The sounds of Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq

"It's not for everybody," Tagaq says, but her unique music, a blend of an ancient art form with elements of punk rock, heavy metal and electronica, has been called "transfixing" by Rolling Stone

The sounds of Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq

Chances are you won't be hearing Tanya Tagaq's music at your next dinner party or wafting over the speakers at the mall. She is technically a pop star, but not in the same vein as, say, her fellow Canadians Drake or Arcade Fire, both of whom Tagaq recently beat out to win the country's most prestigious music prize. Hailing from Nunavut, a territory above the Arctic circle, Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer, keeper of an ancient art form that stretches the limits of the human larynx. She has brought this traditional sound screeching onto the modern scene by layering it with elements of punk rock, heavy metal and electronica. Rolling Stone called her music transfixing. We'd never heard anything quite like it before and so it is we say: now, for something completely different.

Tanya Tagaq begins every performance by closing her eyes - as she puts it, shutting out the visual and plugging into the sound.

Her voice flickers, then builds to a rhythmic panting.

Then comes the inevitable moment when the mounting tension uncoils and she unleashes a sonic storm. If this is not what you were expecting Inuit throat singing to look or sound like, stick with us here.

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Tanya Tagaq

Her music is improvised. There is no set plan, no set list. Often, there are no shoes. At 5-foot-1-inch, Tagaq generates a mighty sound, especially for a diminutive person and she'll be the first to tell you it's not easy listening.

Jon Wertheim: You give people a warning sometimes?

Tanya Tagaq: Yeah. Because I feel like it should be consensual. Like you shouldn't have to sit there and suffer through it if you don't like it, because it's not for everybody.

Jon Wertheim: You tell people "if you don't like it, hey?"

Tanya Tagaq: I'll point out the exits like on an airplane.

Jon Wertheim: You're like a flight attendant.

Tanya Tagaq: There are four exits. And then I tell them, it's ok to leave. Like I'm not gonna be insulted.

Those who stay in their seats are bathed in a mash up of Inuit tradition and contemporary experiment. And, as Tagaq told us over lunch before a concert in New York, no two shows are alike.

Jon Wertheim: A good show means what to you?

Tanya Tagaq: When it's effortless in the fact that I feel like I'm a fish on the end of a hook, I'm just being reeled in.

Jon Wertheim: What's reeling you in?

Tanya Tagaq: The music. I get kind of hypnotized by it. And it just becomes its own creature.

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Tagaq with correspondent Jon Wertheim

To make sense of all this sound, to understand Tanya Tagaq and her music, you have to go to the source. So we headed north. Four flights and 2,300 miles from New York, we landed on a gravel runway in Nunavut, Canada's northernmost and largest territory, ancestral home of the Inuit, Indigenous people of the North. Nunavut, literally "our land" in the native Inuktitut language, is made up of 800,000 square miles of the Canadian Arctic, roughly three times the size of Texas. The landscape calls to mind the setting for an extraterrestrial sci-fi movie. And then there is the lighting.

It might not look like it, but it's now midnight here inside the perimeter of the Arctic Circle. In summer, months can go by without a sunset. Of course, that means that in winter, months can elapse in total darkness. By then it's often so cold that Fahrenheit and Celsius converge at -40 degrees.

Which is why we visited in July. Tagaq's touring schedule keeps her based in Toronto; but every summer, she comes back to the family cabin in her hometown of Cambridge Bay, population 1,700.

Singing "unlike anything you've ever heard before"

Tagaq and her older brother Carson took us out on the tundra — more of a lunar scene than a polar one, though we did manage to find a patch of ice.

We rode for hours along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, to a favorite fishing spot.

Tanya Tagaq: It never gets old. You're free. You're living with the land. You're living with the animals.

The land, the sea, the animals, they all take turns playing Tagaq's muse. And in summer, the rhythm of her life here is set by runs of Arctic Char.

Tanya Tagaq: My heart's beating fast. I want to eat one. Darn, where'd they go? Come on.

Jon Wertheim: and Tanya Tagaq: I can't believe we don't have a fish. Cause once you have fresh arctic char, you're addicted.

Back at the family cabin, Tagaq's father and her daughter had more success with nets.

Jon Wertheim: You got dinner.

Tanya Tagaq: Yeah. Are you gonna try it? You don't have to.

Jon Wertheim: I'll do it.

Tanya Tagaq: Cheers!

Jon Wertheim: That's fresh fish.

Tanya Tagaq: Mmmmmmm.

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Nunavut is home to 40,000 Inuit, or Inuk people. They have lived off the land and the sea here since migrating east from across the Bering Strait, 1,000 years ago.

Inuit throat singing, that sound we came all this way to hear, can be traced back just as far.  

Tanya and her friend Donna Lyall demonstrated the traditional form for us. Conceived in an igloo while the men were out hunting, it's really a friendly competition between two women, akin to a musical staring contest.

Tanya Tagaq: There's a leader and a follower. And you have to be able to mimic the sound a split second after the first person does it.

Both partners make short inhalations and exhalations that vibrate over the top of their windpipes.

Tanya Tagaq: You're basically trying to mess up the other person.

Tanya Tagaq: (Laugh) I lost. I lost that round! Isn't this awesome?

All the more awesome when you consider that throat singing was all but banned here in recent decades, along with many Inuit traditions and the native language.

