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In Extremis

Breath Of The Inuit: Tanya Tagaq Interviewed
John Freeman , January 28th, 2015 13:20

Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq talks to John Freeman about her extraordinary new album Animism and why she would tell Paul McCartney to "fuck right off"

In September of last year Tanya Tagaq won Canada's prestigious Polaris music prize for her third studio album, Animism, beating Arcade Fire and Drake in the process. Tagaq is a throat singer and Animism is an extraordinary collection of songs that bristle with fluttering breath sounds, guttural yelps and mind-bending vocal gymnastics. It's also a record that seethes and roars against man's destruction of nature and Tagaq's performance of two tracks - 'Uja' and 'Umingmak' - at the award ceremony was described as the "most memorable in our history" by the Polaris committee.

However, Tagaq hasn't always been the recipient of such wholesome praise. A few months before the Polaris win, she tweeted a picture of her baby lying next to a recently killed adult seal. Tagaq is an Inuk, and was raised in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, where hunting for seals is a common occurrence. The picture evoked the ire of the anti-seal activists and a predictable backlash from keyboard trolls (it was even suggested Tagaq was an unfit mother for placing her child next to a dead animal).  

The incident also highlighted the daily battle against misinformation and ignorance that many indigenous people face in Canada. Nunavut is Canada's most northern territory but has a population of less than 40,000 people within its two million square kilometres. Tiny communities are often cut off from the nearest towns (which are maybe hundreds of miles away) and hunting provides families with critical nutrition.    

Over the past year, Tagaq has become a focal point in highlighting the plight of indigenous communities in Canada. She herself went to a residential school - a now defunct educational institution which sought to remove indigenous children from the influence of their families and culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. Abuse was commonplace; by the time the last school closed in 1996, 150,000 children had passed through the system and over 4,000 had reportedly died while attending a residential school.  

When I speak to Tagaq via Skype, she is more than happy to take me through the issues facing the Inuit. We also briefly touch on her teenage years ("we'd play a game to see who could get the most frostbitten") and the collaboration with Björk on her 2004 Medulla album ("she has got that Northern girl feel about her - she is very nice but you wouldn't want to fuck with her") But talk quickly turns back to politics. The Polaris prize win has provided a platform of publicity; Tagaq is keen to articulate the traumas endured by the indigenous population of Canada and flips between her rage against the system and a deep passion for the Inuit's connection to nature.

Can you tell me about origins of the Inuit form of throat singing?

Tanya Tagaq: Throat singing traditionally is a call-and-response game between two women and it is a departure from your speaking voice. It's very percussive and the voices fit together like puzzle pieces. You try to do it for as long as possible without messing up. It's a game of stamina and your mind has to work really quickly because the leader can switch the song or the follower can switch the song.

Did you hear throat singing as a small child?

TT: No, I didn't grow up with throat singing because I grew up with colonialists and priests who didn't like it, so it was kind of banned. It was seen as being too sensual or too demonic, which is, of course, ridiculous. I ended up teaching myself how to do it - and that's why I ended up singing alone.

How difficult was it to teach yourself to sing that way?

TT: I had no problem. I think it is something that pulled at my roots, to be honest. I felt it right away and had no problem making any of the sounds. My mum is dumbfounded - she doesn't know how I do it.

Congratulations on winning the Polaris Prize with Animism. How has your music evolved on this record compared to your previous studio album, Auk/Blood?

TT: The group I am working with, Jesse Zubot [producer] and Jean Martin [percussionist], had years of touring with me and so we really built our language of improvisation, meaning this album is more polished. Also, Jesse was able to put something in during the production that really captured the idea of what I am trying to portray with music, because he was born and raised on the plains of Saskatchewan on a farm so he knows about isolation. We were doing the mixing for Animism and I just remember him saying, "I'm going to put some spiritual shit in here."

Many of the themes on Animism explore the notion that human beings are destroying the planet. What compelled you to base the album around this central concept?

