Wearing a shiny gold tunic and hand crafted silver etched head piece with bear claw accents and sealskin mukluks, Inuit style throat singer Tanya Tagaq took the stage at Vancouver's York Theater on January 31 as one-third of a trio. Their mission: Contextualize Nanook of the North, a silent film that is both a cinematic landmark and a document of the era's patronizing colonialist mentality.
Cambridge Bay-born and Brandon, Manitoba-based singer Tagaq is a perfect fit for Vancouver's PuSh Festival, celebrating it’s 10th year of cutting edge, boundary-pushing performances. Tanya collaborates with her longtime musical partner, violinist Jesse Zubot, and percussionist Jean Martin, the trio's hardest-working member, who punches in electronic cues from the foundation of the soundscape while keeping time and responding to the immediate collaboration taking place on stage. Together, they perform a live, inspired and informed musical soundscape presented simultaneously with the 1922 Robert Flaherty silent film.
The contrast is obvious. The film is a white man’s exploitative look at the “exotic” and harrowing lifestyle of one Inuit family on the brink of contact. The singer is living proof of the intersecting of cultures resulting in a dynamic, self-empowered display of Inuit ethereal reality with both Nanook and Tagaq reaching into their un-named spirit domains that help(ed) both to survive; one literally, the other culturally.
Tanya confronts the ridiculous representation of her people through her expressive vocables. A gramophone is introduced to the Inuit family in the film as a whimsical experiment to “see what would occur.” An Inuit, surviving off the land, combating fatal elements on a daily basis would have no need for a gramophone or records. However the filmmaker thought it “funny” to have Nanook, his children and hard working pets interact with this object, directing them to bite the record in a caveman-like fashion. Tagaq found this offensive when she viewed the film as a child and exacts her revenge delivering a gravely, equally offensive reply, repeating the word Colonizer—Colonizer—Colonizer when the gramophone makes its appearance.
She celebrates the beauty of the people and the land she so loves too. Tanya has been quoted as saying “Inuit babies are so cute, you just want to eat them.” With her extraordinary vocal range, Tanya channels adorable baby sounds when Nanook’s offspring pokes out from mommy’s hood and intuits the whimpering of puppies. Conversely, she growls in rhythmic spurts portraying the alpha dog we see on screen. The audience’s gaze shifts from screen to singer, to musicians, back to the screen. Tanya is an animated performer and lends satisfaction to the note “people listen with their ears as well as their eyes.” In this performance she is no less animated, but a bit more stationary as the trio receives musical cues from the film displayed on monitors at their feet.
In this unique pairing of live performance and film, we are privy to gifts of the extraordinary. Through instinct and practice, Nanook locates a sea lion beneath the ice and with the help of his extended family, wins a tug of war with the creature to feed his family. Tanya employs similar instincts pulling the audience through a performance experience like no other. She continues to push the boundaries of both vocal performance and cultural traditions to create new territory. She has found a fearlessness inside the reinvention of Inuit throat singing which liberates her as an artist and thrills us, as an audience.
Take that, Robert Flaherty.
Tanya Tagaq's performance of Nanook of the North at the Push Festival was the last of four concerts she played in Canada. In March, she will play two dates in Mexico with Michael Red, and in April she's off to the Czech Republic, the UK and Sweden for more performances of Nanook — for dates and locations, see facebook.com/tanyatagaq.