Some hold moderate views strongly, others hold strong views moderately, and the majority – despite a well-meaning pissed off sense the world’s going to end when elections don’t go their way – have the privilege to hold moderate views moderately. Tanya Tagaq doesn’t have this privilege, she holds her strong views strongly and makes sure people not only know these views, but do something to make their associated problems right.
Canadian Tagaq was raised by her white father and Inuit mother in her country’s least populous most northern territory, majority Inuit, Nunavut. While she recalls musical influences including the Beatles and Bob Marley from her father’s record collection and speaks only English fluently, her family’s maternal side most influences her life and drives her work. Her personality is engaging, a kind speaking voice such a comfortable listen she could present an easy listening music show on CBC. But her message, most clearly spread by media appearances and social media as her music is to a large extent wordless, isn’t comfortable and her beautiful music is only easy listening if you don’t know what it’s about. Wordlessness isn’t a problem, Billy Bragg and other campaigning musicians damp-squib optimism pointing out music rarely affects change – it’s not that simple guys – but it can grab people’s attention, something Tagaq’s music does. Right by the balls.
Tagaq is a throat singer. Her throat singing – katajjaq – is a custom that may go back 5,000 years but is neither authentic, traditionally it’s a fun duel between two women with one trying make the other laugh, or significant to her upbringing, being learned at college after receiving recordings from her mom, reversing into her ancestral culture in a way familiar to many of us second and later generation immigrants (should it need to be said, Inuit people aren’t immigrants). Using a game for political expression may appear like she’s not taking things too seriously, but people can take others both inside and outside their cultures too seriously, and in real life she’s reportedly amazingly good fun, public figures have multi-faceted personalities like the rest of us! And after all, this isn’t cultural appropriation, experimental jazz is a fight against the idea of black people performing simply to entertain white people, a tangential profile that fits her music. This all gives Tagaq more freedom to convey a greater range of emotions and subjects than many female musicians, an opportunity she’s not wasting.
It’s easy and difficult describing Tagaq’s throat singing. Easy because, even though it feels uncomfortable, one can use animalistic terms as she appropriates naturalistic sounds: childlike wails, adult-like grunts and wolf-like howls riding the gnarled and guttural cadence of the to-and-fro of an, often apocalyptic sounding, snarl and a pant. It’s difficult describing the remarkable skill tormenting her larynx’s biological limits, freeing these sounds from their grumbling gestation in her lower torso with the pain of a thrash metal guitar and “bratatat!” of a machine gun must surely hurt, but she says it’s fun and doesn’t hurt at all! Yet more difficult to describe is the unsettlement on realising her throat duelling is in fact throat soloing, if this was all there is to her, this one-woman band act would be the world’s best party trick. Technically it’s stunning, her voice’s constant volume and intensity whether she’s inhaling or exhaling. Artistically it’s hypnotising, and what a way to get your message across, by hypnotising people.
“Reconciliation” is a palliative but needy operative word in Canada with the country’s now concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a response to the cultural and physical neglect and abuse committed under its residential school system that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 6,000 Inuit children between the mid-19th century right to its closure in 1996. Inuit children including Tagaq (1996 isn’t long ago) were forcibly removed from their families for assimilation into white culture as a means to eradicate their own culture. A cultural genocide not ending with the end-of-Empire as, despite its well deserved progressive almost self-flagellating international reputation – including better acceptance of diversity and immigration than its also English-speaking friends – this is a country where the colonists kept custody of others’ land and the missionaries continued on their mission (unsurprisingly restricting throat signing as a pagan act, it’s a good job Tanya’s mom kept those tapes). The less palliative more forthright word reparation is often more useful, a term amplified into retribution, which speaks deeper of people’s frustration with bureaucratic processes, and wider of related ecological concerns such as the effects of drilling for oil that threatens the Inuit people by almost literally washing their life away from under their feet. Despite Tagaq not wishing to be either an “Inuit singer” – everybody deserves the basic human dignity not to be defined by a single characteristic – or a role model after her Polaris Music Prize (the “Canadian Mercury Music Prize”) victory for Animism, Western cultures place a burden of expectation on their non-white people to explain their problems so they can understand, sometimes even comfort, them. All politics is identity politics, which is where Retribution comes in.
