Tanya Tagaq doesn’t always sing specific words, sometimes she just makes a sound, builds an echo, a shamanic voice mixed with anger and evoking ghosts of the past. Tongues is an eloquent and very powerful reckoning with Canada’s current post-World War II colonial grip on the Inuits.
Reading the book ’27 Deaths of Toby Obed’ by Joanna Gierak-Onoszko is a harrowing experience. It was published only in Polish, but it brings closer the tragic events of the denationalization of Inuit children – the indigenous inhabitants of Canada, and the echoes of their story in this country today. The protagonist, Tony Obed, is one of the survivors who underwent a drastic system of education for aboriginal people, the aim of which was to separate him from his parents and then cut him off completely from his culture, traditions and language.
Tanya Tagaq speaks in the voice of the Survivors and presents their perspective. She has been an artist for 15 years. For her music she was awarded with the Polaris Music Prize, and for her social activity – with the Order of Canada. She specializes in throat singing, and although she used to perform mainly at folk music festivals, it is slowly changing – she can be heard on Bjork’s Medulla album, and she also played with i.a. Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton.
Tongues is based on her 2018 story Split Tooth that describes biographical stories set in the Canadian taiga; perhaps many things would parallel Obed’s story. The album is a talking and very powerful reconciling with history – Canada’s post-World War II colonial oppression. It’s not nice – “In Me” begins with a shrill, throaty growl, as if we encountered the evil Gollum from Lord of the Rings or got into the heart of darkness. Next tracks seem to develop around a specific narrative, not necessarily as simple compositions, but more as some miniature quasi-auditory forms; some close in at 2-3 minutes. The title track has an irregular musical form that is quite abstract, and it is a melodeclamation – or even a declaration – that seems to be more important: “They took our tongues / You can’t take that from us / You can’t take our blood”. It also contains direct references to how Christianity was imposed on the indigenous population: “I don’t want your god / Put him down / Inuuvunga (I am an Inuk)”.
The dense bass music and muffled beats are menacing, and Tanya’s gloomy voice carries a dark prophecy. The album’s opening – repeated phrases “Eat your morals / Eat your thoughts / Your sinew” – sound indistinct and terrifying at the same time. “Colonizer” is based on the mantra of the title with an increasing bass uplift that ends with pounding drums in the finale. “Teeth Agape” evokes a desire for revenge with its muffled technoid beat, and “Monster” is an ambiguous celebration of familial warmth with spoken lyrics on the background of a pulsating beat and synth streaks. “Birth” is an escalating musical glissando, full of tension and anger.
Tagaq doesn’t always sing specific words, sometimes she just makes a sound, builds an echo, and her shamanic voice mixes with anger and evokes the ghosts of the past. Sometimes she enters the areas of quasi-rap, as in “I Forgive Me”. It all adds up to a poignant story about the loss of language, the robbery of culture and the horrible system which oppressed the indigenous people for many years. The album is made of scraps of words, but that’s enough, as everything sounds (unfortunately) clear and eloquent. Just as clear is the video for “Coloniser”: churches burning as a result of the protests of 2021 and melting monuments that were built by the system and the Catholicism, the dominant religion in Canada. Let justice be done.
TANYA TAGAQ Tongues, Six Shooter Records.