Tanya Tagaq is typically identified as an Inuk throat singer, but she'll be the first to tell you that the description is wholly inaccurate.
"What I do is not really throat singing at all," the acclaimed Canadian vocalist and avant-garde noisemaker has pointed out to this writer on a couple of occasions, and with good reason. The incomparably visceral, transporting business Tagaq gets up to onstage and in the studio is entirely her own thing, even if it can trace its roots to a musical tradition observed in various regional forms by indigenous northern peoples around the top of the globe for, by some scholarly estimates, as many as 4,000 or 5,000 years.
True, the departure point for Tagaq's improvisational sonic adventurism is her own 21st-century take on "classic" Inuit throat singing, a sort of ancestral, Arctic cousin of beatboxing wherein the cyclical intake and outtake of one's breath is employed to produce a guttural, grunting rhythmic chug over which gnawing, back-of-the-throat drones and frantic whoops, gasps, yelps, and muttered incantations are overlaid.
Historically, throat singing was a game played between pairs of Inuit women who would link arms, stand face-to-face so close together that they could employ each other's mouths as de facto "bass bins," and then attempt to vocally outmaneuver their opponents until one of them collapsed in laughter. As interpreted by Tagaq—who on her 2005 debut Sinaa, the one recording in her four-album catalogue that could be considered remotely "traditionalist," was already embellishing the form with vocal loops, stereoscopic effects, and electronically warped percussion tracks that would have been unimaginable to throat singing's originators—the music's endgame has never been to provoke giggles, however. As time goes on, in fact, its aim has increasingly become to wordlessly evoke horror, despair, and outrage on the part of the listener at the damage human beings have inflicted upon the earth, and upon each other.
Tagaq grew up in the isolated community of Cambridge Bay in Canada's Nunavut territory and was initially drawn to throat singing, she told the New Yorker in 2015, because "I heard the land in the voices." If you grow up in the Canadian north, you are necessarily connected to the land; without such a connection, the Inuit people would not have survived in one of the planet's most inhospitable environments. These days, at a time when climate change threatens to further disrupt the delicate balance of life in an Arctic already wracked by decades of economic racism and government policy aimed at assimilating indigenous cultures, and at a time when an indigenous Canadian female is statistically four times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population and the suicide rate in Nunavut stands at ten times the national average, Tagaq hears that land screaming. And we, in turn, also hear the land and its denizens screaming—sometimes literally—through Tagaq and the apocalyptic, elemental hellscapes she summons onstage, night after night, with her telepathically tethered and uncommonly limber accompanists, violinist and electronics maestro Jesse Zubot and percussionist Jean Martin.
Tagaq's music is as alive, as responsive to, and as reflective of the moment as modern Inuit culture itself. As life itself.
Throat singing, in Tagaq's hands, is no museum curio. In performance and on such hair-raising recordings as 2014's Animism—which took Canada's esteemed Polaris Music Prize over albums by Arcade Fire and Drake, minutes after Tagaq performed live to the nation's critical intelligentsia before a scrolling record of the names of 1,200 missing and/or murdered Canadian Aboriginal women—and 2016's even more confident, feral, and merciless Retribution, it's merely one element, light years removed from its a cappella beginnings, in a roiling, ever-evolving improvisational onslaught that is equal parts jazz, punk, metal, industrial, "rave" or Nirvana or the Pixies or whatever else happens to be moving through her mind and body at the time. Tagaq's music is as alive, as responsive to, and as reflective of the moment as modern Inuit culture itself. As life itself.
"The part of the music that I'm really interested in is relinquishing control," she has remarked. "You see this in children and animals—they're living right there, they're not thinking about what happened yesterday with so-and-so or what's going to happen tomorrow…The improvisation process, it's like you're pulling a thread through a needle and it's a never-ending thread and that piece will never be in the eyehole again. And that's how we live every day."
Also, political subtext aside, Tagaq just really, really likes making a racket.
"It would be so difficult to try to make music to fit into the typical idea of what music is," she told me last year. "I've always just done music because I love sound. I love the sense of sound, I love hearing, I love listening, I love making noise. That's why I'm doing what I do and for no other reason than that. So it would be almost unscrupulous of me to attempt to harness the beast in any way."
Ben Rayner has been the Toronto Star’s music critic since 1998. His work has also appeared in such publications as Spin, XLR8R, Fashion, and Gasoline.