Predictably, title track ‘Retribution’ is indicative. Tagaq is vocally and visually possessed by ghosts summoned to this time and place by the force of her persuasion, her facial contortions not only an expression of herself but an expression of others. A spectacle both disconcerting and magical. Now these ghosts are here they demand our attention and they’re not giving any room for interpretation. A clear English-language manifesto refrains “Because retribution will be swift.” hovering over the “s” in “swift” like ssslippery ssspeaking ssserpents familiar to many cultures, and this serpent has a lot of venom. Mother Earth is name-checked as ‘Gaia’ in ‘Cold Wind’, which continues the English-language manifesto, her precisely annotated voice resembling Rickie Lee Jones’s in The Orb’s ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ if ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ was about something more than little fluffy clouds. Terrorising violins (violinist Jesse Zubot also producing the album) and glitchy electronics force us to hear Gaia suffering her assault. Gaia’s fed up and is impatient to see the back of us, already planning for her new tenants, “A new steady state of highly tolerant life may hopefully rapidly evolve but human civilisation as we know it will no longer exist, Because Gaia likes it cold.” speaks to the human exceptionalism that believes earth not only wants, but cares about, our existence, and that the universe has an obligation explain this existence to us. Gaia couldn’t care less and she insists we know it. Leave the keys under the mat. Thanks.
Devastation’s everywhere. The residential school system’s survivors suffer cycles of social depravation and dysfunction that are passed down the generations: poverty, violence and neglect handed down like family heirlooms resulting in accelerating: rapes, murders and kidnaps of women, on top of underlying problems of alcohol consumption and abuse of other drugs. Tagaq’s own alcohol consumption resulted in a kidney infection that meant she had to leave Björk’s tour after the Icelandic superstar gave the Canadian nascent star her first big break. Tragically and more seriously, Tagaq has described the sexual abuse she’s suffered as an adult and a child, an older cousin committing the felony on her at the age of five or six in a roomful of other children. Corporeal not figurative rape that makes her cover of Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’ heartbreaking and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics’ intended meaning unimportant.
What is important, is that while a finger points at the ultimate cause, responsibility’s not shirked, neither for problems in the Inuit community or with landlady Gaia who listens to her confession of humanity’s sins. This is the open nationalism of “We share a destiny” over the closed nationalism of “We share an origin”. The terrible list continues: the 13 times – 40 for men – suicide rates in her home territory than other areas of her country, over 1,200 Inuit women murdered or missing in 30 years, and a young Inuit person can attend ten funerals in a year but a white person of a similar age is lucky enough not to have expected to attend one in their lives. It’s less a normalisation of death than just the way things have always been. Tagaq realised none of this should have been “the way things have always been” only in the external view offered by college. Many are not so lucky but at least they have people on their behalf that see there’s a cycle to break.
Even though she says it’s fun we worry Tagaq’s wearing her voice out as it wears us out just by listening. And this voice has an incredibly fine grained descriptive quality: figurative wolves at the door, less figurative rhythms owning her sexuality, the whole lot. ‘Nacreous’ introduces the most gloriously evil throaty snarl, reminiscent of Mercedes McCambridge’s potty-mouthed possessed child from 'The Exorcist'. William Friedkin’s film has obsessive fans who’ll hate the idea, but it should be remade just to cast Tagaq in this role, which would fit her colourful speaking language as well as her sense of – this word again – fun. The throat-singing duels have until now given the sense of an ongoing conversation, a conversation that concludes in ‘Sulfur’’s final battle, one voice’s soothing wail versus its oppositional voice’s growl, both increasingly panicked in-line with sawing strings and a – we hope – angelic, choir in a terrifying crescendo. Then the soothing voice descends into manic laughter before a clearly human death rattle. Humankind’s done for. The voices have been playing a game like Tagaq’s maternal ancestors, just something to pass the time before this species, as foretold by Gaia’s diary, departs on her Mother Earthly schedule.
Tagaq’s music feels like the closest thing the real world’s got to magic. It’s able to carry us away instantly to places and memories that are long gone, and things that have been otherwise forgotten. It describes what it must have been like to live in an ever present reality where death was always close at hand, where death arrived at an early age of natural causes or inflicted by invaders who arrived suddenly and without warning. But wait, something’s not right. She’s talking about the present day and this shit’s still happening and it needs to stop right now. Tanya Tagaq is a sometimes controversialist, an engaging woman, and a brilliant campaigner fighting to help people on the social margins. And she’s one of the best musicians you’ll ever hear. Retribution is 2016’s most societally important, morally gutsy and musically beautiful album.
Retribution album artwork courtesy of Martin Wittfooth: 'Eschaton, Oil on canvas, 2013'. Press photo credit: Katrin Naleid. The album is released on Sharp Shooter Records.