Tanya Tagaq: Goddess of Shrill Ice and Eruptive Lava


by Rudy Gerson


What is the sound of tectonic plates shifting, of our ancestors howling, of humanity’s instinctual hunger satiated? Tanya Tagaq may be one of the few vocal artists touring today who has the answers. Hailing from the Inuit community indigenous to northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland, Tagaq arrived in New York to perform in The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in concert with a silent documentary film, the first of its kind, titled Nanook of the North.


Until the early 1920s, documentary film did not exist as a form of storytelling. One of the first filmmakers to innovate in this realm is Robert J. Flaherty, who cohabited amongst the Inuit people in the Hudson Bay in Canada, 300 miles south of the North Pole and precisely in the region where Tagaq was raised. The film has garnered well-earned attention for its innovative style of docudrama, which depicts an Inuit family led by the patriarch named Nanook in search of food and shelter.


To begin her performance, Tagaq stepped out into the light, shoeless and glowing, and described her experience watching the film in school growing up. The initial reaction of Tagaq is best described as dainty and fairy-like. Soft-spoken, dreamy, and wonderfully romantic, Tagaq exuded a warmth that seemed to emerge from a person who has lived through the cold death of icy winters—her school only gave students the day off when temperatures dipped below negative 60 Fahrenheit. Her inner flame has clearly grown stronger and brighter because of it all.


She’s also got serious talent. Having developed her own solo form of Inuit throat singing, Tagaq is able to conjure the sounds typically done by two women all alone. Yet, she’s not alone. Her extended Inuit family is right there with her.


The film began and a suspenseful soundscape colored the tundra. Violinist Jesse Zubot, drummer Jean Martin and disc jockey Michael Red round out the four-piece band, offering texture, pace, and breadth to Tagaq’s visceral and prowling performance.


Her voice is impossible to describe adequately. It merges high and low, both in tone and resonance, but also in its merging of high and low music. The band glided from Eno-like ambience to punk-metal hair-thrashing down beats. Tagaq became the landscape: her body—the wolves’ howl, the newborn shrieks, the wailing wind, and shuffle of the snow. Calling upon ancestral forces, the music is the soundtrack for the structure of feeling of an entire people, a culture living on the margins, shoved off melting ice caps, yet inexorably of the land, powered by the relentless core of the earth.


She juggled a tradition tortured and mourned that unstoppable death which careens like a freight train from hell and celebrated the same life-giving force of primordial birth. Elemental, abstract, yet clearly of the heart and soul, Tagaq and company manage to move mountains in a matter of 70 minutes.


Go see her. You will be amazed.


The Under the Radar Festival ran at The Public Theater from Wednesday January 6 through Sunday January 17. Learn more at www.publictheater.org  Catch Tanya Tagaq on tour around the U.S. and Canada this winter at www.tanyatagaq.com


Photo: Nadya Kwandibens