Few musical traditions are more peculiar and compelling than the katajjaq throat singing of the Inuit, a 25,000-strong native population concentrated in Canada’s Nunavut territory. It’s as much a game as a form of music: pairs of women face and embrace one another, unleashing a wild torrent of grunts, exhalations, inhalations, and all manner of guttural, rumbling low-end noises. Each woman rapidly follows her partner, so that their streams of sounds are almost like fun-house reflections of each other–this is made easier, one presumes, because the singers hold their faces so close together that they can use each other’s mouths as harmonic resonators. A “song” ends when one of the women is reduced to laughter or simply runs out of breath.
A few years ago a singer calling herself Tagaq (aka Tanya Tagaq Gillis), who’d grown up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, largely ignorant of the tradition, began to attract notice by radically recontextualizing katajjaq for the pop world. Homesick while attending art school in Halifax in the late 90s, her mother sent a care package that included some katajjaq cassettes that inspired to experiment with the style while in the shower. Over the next few years she refined her practice and eventually began performing, adapting the tradition for solo voice, with a DJ.
Eventually a friend of Bjork’s heard Tagaq perform and took a recording back to Iceland; when Bjork embarked on her world tour in 2000, Tagaq was part of her band, along with an all-female choir of Inuit singers from Greenland. The two women connected, and Tagaq ended up contributing to Bjork’s Medulla as well as the soundtrack for the Matthew Barney film Drawing Restraint 9. Bjork returned the favor, appearing on a track from Tagaq’s debut album, Sinaa (Jericho Beach, 2005), a knockout collection of extended katajjaq techniques stretched into texture-rich compositions. Some pieces include original lyrics and shards of pop melodies, some are unabashedly experimental sound works, and some are utterly frightening. She is to Inuit tradition more or less what Sainkho Namtchylak is to Tuvan throat singing.
With her recent second album, Auk/Blood (Ipecac), Tagaq moves further into pop territory, though of course “pop” is a relative term. Most of the tracks employ a loose song structure and feature Vancouver improviser and jazz musician Jesse Zubot (founder of the fine Drip Audio label) on violin. Tedious rhyming from Buck 65 unfortunately relegates Tagaq to the background on a couple songs, and on one tune Ipecac owner Mike Patton inserts his melodramatic croon, which sounds even more unseemly than usual in this context. The best stuff features only Tagaq, Zubot, and a handful of other musicians. The basic techniques of katajjaq are still at the root of her performances, but they’re augmented in turn by meditative melodies, subtle electronic textures, spoken word, and even human beatboxing. Auk/Blood isn’t a perfect record by any means–I think Tagaq is still figuring out what to do with her unique talent–but I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard much like it.
Torben Waldorff, Afterburn (ArtistShare)
Lyrics Born, Everywhere Once (Anti-/Quannum Projects)
Andrew Hill and Chico Hamilton, Dreams Come True (Joyous Shout!)
Various Artists, Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan Vol. 2 (Sublime Frequencies)
Lau Nau, Nukkuu (Locust Music)