TT: I love breathing! People seem to like doing it. So, maybe they should do a better job making sure that our kids can breathe clean air and drink clean water. You have to understand that I was raised within nature. I remember we would go on camping trips and I would come back to our little town [Cambridge Bay] of 1,500 people and I would recoil from the stench of the town hitting me. I don't think people understand just how small the world is. I have flown right around the earth while on tour and it is not that big. Considering the impact we are having environmentally it would seem really silly to not point this out to people, just so we can all do our tiny drop-in-the-bucket things to help. We are already in a crisis situation. It's terrifying.

Animism also contains a wonderful cover version of one of my favourite Pixies songs, 'Caribou'. Why did you choose to cover that particular track?

TT: Probably because I am just a little shit punk in my heart! I remember growing up in Nunavut and when I first heard the song 'Caribou', I was like "someone's singing about caribou!" I couldn't believe it as I grew up with caribou all over the place. I slowly got into their music. I now have a whole bunch of covers that I want to do that are very fun - if you look at them through the interpretative lens of an indigenous Canadian they take on a whole new element. For example, someone singing about caribou who has hunted them brings a whole new perspective.

Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood in Nunavut? Did I read that as a teenager you would have competitions to see who could get the most frostbitten?

TT: Yeah, we did! It was so funny - it was teenagers trying to be cool. We would be out in minus 40 Celsius in just a little jacket and no hat. It was kids being kids. I always lost that game. Winning was to get the most frostbite. When you get really bad frostbite you can peel your skin off. We would have contests to see who could peel the biggest patch of skin off. It was kind of gross. But, there have been lots of tragedies as many of my friends have frozen. There was a guy in Baker Lake who was just trying to get to the store and the storm was so bad that he froze to death. You would find people frozen solid the next day. It is a hard, hard life. School would be cancelled due to polar bear sightings. It would also be cancelled if the temperature dropped below minus 60 Celsius.

And am I right in thinking that hunting was part of your day-to-day life?

TT: Yes, growing up, I would be involved in hunting on a very regular basis. But, it's not this evil thing - we are not going out to aggressively kill animals. It's very peaceful. We are all part of nature. Nature eats things and we are part of that. You have to understand that the town I was living in was very small. There were no roads out and not another town for hundreds of miles. All the food from the south has to be flown in by jet plane, so it is terribly, terribly expensive. It means that there is a lot of poverty. Due to the effects of colonialism - the sense that the government didn't want us to be nomadic, they wanted us in communities - we got cut off a lot from our own practices.

You have been understandably outspoken about the plight of indigenous people in Canada. How do you see the current situation in places like Nunavut?

TT: Well, even the United Nations is talking about the state of indigenous cultures in Canada. When I am substitute teaching up there, I see children with their teeth falling out because they don't have good things to eat. They are coming to school hungry and unhealthy. Then you have these assholes, who can just walk to their corner cafe and get a latte, telling us we shouldn't hunt. That is taking food out of children's mouths. It is so irrational and so patronising. It's a mini version of gross colonialism and it makes me so angry. I wish I could talk to someone like Paul McCartney and tell him to fuck right off because there are children who are starving. Why is he talking about the seal ban? Is his family hungry? Before the seal ban existed, people were doing well in providing food for their families. Not only could they eat more healthily but they could make money to give their families a better quality of life. Now there is rampant poverty. So, it is very ridiculous to have anyone commenting on things without understanding what is happening.

The population of Nunavut is only 35-37,000 and that spans the entire top of Canada. It is these tiny communities that are just trying to survive, while everyone else is running around eating their bacon and wearing leather and looking down their noses at us. We don't even club seals - that is just a fucking myth - and we have assholes like Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney spreading their bullshit around which literally takes food out of children's mouths.

Is there a sense that winning the Polaris prize has given you a platform to raise awareness about these issues?

TT: Yes, just to have an opportunity like this to say something about it is a gift. Hopefully I can shift people's way of thinking about it. It is not brutal to know where your food is coming from. Just because someone else killed it for you doesn't mean it didn't die.

Would you really want to tell Paul McCartney to "fuck off"?

TT: Well, I would love to talk to him and meet with him; sit face-to-face and discuss the actual issues that are occurring. He seems like a good-hearted man and I think if I brought him to Nunavut and he saw the hungry kids and how pitifully people live maybe he would change his mind.

