Pump up the Volume: Tanya Tagaq Adds New Sound to a Centuries-Old Women’s Cultural Tradition

by Megan Perry

Throat singing isn’t a sound that’s easy to describe, even for Tanya Tagaq, so she relies on comparisons.

“It’s breath, it’s rhythm. To be very, well, pompous about it, it’s like the sushi of sound.”

She shakes her head, laughing. “When you hear it, you either love it or you hate it.”

Throat singing isn’t a sound that’s easy to describe, even for Tanya Tagaq, so she relies on comparisons.

“It’s breath, it’s rhythm. To be very, well, pompous about it, it’s like the sushi of sound.”

She shakes her head, laughing. “When you hear it, you either love it or you hate it.”

If you’re into technical definitions, traditional Inuit throat singing isn’t singing at all; it’s the respiratory equivalent of a staring contest. Two women, bundled in parkas decorated with patterns of fur and leather, take off their hoods and stand face to face. One starts off, drawing a breath and preparing her song. Her partner waits, anticipating the first sound. She’ll have to echo the noise in rhythm to maintain her spot in play.

Then comes the initial gambit. It could be a sigh, a gasp or a rumble. It might just as well be a growl or a hum. It could include words; it might not. The moment the instigator starts, the pair is off in a round that can last anywhere from 10 seconds to two minutes or longer. They hold each other by the elbow with mittened hands and sway as they speed up, matching each other note for note, noise for noise, breath for breath. One of them is bound to falter, and, when she does, the game will break up into wide smiles and guffaws —or simply into one victorious and one out-of breath partner.

That’s the version of throat singing which has been widely collected by ethnomusicologists and documented in films about Canada’s Far North. It was regarded as a way for women to while away any spare time they had while the men were away hunting.

But listening to tapes and watching films can’t make a person understand the cultural weight of throat singing. The deeply rooted traditional art form expresses the realities of the Arctic as singers imitate the wind, the animals or their icy sleds sliding on the snow. It tells stories and has rules that can’t be learned through observation alone.

The depth of culture imbedded in throat singing has seen two major things in the last century. First, it was a very nearly a victim of cultural assimilation by European settlers when the practice was banned by priests. Second, it’s coming back with a vengeance.

Tanya Tagaq is one of the best known proponents of throat singing in today’s music world. She’s drawn it onto the pop music stage by singing with Iceland’s best known pop star, Björk, who remarked of Tagaq:

“She’s like Edith Piaf or something, totally emotional.”

Tagaq appears on two of Björk’s recent recordings: Medúlla and the soundtrack to Drawing Restraint 9. Mostly Tagaq sings solo, in stage environments where you wouldn’t expect a throat singer to suddenly appear. Like, say, Spain, where she spends half of each year. She also chooses a turntablist over a singing partner, writhing to the beat as she uses her breath to deliver complicated rhythms.

Although Tagaq is a tiny woman, she marches around the stage looking six feet tall and fearless. Her experimental bent hasn’t escaped the eyes of other musicians on the cutting edge in Canada. Tagaq is turning up across Canada with the Kronos Quartet, dragging the staid string quartet format into new territory. Her album Sinaa, which features a duet with Björk, picked up three Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in November, including the award for Best Female Artist.

In March, Tagaq will appear with Kronos in a performance at Carnegie Hall. Tagaq’s performances haven’t met with universal approval, however. Not everyone is a fan of mixing throat singing with modern music. In particular, elders in Inuit communities have expressed some concerns about what Tagaq does. They’d like to preserve the most traditional elements of Inuit throat singing. To do this, it has been suggested that throat singers should only sing songs they are taught in the way they are taught them, and, further, that singers who want to take up a song from a particular area should get permission from the elders there before they perform it.

Karin Kettler, a throat singer with a touring group called Nukariik, has heard the arguments against mixing traditional songs with raps or beats. It’s an argument that is not surprising from a group of people who are still struggling against assimilation.

“A lot of the elders agree that they don’t want to see it lost in another culture,” observes Kettler from her home in Ottawa. Kettler has helped organize workshops in Puvernituk and Aupaluk, in Nunavik. There, some of those elders spent time sharing throat singing with youth. Kettler points out that the idea of placing restrictions on throat signers isn’t universal among older singers. Some believe that it’s empowering to put throat singing on an equal footing with other music and view it as an embodiment of cultural empowerment.

Tagaq agrees. She started throat singing as a way to celebrate her heritage, not at home in Cambridge Bay, but at art school in Halifax. With no other Inuit around, she decided to reconnect with her roots by heading for the library. She found some documentary recordings, went home and started practising her throat singing alone in the shower.

“I had no partner, so I was trying to do all the noises myself, which obviously could never happen. But it’s all I had, and you have to work within your means,” she recalls, leaning on her elbow during an interview at the Dawson City Music Festival.

Like many of the young Inuit women Kettler works with in Puvirnituq, Tagaq found in throat singing a way to connect with her roots.

“I just really wanted to do something Inuit.”

Although she’s aware of her detractors, Tagaq believes the tradition is alive and ought to be celebrated. At each performance, she urges her dancing, tranced-out fans to check out more traditional forms of throat singing, hoping her exhortations will encourage other people to explore the art form.

Tagaq twists and bends Inuit culture in other ways, too. When she performs, she dons a tight, high-waisted tank top with a fur-lined hood. The outfit looks like a parka shrunken down to a sexy version of the amautiq, a coat traditionally worn by young women. At its regular size, there would be a space for a child in the back of an amautiq. This one reveals more than it hides….[snip]