Music Interviews | NPR

Tanya Tagaq's powerful new album 'Tongues' aims for hope among hard truths

Tagaq, a recipient of the national Polaris Music Prize, discusses the subjugation of Canada's Indigenous people and her hopes for healing through acknowledging that difficult history.

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Tanya Tagaq.
Tanya Tagaq. Thomas van der Zaag | Courtesy of the artist

When Tanya Tagaq sat down at her home near Toronto for an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, she immediately described an aura: The avant-garde musician had been experiencing visual sensations from a migraine headache.

"They're very pretty, and they kind of blind me in my right eye," she said. "It's like this huge, crescent moon that's alive and pulsating. It flashes in your eyes for about 20 minutes, and then you get hit by a Mack truck."

Tagaq's music arrives with the force of a collision — hearing her describe that blinding headache, you can start to see how she takes painful experiences and transfigures them into arrestingly beautiful sounds. "Pain is beauty," she quipped.

Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer, composer and author who has been celebrated with membership in the Order of Canada and the national Polaris Music Prize. She reflected on how growing up in Nunavut, a remote territory of Canada near the Arctic Circle, compelled her to respect the land.

"There were some close calls," she said. "I remember opening my bedroom window, and there was a huge polar bear very close. I could smell it, and it was gnawing on a seal skin that it had dragged right underneath my window."

Also part of her upbringing, she said, were artistic parents who were willing to discuss difficult topics with their young children. That influence is clear — Tagaq doesn't shy away from anything in her work. Her new album, Tongues, addresses the subjugation of Canada's Indigenous peoples. The album's eponymous single, she said, is about language loss, a cultural theft enacted through the country's so-called residential schools.

"The Canadian government took Indigenous children away from our families for many generations in the residential school system," she said. "All of us know who didn't come home."

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that the boarding schools amounted to cultural genocide: It identified abuse, neglect and thousands of student deaths. Communities continue to look for graves on the sites of former schools, the last of which closed in 1998. Tagaq herself attended one, in an era when enrollment was voluntary.

She says she makes music about that trauma "to repair the damage" – to raise awareness in the hope that change follows.

"When you look at the abuses we have been through and the horrific statistics we are living under, there is also the [...] utmost strength and joy. Inuit are so strong, so incredible, so funny, so warm and so real."

Throughout the album, Tagaq's voice commands absolute attention; her improvised vocalizations are rooted in katajjaq, Inuit throat-singing traditionally practiced with two women, but which she performs solo.

She remembered starting to throat sing after moving away from home for university, "because I could feel the land in it." She called the technique "very empowering."

"I find down here, as a woman, sometimes I get a little frustrated that I'm not being treated the way I should be treated."

She paused for a moment.

"There is no option. Treat me with respect or that's it. And I don't have to prove myself anymore. But with the throat singing, it allows me to grab my power."


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Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So how is your day?

TANYA TAGAQ: Oh, I have an aural migraine.

MARTIN: Tanya Tagaq feels and experiences life with a certain amount of intensity.

TAGAQ: If you've never had one, it's very pretty, and they kind of blind me in my right eye. It's like this huge crescent moon that's alive and pulsating, and, like, it flashes in your eyes for about 20 minutes, and then you get hit by a Mack truck.

MARTIN: I reached her in Ontario, and this is pretty much how our conversation went - balanced on the edge of sublime and scary.

TAGAQ: You know, pain is beauty (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEETH AGAPE")

TAGAQ: (Singing) I will sharpen my claws, bare my teeth.

MARTIN: OK, you've gotten a sense by now that Tanya Tagaq's music is - maybe challenging is the right way to put it because of the subject material. I mean, when you think about what she's writing of - cultural theft, losing one's identity, existing as other - Tanya is Inuk. She grew up in Nunavut, Canada, near the Arctic Circle, where she says you learn to respect the land.

TAGAQ: Like, we go for these long walks on the tundra and - just the children and not think about the fact that a polar bear could just come get us. And there were some close calls. Like, I remember opening my bedroom window, and there was a huge polar bear very close. I could smell it, and it was gnawing on a seal skin that it had dragged right underneath my window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FORGIVE ME")

TAGAQ: (Singing) Take care of your children. They can't protect themselves.

MARTIN: Where did music fit in?

TAGAQ: My mother used to come into my room, and I'd be singing and dancing. And I have artistic parents, and they were not afraid to converse about the world or speak in an adult way - like, long political rants or certain topics that shouldn't be discussed with children.

MARTIN: Tanya doesn't really shy away from anything in her music. Her new album is called "Tongues." It addresses head-on the subjugation of Canada's Indigenous people. She uses traditional throat singing techniques to tell that story, and her live shows take the audience to all kinds of places.

TAGAQ: I found with improvised music, with the absolute freedom of it, every person that hears it is going to have a different reaction to it. Like, during the concerts, it's just fascinating to me. Like, I have some people that laugh through the show - they think it's hilarious - and then some people that are terrified and some people that hate it and need to leave, and they walk out, and some people that cry 'cause they love it so much, and...

MARTIN: Does that please you, that it evokes so many different reactions?

TAGAQ: I love the idea that it makes a person feel what they need to feel, like popping a boil (laughter). Please don't say my music is like popping a boil (laughter).

MARTIN: In all the best ways, right?

TAGAQ: I suppose it needs to happen.

MARTIN: Let me ask about the title song, "Tongues." Can you tell us where this song came from?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONGUES")

TAGAQ: (Singing) They took our tongues. They tried to take our tongues.

"Tongues" was made specifically to address language loss. The Canadian government took Indigenous children away from our families for many generations in the residential school program.

MARTIN: The residential schools were essentially boarding schools for children, and a lot of very awful abuse happened there over the years.

TAGAQ: People called them boarding schools, but all of us know who didn't come home.

MARTIN: You attended one of these residential schools, we should say.

TAGAQ: Well, luckily for me, though, it was near the end, and it was by choice. But previously, you had to send your children, and they took them right from when they were small. What people don't understand is it wasn't a school to teach your kids in this benevolent way. They were directly there to kill the Indian in the man.

MARTIN: How do you make music out of such horror?

TAGAQ: Because I live it every day. How do I make music? How do I stay alive? Same thing. Same question. When you look at the abuses we have been through and the horrific statistics we are living under, there is also the most utmost strength and joy. Like, Inuit are so strong and so incredible and so funny and so warm and so real. And often I will make music about trauma because I feel that the more everyone knows, the more everyone can accept, and then more change will follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Throughout the album, we hear examples of what's known as throat singing. Can you explain what it is by way of describing how it feels in you when you use that technique?

TAGAQ: Katajjaq is traditionally done with two women. And the songs are very old. I had moved away to university and was really missing home, and I started to throat sing 'cause I could feel the land in it. How does it feel? Very empowering.

MARTIN: That's what I thought. That's the word that came to my mind. It must feel so empowering to sing that way.

TAGAQ: And validating because I find down here, as a woman, sometimes I get a little frustrated that I'm not being treated the way I should be treated. There is no option. Treat me with respect, or that's it. And I don't have to prove myself anymore. But with the throat singing, it allows me to grab my power.

MARTIN: Tanya Tagaq - her new album, out now, is called "Tongues." Thank you so much, Tanya.

TAGAQ: Oh, you're welcome. Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLONIZER")

TAGAQ: (Singing) Colonizer, colonizer. Oh, you're guilty. Oh, you're guilty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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