August 18, 2009
Listening to Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq perform live is like being shut up in a cage with a bunch of wild animals. On Saturday evening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco, this beautiful, strapping singer, who is best known outside of her native Nunavut Canada for her collaborations with Bjork, made concert-going in the traditional sense of the term feel like an absurdly staid affair.
As Tagaq stood on stage in a tight, green sateen dress and heels flanked by a couple of low-key-looking musician dudes, the very walls of the theatre seemed to vibrate. At times she sounded like a wolf howling at the moon, at others, more like a whale weeping. I also heard a stampede of buffalo and a prowling cat in her sound. I wanted to be crawling around the space on all fours as Tagaq sang, not sitting primly at a cocktail table surrounded by other neatly-dressed individuals clapping politely during the pauses of the artist's spiraling, core-gouging set.
Tagaq is a curiosity among Inuit throat singers, if that doesn't sound like a redundant thing to say. Traditionally, Inuit women performed this style of overtone singing when their men were away on a hunting trip to entertain themselves. According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, the songs are typically sung as duets, with two women facing off against each other in a light-hearted competition. One singer leads by setting a short rhythmic pattern, which she repeats leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. Usually the competition lasts up to three minutes until one of the singers starts to laugh or is left breathless.
Tagaq sets herself apart from most other Inuit throat singers because she performs solo. It's powerful stuff. I imagine the venues in which she sings would shake if there were more than one of her on stage.