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Tanya Tagaq creates art that connects people to their past and celebrates all that’s possible in the present and future. She is a throat singer, a musician, a painter, novelist, and advocate for Indigenous people everywhere.
Get to know playwright, actress, and storyteller Isabella Madrigal. Isabella narrated the story of Indigenous throat singer, Tanya Tagaq. Tune in to hear Isabella speak about the importance of telling Indigenous stories!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Abby Sher with Tanya Tagaq and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Isabella Madrigal. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
Tanya Tagaq was on stage alone in front of hundreds of people. And yet, she didn’t feel nervous. As the lights lit up her face, she started chanting and growling, letting the wordless sounds rise up and out of her. The audience was transfixed. These guttural sounds seemed to come from someplace so deep inside Tanya. And, even though there were no words being sung or spoken, Tanya seemed to be sharing a very important story about herself, her homeland, and her people.
The question was, would people listen to songs with no words and understand their meaning?
I’m Isabella Madrigal, and this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Tanya Tagaq,
throat singer, musician, painter, novelist, and advocate for Indigenous people everywhere.When Tanya was little, she lived in a very beautiful and remote part of northern Canada called Nunavet [NOON-ah-Voot]. Nunavut was close to the North Pole and verrrrry cold. There were no roads in or out of her region, and it often got so frigid that Tanya and her friends played a game to see who could stay outside in the freezing temperatures for the longest amount of time. During the summer, when the earth was tilted towards the sun, it stayed light out almost 24 hours a day, so Tanya could play outside until 2 in the morning! But during the winter, when the Earth was tilted away from the sun, they could have months where there was barely any light in the sky.
Tanya is an Inuk, one of the Indigenous circumpolar cultures of Earth. Inuit people look after each other and the earth and animals, so they can survive on the arctic tundra. They have beautiful traditions like storytelling, dancing, and making clothes out of seal skins so they can go outside and not freeze in the frigid winter. They also have their own language, called Inuktitut, with many complex words that flow together like a song.
There was no high school where she lived, so Tanya went to a residential school 500 miles away, one of the many residential schools in Canada. Residential schools were put in place to indoctrinate Indigenous children into colonial cultures. Tanya hated it at residential school. She felt so lonely and missed home. She couldn’t wait to graduate and pursue her true interests.
Tanya was inspired by all kinds of art — painting, writing, music. After high school, she went to an art college in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was again very far from her home. She loved diving into color studies and trying out new styles and techniques, but she felt really homesick.
One day, she received a small package from her mother. She ripped open the paper, so curious to see what could be inside. It was cassette tapes, which was how people often listened to and shared music in the 1990s.
Tanya put one of the cassettes in her cassette player and heard…
It was a recording of throat singing (Kattajjak) — a tradition that Tanya had only heard here and there growing up. Inuit throat singing started as a friendly competition, a call and response contest between women. Usually, two women faced each other, holding each other’s arms and making sounds like grunts, squeals, squawks, coos, and crows. Then, the other woman had to answer instantly with the same sounds. The leader could switch at the drop of a hat. It took a lot of skill and practice to be good at it. They went back and forth getting louder and softer, higher and lower, until one person laughed or ran out of breath.
As Tanya stood there, listening to these tapes, she felt like the sounds she heard woke up every part of her body. As she says, “I could hear the land. It was incredible for me to be able to taste my home again in my ears.”
She immediately started practicing and experimenting with throat singing on her own. She tried out different sounds and breath patterns in the shower. She added animal calls and ambient noises. She’d always loved journaling, so she took a word or thought or feeling and wrote it down, then played with making sounds that grew out of those words. It was so freeing and exciting to explore these new ideas. It was soothing to Tanya too — throat singing felt like a way she could physically channel her connection to home and all the Inuit women who inspired her.
She had no idea that the sounds she was making would become hugely influential too.
In the summer of 2000, Tanya was at a Canadian arts festival where she had her paintings displayed. She was hopeful about her paintings, and very excited to share them with the world. One night at the festival, Tanya was sitting around a fire chatting with the festival director. As she watched the flames dancing and lapping with the midnight sun, she felt the urge to make some noise.
It was an amazing thing to hear — her breath getting faster and wilder, her voice gathering the energy of all the land around her. Everyone listening to her was stunned, and wanted to hear more.
The next day, there was a deep fog and the main performers could not make it in. Tanya was asked to perform onstage at the festival. As soon as she stepped onto the stage and felt the lights on her skin, she said to herself, “This is where I belong.”
And the audience thought so too. They were astounded by the way she roared and hummed, chanted and moaned. It was as if she was drawing out these sounds from the earth itself. Some of the people in the audience that night recorded her performance and sent it to a famous avant-garde Icelandic musician named Bjork. Bjork thought Tanya was incredibly talented and within just a few weeks, Tanya was touring around the world with Bjork and other musicians, performing in front of thousands of people.
As Tanya toured and developed as an artist, she transformed her throat singing into a unique new style. She added elements of punk, metal, and classical music, exploring all the different ways her sounds could evolve.
She could never predict what she was going to do in a performance. Once she got up on stage, she let the instruments and the audience inspire her. She was spectacular to watch too — lunging and undulating around the stage, her body becoming one with the rhythms and melodies she was creating. Tanya felt so completely enveloped in the music that she often didn’t know what she was doing until it was all over. People who came to see her shows felt like they were part of something revolutionary. Soon, she started winning music awards and producing studio albums.
Tanya also wanted to pursue new ways of sharing her heritage with the world, and in 2018, she published a book called Split Tooth. It was part memoir, part fiction, about a young girl growing up in Nunavut. Tanya wrote about the beauty and power of all the natural wonders in the arctic. She captured the breath-taking landscape and the kinship of her people using poetry and journal entries she’d been writing for the past twenty years. It felt like she was truly inviting each reader into her heart. And again, in 2019, she was honored, this time with an Indigenous Voices Award.
Tanya never stepped into the world of art to get awards, though. As she’s expanded in her music and writing, she really follows one guiding principle: to celebrate Indigenous culture and this magnificent planet. Her art is shocking and unpredictable; angry and joyful all at once. And whether you’re listening to her music or reading her words, you will feel connected to the rivers, oceans, and sky. She has taken age-old traditions of storytelling and throat singing, and made them new again.
Tanya is a true Rebel Girl in body, voice, and spirit.