When Canada’s top music award, the Polaris Prize, went to Tanya Tagaq in the fall of 2014, it meant that she’d bested some pretty big names, including Drake and Arcade Fire. Perhaps the judges were swayed by the fact that of all the Canadian recordings issued that year, Animism was the most closely tied to the land and the people — in this case, the Inuit people of northernmost Canada. Tagaq lives in two worlds: the modern digital world of ProTools and EDM, and the traditional world of hunting and “throat singing.” Unlike its close cousin, the joik of the Sami people of northern Finland (check out Wimme Sari’s music sometime), Inuit throat singing is usually not a solo art. The custom is for two women to sing face to face, using their partner’s mouth as a resonating chamber as they bark and grunt syllables in rhythmic counterpoint. But Tagaq, on record and in her astonishing (and kinda scary) live sets, creates all the guttural and glottal sounds herself. Her band consists largely of drums and percussion, electronics and overdubbed violins, often used as rhythm instruments as well.
Songs like “Uja” and “Umingmak” open with the pounding of drums, tuned to suggest a melody even before Tagaq’s voice enters. The throat singing, which almost by definition is wordless, adds a final layer of rhythmic interest, and also adds to the suggestion that instead of a song, you’re listening in on some ancient Arctic ritual.
Animism begins with an outlier — an arrangement of the Pixies song “Caribou.” It’s a telling choice — not only because of its titular allusion to nature and an animal so central to Arctic culture, but because the Pixies’ obsessions (the play of light and dark, sanity and madness, erotic love and sexual abuse) are hers as well. What’s most surprising about Animism is how effectively she conveys these themes, and the overarching idea of celebrating and extending Inuit culture, without resorting to words. Or at least, words in English. The exception (well, apart from the Pixies cover) is “Fight,” a pulsing, almost orchestral statement of defiance and pride.
Tagaq’s voice proves to be a versatile instrument: “Rabbit” has a dramatic orchestral sound, made more striking by Tagaq’s use not only of throat singing but of more conventional, and conventionally beautiful, singing as well. “Flight” is built around layers of varied types of vocalizing, and ends with a startling ascent into the stratosphere. And “Tulugak” starts with a soft vocalise, with Tagaq’s crooning and cawing evoking the birds and the wind of the High Arctic.
Tagaq’s Polaris Prize win was a surprise to many. After hearing Animism, though, you may find yourself thinking it was inevitable.