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UBC School of Music’s Aaron Pettigrew on Tanya Tagaq

The Chan Centre is working with the UBC School of Music’s Department of Ethnomusicology to engage students in writing short pieces connecting our presentations to pertinent ideas and concepts in ethnomusicology.

Here, graduate student Aaron Pettigrew writes about the importance of Tanya Tagaq’s music in a cultural and political context. Aaron is a graduate student in Ethnomusicology at UBC. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, composer, educator and writer with a strong interest in jazz and improvised music. You can read more of his writing at aaronpettigrew.com.

Ethnomusicologists study the many relationships between music and culture. As Bruno Nettl says, we tend to believe that music can “symbolize in distilled and abstract form the character and values of a culture,”[i] and we’re eager to unpack and explore those symbolisms in musics around the world.

In recent years, following the lead of anthropologists and cultural theorists, ethnomusicologists have increasingly become students of musical, cultural, and political change.[ii] For the contemporary ethnomusicologist, it’s interesting to listen to Tanya Tagaq’s innovative mixture of traditional and modern musical techniques and to think about how her musical choices communicate her attitudes toward political and cultural change.

Tanya Tagaq often talks about her music as a form of political activism. In interviews and recorded conversations, she speaks openly and passionately about the challenges that face Inuit and other Aboriginal people in Canada: forced relocation, residential schools, missing and murdered women, economic hardship, and the destruction of traditional Inuit cultural practices and identity.[iii],[iv],[v] She says of her latest record, Animism, “This album is focused a lot on how I feel about colonialism, government and society… I’ve been singing about that my whole life, without putting words to it.”[vi]

Though her songs are mostly wordless, they are certainly not without meaning. One can hear Tanya Tagaq giving voice to her political convictions in the music itself—the musical choices she makes reflect her convictions about how things should be. As a solo throat-singer, for instance, she brings a twist to an Inuit musical practice traditionally performed by pairs of women.[vii] For her, the choice to perform throat-singing alone is not only stylistic, but it’s political as well: “I’ve been through a lot of the stereotypical ideas of what Inuit people go through, so [throat-singing] is like protest music to me. I didn’t want to stand with a partner, nicely making some sounds… I don’t want to sound victim-y to people” (Up Here, 48).[viii]


“I’ve been through a lot of the stereotypical ideas of what Inuit people go through, so [throat-singing] is like protest music to me.” – Tanya Tagaq


Audiences and critics tend to react strongly to the intensity of her singing style, often describing her music using terms like “visceral,”[ix] “force of nature,”[x] “orgasmic,”[xi] “primal… guttural.”[xii] Her choice to include “harder” (i.e. metal- and punk-influenced) vocal elements in her recent work[xiii] is not simply a stylistic choice either. She says of her songs: “I don’t want to see people being abused and I’m sick of it. I’m mad, I’m yelling about that, I’m yelling about being sexually abused, I’m yelling about all the pain that people are having to go through, I’m yelling about all of this stuff.”[xiv]

In a sense, her choice to bring throat-singing, a traditional Inuit musical practice, into modern musical contexts (or perhaps vice versa?) is itself a statement that reflects her view of changing Inuit identities. This is not an uncontroversial choice—there are those, she says, who accuse her of misappropriating cultural traditions, claiming that she’s “adulterated an artform that… is deeply rooted in Inuit culture.”[xv] For Tagaq, though, the use of Inuit throat-singing in her music is not misappropriation; it’s a way of connecting to her culture as well as part of a strategy to keep that culture alive. She says “what I’m doing is not traditional… I sing about my feelings, and how do I feel? I feel like an Inuk person right now. I don’t feel like I’m an Inuk person from 50 years ago… it is important to respect tradition and to keep it alive, but it’s also important to have the books open to the cultures and especially in the wake of post-colonialism.”[xvi]

At the recent Polaris Prize gala, Geoff Berner said that in Tanya Tagaq’s music “you can actually hear the sound of a people defying genocide.”[xvii] Indeed, the intense blend of modern and traditional elements in Tagaq’s music can be heard as a reflection of her vision for a strong, contemporary sense of Inuit identity. She says—and also, I think, sings—“we’re not a culture from the past. We’ve amalgamated and we’re part of everything. We can’t be pushed away anymore.”[xviii]

[i] Bruno Nettl. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Robert Everett-Green. “Primal scream: Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq is like no one you’ve ever heard, anywhere.” Globe and Mail, May 30 2014. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/primal-scream-inuk-throat-singer-tanya-tagaq-is-like-no-one-youve-ever-heard-anywhere/article18923190/.

[iv] Mary Dickie. “Tanya Tagaq Grabs The World By The Throat.” Musicworks. Issue 118, Spring 2014. https://www.musicworks.ca/featured-article/tanya-tagaq-grabs-world-throat.

[v] Tanya Tagaq, interview by Jian Gomeshi, CBC Q, September 23, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/q/popupaudio.html?clipIds=2528385429.

[vi] See note 3 above.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Samia Madwar. “Inappropriation,” Up Here Magazine, June 2014, 48.

[ix] Jim Di Gioia. “DiSC of the WEEK: Tanya Tagaq, Animism,” Quick Before It Melts, June 2nd, 2014. http://www.quickbeforeitmelts.ca/2014/06/disc-of-the-week-tanya-tagaq-animism/.

[x] Liisa Ladouceur. “Tanya Tagaq Anger Management,” Exclaim, July 2014. http://exclaim.ca/Interviews/FromTheMagazine/tanya_tagaq-anger_management.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] See note 3.

[xiii] “Tanya Tagaq.” Six Shooter Records. Accessed October 3, 2014. http://sixshooterrecords.com/artists/tanya-tagaq/.

[xiv] Malaya Qaunirq Chapman. “People Hating On Tanya Tagaq’s ‘Fuck Peta’ Polaris Speech Are Missing The Point,” Vice Magazine, September 27, 2014. http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/people-hating-on-tanya-tagaqs-fuck-peta-polaris-speech-are-missing-the-point-943.

[xv] See note 8.

[xvi] See note 14.

[xvii] Geoff Berner. “Polaris Music Prize Gala 2014 – Full show,” Aux, online video, September 22, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zseAB5pm5vQ. 3:19.

[xviii] See note 5.

Fri Oct 3, 2014