In just six short years, groundbreaking Inuk throat singer, Tanya Tagaq Gillis, has brought an ancient Inuit vocal game to the heights of the experimental music scene. She’s collaborated with Bjork and the Kronos Quartet and toured with some of the world’s leading “global” artists.
Like Bjork, Tagaq makes music that is both decidedly unusual and universally appealing on a most primal level. Her innovative, solo style of throat singing seeks to push the boundaries of emotion and to express the primitive instincts she believes still reside deep within our flesh. She describes her evolution over the past six years as a process of going deeper and deeper into her performance to the point where she virtually “leaves her body” and lets the expression take over.
Tagaq’s new CD, Sinaa (say “sih-NAA”), displays her technique through a collection of original improvisations and three traditional Inuk throat songs. Most of the time, Tagaq’s voice is the only instrument, communicating the emotion of the piece through a stunning array of sounds: aggressive grunts and growls, frantic gasping rhythms and ecstatic, high pitched wails…sometimes layered over additional beds of moans and sighs. Four songs also feature the tribal sounding beats of the txalaparta (say “cha-la-PAR-ta”), traditional Basque percussion provided by Tagaq’s partner, Filipe Ugarte and his duo, Ugarte Anaiak. On “Ancestors,” a duet with Bjork, a touch of piano provides the backdrop as Bjork’s sweet, shrill vocalizations intertwine with Tagaq’s provocative throat sounds.
It’s a far cry from traditional throat singing, which is neither an emotional art form nor the work of a solo artist. Conventionally, throat singing is done by pairs of women who stand face to face and create rhythms out of the sounds made with their breath and vocal chords. One leads and the other fills in the gaps in her rhythm until one gives in to laughter or exhaustion. The only similarity to Tagaq’s work is the sounds themselves, which often emulate sounds from nature like animals or the wind.
Though Tagaq grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, she had little exposure to the centuries old art form. It wasn’t until her final year of art school in Halifax that she began emulating tapes of throat singing her mother had sent her from home. It was originally intended as a cure for homesickness. Tagaq had no partner to practice with and no one to teach her the “right way to do it.” But her growing passion for the form, combined with a series of “cosmic coincidences,” convinced her to make it a primary form of artistic expression.
Tagaq’s first public performance was at a Cambridge Bay talent contest with an old friend who had also been learning to sing. It was broadcast on the radio and caught the attention Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks organizers, who invited the duo to perform. That lead to invitations from other Festivals. Then, in 2000, Tagaq attended the Great Northern Arts Festival to exhibit her paintings. When the organizers discovered they were short of performers, Tagaq agreed to sing. Her partner, however, wasn’t with her, so she performed solo with a cast of other performers backing her up. In the audience that day, filming the show, were two friends of Bjork’s from Iceland. The rest, as they say, is history. Tagaq was invited to join Bjork’s Vespertine tour in 2001. She appears on both of Bjork’s subsequent recordings: Medulla, an album paying tribute to the human voice, and the soundtrack to the film, Drawing Restraint 9.
A second “cosmic coincidence” occurred in 2002. While living in London for a month, Tagaq began performing to help pay the bills. One of those shows was recorded by the publishers of fRoots magazine and placed on their compilation CD. The recording found it’s way into the hands of the Kronos Quartet, leading to Tagaq’s second significant collaboration. This March, her work with Kronos will culminate in a performance at Carnegie Hall.
Meanwhile, Tagaq toured Europe in 2003 as part of the Canada Council’s Sonic Weave tour. Last year, she toured the UK as part of the Shaman Voices Tour with Mongolian throat singer, Okna Tsahan Zam and Finnish yoiker, Wimme. And in November of last year, she earned a standing ovation for her performance at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. She also received three awards at the ceremony, including the prize for “Best Female Artist.”
Bjork describes Tagaq as “like Edith Piaf or something…totally emotional.” CBC’s Zed describes her as “an outgoing, enigmatic and astounding performer, composer and improviser…revered, controversial, personable, humble, alluring, terrifying.” They add “Tanya Tagaq Gillis is possibly the most unique performer of truly traditional, Canadian music in our country.”