In my October World Music Beat column I offered a “Polaris Music Prize Trailer,” luring readers with the promise of “a backstage pass to the avant-garde Inuk vocalist Tany Tagaq’s jaw-dropping ten-minute performance…” I’m here to deliver on that promise. I will also be weighing in on the ramifications of the thrice JUNO-nominated Tagaq’s win on September 22, 2014 for her CD Animism. It’s the “best Canadian album regardless of genre and sales” according to Polaris, and her win this year certainly marks a significant milestone. For the first time it was awarded to an indigenous musician.
When Tagaq, drummer Jean Martin, and violinist Jesse Zubot lit into their Polaris spot, it was as if an intense Arctic wind had blown into downtown Toronto's The Carlu, howling. They played sections of their superb Animism with improvised throat singing upfront in the mix. I'd seen the trio on two other occasions. But when Christine Duncan cued her 40-voice improvising choir behind Tagaq, sounding like Xenakis or Ligeti's atonal chord clusters had just entered the hall, the concert achieved liftoff, moving onto another plane entirely. The multiple musical textures and traditions blended powerfully, the Inuit with the Euro-American-Canadian (featuring rock, free improv, soundscape, classical avant-garde and yet more genres).
You can see the show for yourself in the video here. As for me, I experienced a complex and heady mix of confrontation and conciliation of social, and political issues and musical genres. The performance also hinted at the potential transcultural power of the healing force of sound.
What exactly am I talking about here? For starters the cameras and the audio mix in the Polaris video are undoubtedly centred on the headlining Inuk vocalist. But also significant are the roughly 44 other musicians (2 instrumentalists, 40 choristers and a conductor) – Canadian southerners all – on stage supporting Tagaq, and their indispensable contribution to the overall success of the performance.
The musical, cultural, and political significance of Tagaq’s stage appearance at The Carlu lies in great part in the coming together of two cultures. The Northern voice, represented by the Inuit throatsinging-based vocalism of Tagaq, met the Southern Canadian voices on the common ground of free improvisation, a “Western” musical tradition with a lineage of half a century. Jointly these musicians contested the mostly unequal dialogue between the cultures they represent, in an artistically and emotionally engaging way.
Tagaq, her instrumentalists and the Element Choir met for the first time at a chaotic soundcheck on the afternoon of September 22. Never having collaborated before, they worked from no score but from an improvisational m.o. The ear-opening result at the concert not only broadened listeners’ musical horizons, but also pointed to potential political redress and cultural healing. Tagaq commented to the media after her win that “we’ve been making [improvisationally-based music] our own way without backing down artistically or conforming [to received notions of what a commercially successful pop song should be], so to be recognized in this way and have so many people latch on makes me feel the world is tolerable. There’s so much hurt in the world and within indigenous cultures [as they grapple with colonialism]. Canada is in a desperate need of repair ...”
Her statement illuminated yet another significant aspect of her stage performance and her album: the focus she brings to veins of prejudice and colonialism embedded in Canadian society. David Dacks, a musician, journalist and Music Gallery artistic director, who stood beside me on The Carlu floor as Tagaq won her Polaris prize, spoke with optimism in the same article. “I hope the world sees that this country's culture industry can support artists [like Tagaq] who simultaneously exemplify traditional and forward-thinking ideas in their music; artists who make Canada proud while also expressing uncomfortable truths about the system we live in."
I wanted to better understand what’s at the aesthetic core of Tagaq and her bandmates' music. I found some answers at the post-award Polaris media scrum. She spoke extensively on the importance of sound – a kind of sonic mindfulness – in her work. I listened closely when Tagaq made eloquent mention of the primacy of the sheer power of sound in her work: "We sacrificed everything for sound.” She described sound as a universal human experience, pointing to her ears, and sound in the abstract - not of “music” as an entertainment commodity. She went on to assign that kind of sound a central role in her performances, further enumerating its communicative, expressive, transformational and healing properties. She spoke of sound as a force for good in this world.
It was that attitude, as embodied in her outstanding performance, that I believe resonated with many in the Polaris concert audience, and surely with its jury of music journalists. Tagaq’s reminder of the singular place of sound in her art, collaboratively and improvisationally made with Zubot, Marin and that Polaris night with Duncan’s Element Choir, was for me among the night’s most memorable take-aways.
As for Animism I see the album as a musical, political and cultural act of great bravery, and a provocative confrontation on colonial and ecological fronts. Its satisfying songs and rich soundscapes contain insights into personal and transcultural issues, and serve as a platform from which to continue discussions of reconciliation and healing.