You went to a residential school. The concept of such schools existing seems pretty appalling.

TT: Canada is in really big denial about the fact there were acts of genocide at residential schools and that thousands of children died. There was a terrible amount of abuse that occurred that we would tell amongst ourselves and that is only just now starting to come out. The government doesn't want people to know; there were terrible medical experiments, lots of rape and vicious beatings. The last school closed down in 1996 and it is not that long ago. We are still living the ramifications of that day-to-day. People would be taken to residential schools and would go away for ten years and be raped and beaten and taught that they were shit. They would be sent back and they don't know how to hunt or be a parent or anything. So, there is a huge ripple effect that has occurred within indigenous cultures. When people are downtrodden and then judged - it's always "look at the fucking drunk Indian" - then it is hard to get out of that. If you look at the statistics of people who were raped or sexually abused or beaten, our culture has been through terrible times and we are starting to stand back up now. But I am still four times more likely to be murdered than any other demographic in Canada.

I have a platform now and it is with an open heart that I discuss these things. I recently went to the Jewish memorial in Berlin and that was a beautiful thing to see and a step forward. That's what Canada should be doing. Canada needs to understand that in order to take over North America there needed to be a system in place that said the indigenous people were dirty and low and wrong. That attitude had to exist; you could not morally take the land without thinking that - you would feel too guilty otherwise. Canada doesn't understand that an undercurrent [of that thinking] still exists.

What would you like to see happen in Canada?

TT: I just want an acknowledgment and perhaps a change in the system. It's interesting to be talking to you because to be enabled to connect with people from England is crucial and important. It's not about pointing blame - it's more about telling people about what happened and what is happening and about opening our hearts and minds to it, so that there can be some healing process. Hence visiting the Jewish memorial was very incredible and it would be powerful as an indigenous person in Canada to have that acknowledgement of the genocide that occurred.

Against such a historical backdrop, how do you summon the strength to make art?

TT: Of course a lot of the best art comes from strife. People are making art and expressing themselves and it is the first time that has happened as the first couple of generations were too hurt to do anything. Right now there is an indigenous renaissance that is happening in Canada that is pretty fucking incredible.  Joseph Boyden is an author and is winning the Giller Prize.  A Tribe Called Red are a hip-hop band who are doing really well.

Last year you posted a picture of your baby next to a dead adult seal, as part of the 'Sealfie' awareness campaign and the Inuit's right to hunt seals. Can you tell me about how the photo came about?

TT: I took that picture long before the 'Sealfie' movement at an elder's camp in the middle of nowhere. Some elders were sitting around drinking tea in the summertime and it was very peaceful. A boat pulled up and it was their nephew who had caught a seal. They were so happy to be able to have the seal for the fur, for tanning, and to eat. You can weave the intestines together to make rope. Every single part of that beautiful animal is used. One of the traditions is to melt snow in your mouth and then put it into the seal's mouth so their spirit isn't thirsty in the afterlife. It is a deep respect. So, I put my baby next to the seal for people who eat meat but are disgusted by a dead animal. That is insane to me. It's crazy talk. I put my baby there to show how peaceful it can be and how much you can respect the animal. As for the internet backlash, I had no idea those crazy people existed. I had no idea that people that horrible and that brainwashed were out there. It was a big learning experience for me.

It must take huge personal energy to constantly be the focus of this debate. Did the backlash to your 'Sealfie' photo ever make you want to take yourself out of the firing line?

TT: No, I live this every day in Canada. I live with the stories and I live with the past. My mother was born and raised in an igloo. Now she has a B.Ed from McGill University. I will never tire of talking about that. Plus there are too many smart, educated people who get it. Lots of vegetarians have supported me. The idiots trolling me are only doing it for their own ego and having to be an asshole every day. It's not even about seals - they don't give a fuck about the seals. We give a fuck about the seals, because we need them to live. So, it doesn't affect me that much. One of the benefits of growing up on the land is having really strong roots and core. People cannot hurt me.

Animism is out now via Six Shooter Records. Tanya Tagaq plays the Village Underground in London on May 19; for full details and tickets, head here