Split Tooth, published last year, is an account of growing up in the frozen north, a largely affectionate one but not without its harrowing moments. It’s peopled with mischievous friends bumming around looking for trouble; there are scenes of sexual abuse as well as the miracle and mystery of motherhood, and sublime communication with animals and the spirit world. It’s a precious, intimate insight into Inuit cosmology, history and contemporary daily life.
“I’ve been keeping a diary since I was a young girl and a lot of those pieces were well over 25 years old,” says Tagaq, revealing the reason the book is so closely observed. “The vast majority of it was written well before I had any intention of publishing. The rest was just something that I did on long airplane rides, or bus or van rides while touring. It’s a mixture of dreams, thoughts and ideas. There’s strict fiction, strict non-fiction, and embellished non-fiction. Some of it was how I wish it would have happened, while some of it actually happened. I have very, very vivid dreams so it’s easy to write those down. And then there’s a long narrative that goes throughout the whole book. I’m really pleased with it.”
Land feeds me. My father and mother are the Land. My future children are the Land. You are the Land. We destroy her with the same measured ignorance of a self-harming teenager. That is what I was in my 15th year, what is your excuse?
The latest Tagaq album Retribution (2016) was rightly applauded as a major achievement. “A protest record that rails against a world bent on destruction, violence and greed with the primal outrage of an ancient force speeding from the centre of the Earth to rip our reality apart,” said Katrina Dixon in The Wire.
The album dealt powerfully with the issue of climate change, with the title track embodying the Earth’s response to the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels. As she put it in a track by track commentary with music critic Carl Wilson, “If you have a sickness you probably want to get rid of it.” While the title track’s opening lines “Our mother grows angry/ Retribution will be swift” encapsulates scientific predictions of the climate’s response to ever rising fossil fuel use and deforestation, the track’s closing lines, “Ignite, stand upright, conduct yourself like lightning because/Retribution will be swift”, could be understood as a call to action to carry out strategic emergency actions. As Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old initiator of the school kids global climate strikes, put it: “Our house is on fire. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
The track is certainly a gathering of power, an adrenaline shot that gets its vitality and rawness from being improvised in the studio with, remarkably, the spoken text almost added as an afterthought. “Summoning” which – like several other tracks on the album – includes the 50 improvising voices of The Element Choir conducted by Christine Duncan, was also included to represent the live approach of her group on stage – and is completely improvised. Tagaq’s regular group have performed a number of concerts with versions of The Element Choir recruited locally and taught the hand signals in advance of the concert. They act like a fourth or fifth member of Tagaq’s group, providing ghostly and mysterious interjections and colourings. “It’s a group member for sure,” agrees Tagaq, “and it always feels so good. It’s like having a propulsion, it’s like a propeller behind you, it just pushes me forward. “
Her longtime band members, Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, double up in the studio as producers. Live, they evidently share a feeling for the northern landscape and are sharply tuned to the movement of Tagaq’s voice. “Jesse comes from Ukranian based farming communities in Saskatchewan where the winters are very hard. Not as cold as Nunavut of course, but he knows the sound of that cold wind. He knows the dark nights. He was classically trained and moved forward into improvisation. Jesse introduced me to Jean who is also trained and has a jazz improvisation background that flourished into something else completely. We all know each other so intimately and we have such a nice language together so I’m really lucky to be working with those two.”
For Tagaq improvisation comes naturally. “I live in a very improvised way,” as she puts it. “I like time to be fluid. I would probably attest that to the long inhalation and exhalation that I see in the year in Nunavut. Because there’s three months of 24 hour sun in the summer and three months of 24 hour darkness in the winter. So people’s sense of time will sometimes flip around. It might also be 20 years of being a touring musician. There’s not a lot of nine to five work going on! We spend a lot of time trying to control our environment but ultimately we don’t have much control over what really matters: when we perish, how we’re going to feel, other people’s actions. So it’s really liberating for me to go into this realm of release and surrender to sound.”
It makes perfect sense that the music world’s most powerful response to climate change – one that leaves you almost breathless – should come from an Inuk artist. Indigenous polar communities lived close to the land and in harmony with the natural world for thousands of years, relying on it being in balance for their survival. And the impacts of climate change are perhaps more marked in the Arctic: the rate of warming is two to three times the global average, with Arctic ice cover and volume retreating over recent decades. As Tagaq’s spoken text on “Cold” explains in a different way, the melting of the Arctic ice is one of a number of ‘positive’ feedbacks amplifying the rate of climate change. As is the release of methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) from the melting permafrost. Native Canadians have been at the forefront of the resistance to extreme energy developments such as the tar sands and oil pipelines.
Two months after Retribution was released Tagaq was offered an Order of Canada membership for her contribution to Canadian culture. Did she wonder that the establishment might be trying to buy her off? “I had a lot of mixed feelings around that,” she admits, “but I thought that maybe it could be utilised for good unless they revoke it due to my dissension – which would also be fine. I’ve rejected some awards or accolades on the basis that they were all or majority funded by oil and gas industries. But with this I ultimately I went with what my mum said because I wanted her to be proud of me.” Quotes in italic taken from Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, published by Viking. Toothsayer is released by Six Shooter
44 | The Wire | Tanya Tagaq
Singing to the Northern Lights
Arqsarniq. I sing for you. Humming shakily at first, thin tendrils of sound. The trepidation dissolves and a throbbing vibratory expulsion of sound emerges. Thicker, richer, heavier. Sound is its own currency. Sound is a conduit to a realm we cannot totally comprehend. The power of sound conducts our thoughts into emotions that then manifest in action.
In Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth there’s a chapter where the teenage protagonist walks out onto the sea ice, lies down and sings to the Northern Lights.
The lights become bolder and grow closer. They seem curious, drawn by the sound of flesh and my meagre offering of spirit. My ears plug and pop with pressure and the warmth in my core starts to turn into heat. The lights begin to blur and I swear they are calling me backwards/forwards in Time, back to a time before I was born and where I will return to after I die.
“When it comes to the Northern Lights it strays from tradition in the book,” explains Tagaq. “In the traditional stories, if you whistled at the Northern Lights they would come down and get you. As a young child I would run home because they can seem very intense and scary even. Especially where I’m from in Cambridge Bay, it’s flat so the sky is huge. It’s nothing but sky. When the Northern Lights are very strong and spanning the entire horizon, or right above your head, and they move really quickly, it can be a little intimidating to say the least. But traditionally if you made sound, they would come to you and cut off your head and play football with your head which is amazing!
“Everybody’s religion has these stories that can be taken metaphorically or believed in. Do you really think this dude was dead for three days and came back to life, walked on water and someone got pregnant without any sperm? But yeah, I did as a young girl go and lay out on the ice a lot and watch the Northern Lights.”