Why Tanya Tagaq Should Win The Polaris Music Prize

MW118 Tanya top shot
Photo by Ivan Otis

“It seems that everybody wants to conform, to follow the same rhythms, four bars, and a chorus. I find that boring.” – Tanya Tagaq in Exclaim

“[…] I know music is changing. Inuit music is changing. And there’s no stopping it.” – Tanya Tagaq in an interview with Jeffrey Van Den Scott

by Laura Stanley

Creatively, Tanya Tagaq is on a different level from her fellow Polaris Music Prize short listers. Tagaq purposely takes a stand against the mainstream and “independent” Canadian music soundscapes (are they the same?) and questions the colonial norms of what music should sound like. She wakes us from the artistic slumber that too many acts in this country have put us in. Animisim takes great care in resisting becoming a product of settler colonialism and subsequently the record’s revolutionary creative spirit stands alone amongst this year’s Polaris contenders.

The music from the Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Manitoba-based artist is richly of the body. Combining improvised inuit throat singing with electronic and classic elements, Tagaq showcases the strengths of the human body. The voice of the “Inuk punk” is guttural, visceral, rich, frantic, and at times, down right frightening. By weaving these sonic elements together, Tagaq creates an emotional experience that touches deep within.

The two longest songs from the record, “Tulugak” and “Damp Animal Spirits,” are the strongest and most expansive examples of this emotional experience. In both, the intensity is unmatched with varying types of guttural sounds loudly voiced but also whispered, threading between turbulent drums, weeping strings, and the occasional sounds of numerous brass instruments. 

To listen to Animisim is to challenge yourself yet to describe it as “experimental” feels out of place. This record and Tagaq’s art goes beyond tapping into an alternative sound structure and becomes a powerful cultural tool.       

Animisim‘s artistic value and politically poignancy can only be matched by last year’s nominees, A Tribe Called Red. Similar to ATCR, Tagaq honours a rich traditional practice of indigenous peoples while adapting the cultural practice to the present day. Traditionally, Inuit throat singing is performed by two women in the style of a contest. While singing, the women stand face-to-face and grip each other’s arms while trying to outlast one another. Sometimes accompanied by dancing and occasionally ending with fits of laughter, (fans of Hey Rosetta! will be familiar with this as it is found at the end of “Parson Brown (Upirngaangutuq Iqalunni)”) throat singing is connected to Inuit history and plays an important role within Inuit communities.

By performing as a solo act, Tagaq breaks from the singing’s traditional model and subsequently becomes one of a few who bridge the gap between traditional inuit throat singing and more contemporary styles of music. Tagaq’s contemporary throat singing is an innovative cultural undertaking that highlights the strength, as academic Kerry L. Potts and others of have argued, that music can have as “an anti-colonial tool for Aboriginal people.” The changes to this traditional cultural expression as found in Animisim provides a meaningful example of the adaptation of traditional practices to a contemporary need for change.

From a political, and in turn cultural, perspective, Animisim comes at a time of struggles with Arctic sovereignty, climate change, and the #Sealfie – a social media movement sparked by Ellen DeGeneres donating some of the money made from her Oscar selfie to the outspoken critic of Canada’s seal hunt, the Human Society of the United States. Tagaq’s choice to tackle many of these issues within her record situates it at the centre of this difficult climate for many indigenous people of the North and therefore charges it with political importance.

With a quick look at the album’s song titles like “Caribou,” “Rabbit,” “Howl,” “Fracking” and of course the album title itself, Animisim is of the earth. Reflecting these earthly creations, “Caribou” captures both the majesty and the strength of the animal’s spirit while “Howl” is a quiet and eerie number that joins the howling wolves with an array of strings for a very natural effect.    

Continuing this reflection, “Fracking” beings with a solo haunting wail until a violin jumps in to propel the anguish even further. Ending with the sounds of gasping and ultimately the quiet sounds of shuddering, “Fracking” is a vivid representation of environmental degradation caused by the fracking process.

Tanya Tagaq’s Animisim represents the future of music in the country. For the Polaris Music Prize to honour this record would symbolize not only the value of cross-cultural sharing in Canada but the vitality of alternative artistic expressions in the nation and hope for a future of Canadian music that is rooted in creativity and distinctiveness. After all, creativity is what the Polaris Prize is all about, right?

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