Shattering stereotypes of happy-go-lucky eskimos – “We’re happy but we’re really dangerous” – throat-singer Tanya Tagaq summoned centuries of first nation heritage last night with a performance that was commanding, terrifying and often mindbogglingly beautiful.
For the uninitiated, Inuit throat-singing originated as a face-to-face competition between two women, an early street battle with two combatants attempting to follow each other’s vocal trajectories. Tanya Tagaq sings solo and, if you haven’t witnessed the result, try to imagine Björk performing both Linda Blair’s Regan and Pazuzu in an improvised musical theatre adaptation of THE EXORCIST and you’ll get somewhere close.
In her impressive closing night concert for Origins Festival of First Nations, Tagaq photobombed Robert J. Flaherty’s seminal but problematic 1922 documentary, NANOOK OF THE NORTH. As introduced by festival artistic director Michael Walling, such acts of cultural reappropriation embellish imperialism with the genuine voice of first nation peoples. Significantly, Tagaq is a once in a lifetime talent, a breathtaking artist and performer powerfully supported by skilled musicians Jean Martin and Ash Koosha.
In her opening, Tagaq described her own origins as victim of Canadian domestic policy that stripped her and her peers of much of their cultural heritage. She only rediscovered throat-singing – teaching herself and adapting the ancient art – after teenage years spent listening to the “same music as you”. Tagaq also addressed her problematic relationship with Flaherty’s documentary, a film that she both loves and hates. Loves because it captures some of the inalienable beauty of her homeland heritage and hates because of the mistruths and stereotypes it has entrenched for almost a century.
“There is another part of the film where there is a gramophone and Nanook is biting on the record like he doesn’t know what it is. It makes me so mad, because when you study the making of the film, a lot of the Inuit were running the cameras.”
Flaherty has appeared briefly in RADIANT CIRCUS before – thrusting ELEPHANT BOY Sabu from anonymity to superstardom – but it is NANOOK OF THE NORTH that he is most famous for. Often credited as the father of documentary and ethnographic cinema, Flaherty filmed what became NANOOK twice, firstly as documentarist on a 1913 expedition to the Belcher Islands and then – after that film stock was lost to fire – casting his semi-fictional study of the Inuit people in 1920.
From a quick audience poll, about a third of the audience at the National Maritime Museum had seen NANOOK OF THE NORTH which is a shame as this extraordinary artwork was rather lost at sea. We’ve written about the challenge of combining live performance and projection elsewhere, finding that implacable moving pictures and more yielding live musicianship can make for unhappy bedfellows. Here, the film was definitely secondary, both a mere contextual backdrop to the main action but also diminished in projected size and significance so as to be barely perceptible from the mid-rows.
Tagaq’s performance more than compensated, almost shattering the glass ceiling of the Maritime Museum’s Great Map Room as if Flaherty’s film and its time-trapped study of a “simple” people had been long forgotten. Set amongst the pomp of oppressive white privilege and adorned with the relics of a once-upon-a-time naval superpower, Tagaq sang as if she was bringing down the brick work.
It was both a monumental and an elemental performance, ranging dramatically in power, volume, pace and pitch, at times refreshingly aggressive and yet also achingly beautiful. Propelled by her musicians, Tagaq’s punkish act of reclamation will have echoed far beyond the nearby Prime Meridian.
QUOTE: Tanya Tagaq in conversation with Sandra Laronde, Banff Centre, Alberta, quoted in the Origins Festival of First Nations programme, Border Crossings, London 10 – 25 JUNE 2017.