Tanya Tagaq modernizes Inuit vocal traditions

Tanya Tagaq's new album, Auk/Blood, is a portrait of a primeval past that is also quite futuristic. Animalistic grunts and howls mix with beatboxing and sensual gasps, the chorus of which emanates from Tagaq's vocal cords.

An Inuit throat singer from the Canadian town of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Tagaq traffics in a vocal art form that began more than 1,000 years ago as a game to ward off Arctic chill and boredom. Two Inuit women would get as close as possible to one another while making guttural breaths that mimicked animal noises, wind, and other natural sounds. Whoever laughed or ran out of air first lost. "Traditionally it developed because it was, like, minus 500 degrees outside," Tagaq laughs. "Often the men would be off hunting and it was just the women around, and you've got to keep entertained somehow."

Tagaq didn't arrive at her style the traditional way, which probably explains the ancient and modern visions at play on Auk/Blood. While she was studying art at college in Nova Scotia, her mother sent her tapes of traditional Inuit throat singing to help cure her homesickness. She began singing along, often in the shower, trying to mimic the sounds she heard. "I never saw the traditional style of throat singing when I was little," she says. "I just heard the tapes my mom sent me."

Tagaq's career developed with help from what she calls two "cosmic coincidences." In 2002, she gave a spontaneous performance at a Canadian art show that was filmed by friends of pop princess Björk, who was so captivated that she enlisted Tagaq on her 2004 a cappella opus Medúlla and her ensuing Vespertine tour. A recording made in London for the folk magazine fRoots found its way to David Harrington of Kronos Quartet. He commissioned Nunavut, a collaboration between Tagaq and Kronos, performances of which toured North America and played at Carnegie Hall.

Now, with her second solo release, Tagaq blasts Inuit throat singing even further beyond a regional style or cultural curiosity. Her vocalizing — which includes percussive moans, deep sighs, and wails that fall from a blood-curdling breath to a primal hiss in an instant — is startling enough at first listen to make you check the liner notes to find out how such noises are produced. Her breathy soundscapes run from hypersexual to terrifying and are mixed with lush violins, electronic beats, and the odd special guest like Mike Patton (himself a Medúlla alum) and Canadian rapper Buck 65. It's a blend that Tagaq acknowledges isn't unanimously popular among the Inuit of her home region. "Some people like it," she says of her new music, "but some think it mixes too much modern stuff and it should just be traditional."

Still, on tracks like "Growth," which incorporates live drums and percussion, and "Hunger," where she ruminates on desire and fear over a bed of ambient breaths and violin, the end result taps into a deep-rooted emotional landscape that's universally human. "Through all of history, people have always made music that reflected their environment," she says. "For me, all these emotions just come out in my music." Ruminating on the gamut of mood swings on Auk/Blood, she adds with a laugh, "I guess you could say I'm tripolar!"

 
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