Why do we expect art from indigenous cultures to be static?
Why do we expect art from indigenous cultures to be static? Are Native Americans frozen in time, ghosts from civilizations that are no longer evolving? Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq posed a similar question before her concert last week at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall before leading the audience on a sometimes-harrowing musical journey.
Wearing a red dress fitted with a scarlet cape, Tagaq came off as soft-spoken, almost demure, during her brief introductory speech. She explained that her performance, titled Retribution, would be an improvisation, one that wouldn’t and couldn’t be ever replicated again. Backed by drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, Tagaq explained that her music is contemporary.
She has a point. I remember watching The Fast Runner, a film about an ancient Inuit folk legend, when it debuted in 2001 and being startled during the credits when the actors are depicted in modern clothing. It’s reductive, and also racist, to think that Inuit people still wear seal pelts and live in igloos. Yet, these notions exist, and we need people like Tagaq to knock these ideas from our heads.
Martin and Zubot began the show by creating a wall of string and percussive sound that served both atmosphere and complement to Tagaq’s vocals. Then, when she began to sing, Tagaq transformed, went away to some other place. For the next hour, the audience sat transfixed as Tagaq growled, screamed and whined with a voice that seems to have burbled up from generations of people wronged. As the music went from one crescendo to the next, Tagaq stalked the stage, contorting her body in paroxysms of rage and discomfort.
Though there were no clear discernible words until the end of the concert, Tagaq managed to communicate on a more visceral plane. She cast her body in the form of a mother, giving birth to a stillborn child or potentially as an earth raped by a dispassionate human race. Tagaq has said her recent work is about violence against women and also the world. It is appropriate that the only words we could understand were the lyrics to Kurt Cobain’s “Rape Me,” a song Tagaq changed into a quiet moment of resigned despair.
Tagaq, Martin and Zubot played in beautiful concord, intense, unsettling music that could have possibly transported the listeners to another realm. My friend told me that she felt nauseous by the show’s end, overcome with emotion and the intensity of the performance.
When the show ended, the soft-spoken Tagaq returned, thanking us for coming out as the audience gave her a standing ovation. It felt like all of us went through something otherworldly, something entirely original.