Tanya Tagac Gillis - Music from the heart ... via the throat
Tanya Tagaq Gillis is feeling claustrophobic. People often do in London, especially on a Saturday afternoon in Oxford Street, from where Tagaq is speaking.
Mind you, having grown up in the tiny hamlet of Cambridge Bay in the vast Inuit territory of Nunavut in north-eastern Canada where, statistically at least, everyone has nine square kilometres of space to themselves, Tagaq probably feels claustrophobic in most places.
She shouldn’t complain, she says, because London gave her one of what she calls her "cosmic coincidences." Back in 2002, Tagaq, who is almost single-handedly taking the ancient Inuit throat-singing style into a new dimension, lived in London briefly. She played a few gigs, not expecting much to come of them, then in quick succession found herself appearing on roots music champion Charlie Gillett’s radio show and included in fRoots magazine’s winter CD compilation of music deserving wider attention.
The CD somehow found its way into the hands of the Kronos Quartet, who invited Tagaq to perform with them – a "cosmic coincidence" that has led all the way to Carnegie Hall, New York. Another of those coincidences, when two friends of Bjork happened to hear Tagaq give an impromptu performance at an arts festival that she was actually attending to exhibit her paintings, resulted in Tagaq working with the Icelandic star – she appears on Bjork’s Medulla album and Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack.
Meanwhile, a rather more straightforward audition - going up to fiddler Angus R Grant and singing in his hear – brought her to the attention of acid folkies Shooglenifty. They featured Tagaq on their latest album, Troots, and have followed up their Celtic Connections 2007 concert together by inviting her onto their Scottish Arts Council Tune-up tour, which began last night.
Tagaq’s singing style is intensely physical, involving rhythmical grunts and whispered syllables which she uses circular breathing to enunciate on both "in" and "out" breaths. But although she was aware of throat singing when she grew up, it wasn’t until she was studying fine art and in her final year at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax, that she began to teach herself the traditional style.
"I was homesick and my mother sent me some tapes of throat singing and I thought, I can do this," she says. "At home we listened to Top Forty music most of the time, and there wasn’t much throat singing in our community. But when I went back to Nunavut after college I was able to find people who could teach me songs. There’s not that many throat singers, maybe between one and two hundred out of a population of twenty-seven thousand Inuit people."
Traditional Inuit throat-singing takes the form of a game in which two women stand face-to-face. One creates a rhythm out of the sound of her breathing and the other fills in the gaps until one or other – or both – collapses in fits of giggles or through exhaustion. Tagaq had no partner to begin with, so she practised in the shower and made her first public appearance at a friend’s wedding. As seems to be the way, her second "gig" involved another cosmic coincidence.
By this time teaching at Nunavut Arctic College, she entered a local talent competition with a friend, just for fun. They won. Someone at the Folk on the Rocks festival in Yellowknife heard their winning performance on CBC radio and invited them down to appear at the festival.
"It all grew from there," she says. "I met Shooglenifty at Yellowknife, so they’ve been around since the start of my career. Then, when I went to exhibit some paintings at the Great Northern Arts Festival, they were short of performers, so I sang on my own. That’s where the Bjork connection was made but it also encouraged me to go out and sing by myself and develop this further."
She makes no claims towards being a tradition bearer and politely declines when people ask her to teach them throat singing.
"I’m not trying to keep it to myself but it wouldn’t be right for me to presume that I can pass on this traditional skill because I taught myself and what I do is entirely my own take on it," she says. "I also don’t want to see Inuit culture belittled. It’s bad enough when people think that we live in igloos and I just dread the idea of hearing throat singing on a Coke commercial or something."
On the other hand, she can recommend singing generally as a cathartic experience, which is what it is for her.
"The songs I sing aren’t about telling a story," she says. "They’re more about emotions, whatever I’m feeling at the time. If you’ve had a horrible day, you can get rid of all the crap this way. It’s primal. When I sing I can go right back to when we felt like animals."
From The Herald, November 15, 2007.