Tanya Tagaq: It was part of the colonial process. Children were forbidden from speaking their language, or exercising their culture in any way whatsoever. And they told us our belief system was wrong.

Canada has a long history of mistreating Indigenous people. In one of the worst chapters, from the mid-19th century until the mid-90s, the government separated thousands of Inuit children from their parents and placed them in church-run schools as a way to assimilate them. Tanya herself went to a residential school five hundred miles from home, 25 years ago.

Jon Wertheim: What was that experience like?

Tanya Tagaq:  It was a bit like jail where every single one of our minutes were accounted for. You know, so we were very tightly controlled. But it was like a boarding school by the time I went. But previous generations had it much, much harder. Most of them were sexually abused, beaten.

Jon Wertheim: This is a really shameful stain in Canadian history, isn't it?

Tanya Tagaq: It's absolutely horrific.

Jon Wertheim: This anger, this despair, this is what I'm hearing in some of your songs.

Tanya Tagaq: Absolutely. I live with a broken heart thinking about our history.

The Canadian government apologized ten years ago for its policy of forced assimilation, but the country is still reckoning with generational trauma.

Tagaq's concerts serve as acts of resistance against the Canadian government and also celebrations of Inuit culture.

And the music has found global appeal. She's on perpetual tour of the world's concert halls. Her albums earn the kind of critical acclaim that would make most mainstream pop acts, well, scream.

But Tagaq told us she discovered throat singing quite by accident. Because the music was taboo for so long, her introduction came when she was away at college and feeling homesick. Tagaq's mother, born and raised in an igloo, found some tape recordings of the traditional sound and mailed them to her.

Jon Wertheim: What are you hearing on these tapes that resonated with you?

Tanya Tagaq: I could hear the land. It was incredible for me to be able to taste my home again in my ears.

Jon Wertheim: Well, you didn't just taste it in your ears, you tried to practice yourself.

Tanya Tagaq:  For years, I was just throat singing in the shower. I was trying to do both of the voices.

Jon Wertheim: The call and response.

Tanya Tagaq:  Uh-huh.

Then one night, she found herself casually throat singing for a few friends around a campfire at an arts festival in Nunavut. The festival director heard her and asked if she'd perform on stage.

Tanya Tagaq:  So I put on my slinky dress and a headband and got up on stage and I was like "I'm me" Like it just made total sense. I was like, okay this is my thing.

Her particular thing, combining throat singing with rock, punk and pop, found a niche audience. And if the music resists classification and labels, so does Tagaq herself. We asked about one label she rejects outright.

Jon Wertheim: Your twitter bio says "Don't call me Eskimo." What do you mean by that?

Tanya Tagaq: I have heard too many times as an insult to me personally I've had that used against me.  Like, a "raw-meat eater." They meant it like "You can't even cook your food. You're too savage."

Jon Wertheim: When you talk to Southerners, which is basically everyone, what are the stereotypes you encounter?

Tanya Tagaq: There's a kind of tokenization of our culture like, cute little happy Eskimos up there in the cold in their igloos. And not looking at the hard and cold facts that there's a lot of poverty and people are going through a lot of grief.

Communities in Nunavut face far higher poverty levels than the rest of Canada and one main cause is food insecurity. Because so little grows on the Northern tundra, food is imported and wildly expensive. We paid $15 for a jar of peanut butter here.

Hunting and fishing — caribou, muskox, seal and char — are not just an Inuit tradition, but means of survival, something Tagaq says she constantly has to defend.

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Tanya Tagaq: We'll have people from California telling us not to fish, or eat meat. It's like what are you gonna do here? Show me, where's the tofu? Show me. Show me the tofu.

Jon Wertheim: This is your Whole Foods right behind us.

Tanya Tagaq: Yeah, our Whole Foods is right here.

She is especially protective of the seal hunt, using her spotlight to promote one of the Inuit's only renewable resources.  

Tanya Tagaq: Wearing seal and eating seal, it's delicious.

Tagaq has taken on animal rights groups who portray seal hunting as inhumane. She once tweeted this photo of her baby daughter next to a harvested seal, her way of normalizing the hunt. The post elicited angry responses, laying bare some of the ugliest assumptions about life in Nunavut.

Tanya Tagaq: Like people think we club seals on the head.

Jon Wertheim: Just to be clear -

Tanya Tagaq: I don't know anyone who's ever clubbed a seal.

Jon Wertheim: You don't like outsiders saying what you can and can't eat and what you can and can't harvest.

Tanya Tagaq: I hate it. You know what else makes me really mad? I'm telling you everything that pisses me off.

She keeps a sense of humor as she sounds off both in conversation and in performance. Back up north, her brother Carson has never seen her play live but says he's proud of her.

Carson: She's taking something old and making it new.

Jon Wertheim: Do you like it?

Carson: Yeah, it's, it's okay.

Jon Wertheim: (Laugh) you waited too long there.

Carson: Yeah, well, it's not Van Morrison, that's for sure. But I think it takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there the way that she has and to take Nunavut and the North to the global stage is a good thing.

Other throat singing acts are following her, breathing new life into an old art form. And for Tanya, this might be the most gratifying note in her unlikely success.

Tanya Tagaq: Oh, it makes me so happy. I'm like "Be freeee."

Say this about Tanya Tagaq: go to the North Pole and back, and you won't come across an artist any freer.

Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producers, Cristina Gallotto and Emily Gordon.