Inuit “Throat-Singer” Tanya Tagaq Opens CC’s 18th Annual Arts Week


A strange, guttural sound… deep, anguished growling…passionate convulsions of the body…Tanya Tagaq describes her art as “sounds fit[ting] together like puzzle pieces.”

Photo by Nick Penzel

However, can her performance be described as art? Perhaps, it can more accurately be defined as an “articulate game.” Tagaq is a contemporary performer of the Inuit tradition known as “throat-singing.” According to writer Evie Mark of the online site Mustrad, throat-singing is not considered actual singing but rather a vocal or breathing activity. Custom dictates that while men hunted during the long Arctic winters—sometimes up to months at a time—the women would entertain the children by throat-singing to one another. This was done by two women facing one another and exchanging musical interludes;  one leads, and the other follows.

“The leader produces a short rhythmic motif, that [the follower] repeats with a short silent gap in-between, while the [leader] is rhythmically filling in the gaps.” Mark reported. “The game is such that both singers try to show their vocal abilities in competition by exchanging these vocal motives. The first to run out of breath or be unable to maintain the pace of the other singer will start to laugh or simply stop and will thus lose the game.”

Tagaq opened up Colorado College’s 18th annual Arts Week on Monday with a fervent performance of traditional Inuit throat-singing. Despite her calm and almost detached tones as she addressed the audience prior to her performance, she delivered an intense and thunderous vocal presentation. Winner of the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Award, Tagaq not only brings her tradition to life for modern Western audiences, but incorporates pieces of contemporary culture into her performances. This allows for spectators to gain a glimpse of Tagaq’s ancestors through a modern perspective.

In collaboration with percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq treated her audience to a live accompaniment of director Robert Flaherty’s film, Nanook of the North (1922). This film captures the daily life of an Inuk family in northern Quebec. While Tagaq had qualms of the film accurately depicting her culture, she praised the film’s “incredible love” for the Inuit. At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, Tagaq premiered her live, in concert rendition of Nanook of the North. Since then, she has continued to take her throat-singing interpretation of the film on tour.

Prior to her performance, Tagaq half-jokingly pointed to the exits of the Richard Celeste Theatre, playfully warning her audience that her performance may be too intense for some to bear. Yet, throughout the duration of her performance, as Tagaq produced deep, fervid cries in reflection of the emotions of her people, the audience listened on the edge of their seats with rapt attention.

Following her performance, Tagaq received a standing ovation. She grasped the hands of fellow performers Martin and Zubot in a corporate bow. While the audience continued to clap, she pulled both musicians close to her for an embrace.

Colorado College’s Cornerstone Arts Week runs from Monday, Jan. 29 until Saturday, Feb. 3, which concludes with the theatre production “The Man Who…” Throughout the week, additional lectures, screenings, and performances will be held. All productions revolve around the 2018 theme, “What is the creative brain?” This year’s keynote speakers include scientist Robert Sapolsky and artist Lynda Barry. In addition, Nelson Kies ’18 will put on a Music at Midday performance titled “The Creative Brain.”

Tanya Tagaq’s resounding performance of the Inuit tradition “throat-singing” preludes a culturally enlightening and notable Arts Week.

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