The Wonderful World of Tanya Tagaq

Last night, I had the incredible opportunity to see Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq perform live at Joe’s Pub in New York City. She and her two musicians, Jean Martin (percussions) and Jesse Zubot (violin/viola), performed non-stop for a breathtaking hour, taking us on a primal journey that is completely beyond words. Mixing traditional throat singing sounds with contemporary rhythms, Tagaq infuses an ancient art form with, as she describes it, “what it means to be Inuit today.” And a hundred percent of it is improvised. The result is a visceral experience that is as much about the otherworldly sounds she makes as it is about watching her move through space like a wild animal. This show is definitely not something you can watch with your mind wondering, comfortably sitting back in your chair. It requires total commitment from every single fiber of your being and once you’re in, there’s no way out. You have to ride the wave with her until the very end. It was so intense, so visceral that it left me completely exhausted.

Originally from the territory of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic, Tagaq is an international artist who is best known for her collaboration with Björk and the Kronos Quartet. Her album Auk/Blood, released in 2008 is extraordinary although now that I have seen her perform live, I have to admit, it provides only half of the experience. Still, it is powerful (I can’t listen to the song Force, in particular, without feeling like I’m going to hyperventilate) and well-worth listening to. Also worth watching is A String Quartet in Her Throat, which documents her collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and Nunavut, the performance that came out of that collaboration. There is also a great article about her in this week’s Valley Advocate.

Tagaq’s music is not “about” climate change. It is so infused with the sounds of her native land, and so rooted in the Inuit culture – both traditional and modern – that it simply “is” climate change. It is, as she explains at the top of the show, her way of expressing everything that we, as individuals, keep buried inside. It is an expression of our collective despair at our estrangement from the natural world. Like climate change, her music is raw, unapologetic and driven by powerful hidden forces. And it will take you somewhere you never even imagine you could go.

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Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.

4 thoughts on “The Wonderful World of Tanya Tagaq

  1. the arctic is the first place to study when it come to CC. Here in Ikaluktotiak, Tanya’s home town, there are already several climate change programs underway by KOPRI (Korean Polar Research Inst) and EC Environment Canada. In the next few years CHARS (Canadian High Arctic Research Station) will be in full swing. As part of Tanya’s family, we look forward to this research, it may be the most important science of mankind.

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    • I agree with you–climate change research is the most important science we can be doing at this moment. I hope KOPRI and EC are taking the time to listen to Inuit and involve the community in their activities. I have learned a lot from Inuit from working on a play of mine called SILA and I have great respect for what you have to offer, especially when it comes to our relationship with nature.

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