, the traditional and the contemporary, the animal and the human.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/05/2014 (3200 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Animism is the belief that plants and animals have spirits. It’s also, fittingly, the name of Tanya Tagaq’s third album, a visceral collection of songs that weaves together the primal and the ethereal, the traditional and the contemporary, the animal and the human.

The Inuk throat singer — who was raised in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and now calls Brandon home — has captured imaginations with her live performances, punctuated by guttural grunts, screams, howls and moans. It’s little wonder that everyone from Björk to Kronos Quartet has wanted to work with her.

Tagaq’s been tapped for upcoming projects with two local cultural institutions, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. On May 2 and 3, she’ll be performing Derek Charke’s elemental Thirteen Inuit Throat SongGames as part of the Canadian program the WSO is taking to New York City’s storied Carnegie Hall for Spring for Music, a North American showcase of orchestras. The WSO performs in NYC on May 8.

“It’s always interesting for me to collaborate with an orchestra, in particular the string section,” Tagaq says. “I connect with the strings because they’re so much like vocal cords. I like the clash of culture, too: classical music, which is stereotypically seen as bourgeoisie, juxtaposed with the guttural, native thing. Together, they create a powerful synergy if you depart far enough from the intention of the song.”

In October, Tagaq will again team with the WSO, along with Steve Wood from the Northern Cree Singers, to supply the soundtrack to the RWB’s 75th season opener, A Story of Truth and Reconciliation, a new commission written by Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden and choreographed by Mark Godden.

“That’s another balance between something stereotypically stuffy and stereotypically savage,” she says.

Inspired by the harrowing stories of residential school survivors heard by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the new work is an important one. Tagaq hopes it can help build some bridges between Aboriginal Peoples and Canadians.

“I was just in Berlin at the Jewish memorial and I was thinking about Canada,” she says. “We’re still in the throes of dealing with what’s happened. No one would ever say to a Jewish person, ‘When are you going to get over the Holocaust?’ I’m hoping through these projects people can develop a knowledge and a reverence for what’s happened. In Berlin, I felt the reverence.”

Reverent is how one might describe Animism. Tagaq’s deep spiritual relationship to the animal world is gorgeously rendered; nearly every song is named for an animal, from Rabbit to Tulugak (raven). The album opens with an arresting cover of alt-rock pioneers Pixies’ Caribou. There’s a lot of commonality between Tagaq’s primal howls and those of Pixies singer Frank Black, especially when she screams at you to repent.

“When I first heard that Pixies song, I almost shit myself,” she says with a laugh. “‘Holy shit! They’re singing about a caribou!’ It blew my little Inuk mind. I was still so isolated up north, and the Pixies really influenced me to experience other things.”

Tagaq also lays out her environmental politics on Animism. The album’s final track is the violent, shuddering Fracking. “I wanted it to be unlistenable,” she says (she succeeded; it sounds like someone retching). “I wanted it to be the ugliest, most terrible song. I want people to understand that what we’re doing to the Earth is terrible and not sustainable. I wanted to imagine it as though I was the Earth, and what fracking would feel like, and what it would sound like.”

Considering the subject matter of Animism, it’s hard to believe that Tagaq could draw the ire of animal-rights activists. But that’s what happened at the end of March when she posted a photo of her cherubic baby alongside a dead seal with the hashtag #sealfie (part of a campaign to protest a US$1.5 million donation to the Humane Society of the United States sparked by Ellen DeGeneres’ record-breaking Oscar selfie). While many animal-rights activists oppose only commercial seal hunting, others also vilify the indigenous seal hunt. In Nunavut, where the sealfie was taken, adult seals are harvested after being shot in the head. The harvesting of white-coat seal pups has been been illegal in Canada since 1987.

Tagaq is still dealing with vitriol on social media. “People have called me a dumb bitch, a sick mother,” she says. “They’re keyboard crusaders with no balls. But I’m happy it happened. Many amazing, educated people have been coerced into learning about what occurs in our country. In the North, food prices are ridiculous and there’s so much poverty. There’s food that brings us back on the Earth. We need these animals. We respect them.”

Tagaq says we should direct more anger to the increasing disconnection between the food on our plates and where it actually comes from.

“If you’ve never had to kill for food or look into the eyes of your food, then you can’t respect it. You can’t possibly respect your McDonald’s hamburger. To me, that’s more inhumane.”

Animism is out May 27 via Six Shooter Records.

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:24 AM CDT: Adds missing word

Updated on Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:38 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Björk

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