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Arctic throat-singer to bring ‘Nanook of the North’ film classic to life

In his 1922 silent film, Robert Flaherty depicted the Inuit people of the Far North as maybe a little bit naive, sort of simple and happy-go-lucky.

Tanya Tagaq doesn’t believe he was being malicious, she said. Maybe he was just buying into some of the stereotypes of the time.

She’s going to counter some of those stereotypes and give voice to her Inuit traditions in a performance Monday at the Lensic, where she will use throat singing, with music from Jean Martin on percussion and Jesse Zubot on violin, as a live accompaniment to a screening of “Nanook of the North.”

This will be her first visit to New Mexico and she’ll be here for four or five days, Tagaq said in a telephone interview. “I’m so excited,” she said, adding that she looks forward to sampling the food. “I love trying food from all over. That’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Her visit comes courtesy of SITE Santa Fe, which includes her as one of the artists in SITElines.2016; Tagaq’s concert is co-sponsored by the Institute of American Indian Arts and AMP Concerts, according to Anne Wrinkle of SITE.

This image of a harpooner is from a scene in “Nanook of the North.”

This image of a harpooner is from a scene in “Nanook of the North.”

Tagaq has been singing with the film for three or four years now and said she probably will continue to do so “until it doesn’t feel relevant any more. It’s still very poignant because there’s such a good statement to be made on so many levels.”

The contemporary soundtrack provides a deeper appreciation, she said, for the Arctic, “the land we live on and the survival mechanisms.” The upbeat attitude of the Inuit in the film – which Flaherty interpreted as somewhat naive – actually is one of those survival mechanisms consciously chosen to counter the harshness of the land, she said.

“The focus is so much on happiness because … death could take you at any moment,” she said. Faced with 24-hour darkness in the middle of winter, with fears that they might not be able to feed their children, the people “wanted to enjoy life and be as happy they could,” s he said.

Tagaq said her work on this project is “a big shout-out to my mom and ancestors.” Noting that her mother grew up in an igloo, Tagaq said, “She still is living this history.”

Tagaq herself grew up in Cambridge Bay, a settlement in Nunavut, Canada. Throat-singing was not a part of her childhood; she grew up in a time when children were still sent to residential schools and assimilation was king, she said.

Her mother sent her recordings of throat-singing, though, when she was away at college. “It really grabbed me,” Tagaq said, explaining that she was feeling very lonely and out of place at the time. “I think it was a natural thing to me. It was part of the land, and the land lives in my heart.

This is a movie poster for the 1922 silent film by Robert Flaherty, “Nanook of the North.”

This is a movie poster for the 1922 silent film by Robert Flaherty, “Nanook of the North.”

“I was born and raised on the vast tundra. In a way, with the music, I get to take the land with me wherever I go.”

She imitated the sounds and taught herself the throat-singing style, which comes from a fun type of game women would play facing each other, almost singing directly into each other’s mouth, seeing who could last the longest. She said she never expected to make a living from it but then, one day, someone prompted her to sing at a festival in 2003 where friends of the Icelandic singer Björk happened to hear her. They connected the two, who then went on to tour and made a record together.

Since that time, Tagaq has launched her own career and, in 2014, won Canada’s Polaris Prize for album of the year with her release “Animism.” She also stirred controversy with her defiant defense of seal-hunting for the economic benefits it provides to Arctic residents. Lately, she’s been hard at work on a new album, “Retribution,” with a possible release date in October.

“There’s a little bit of focus on the earth and climate change,” she said, adding that she’s already done a couple of videos linked to it.

According to various stories written about her, Tagaq has had problems with alcohol and drugs, and suffered from sexual abuse and rape in her past. These pains and struggles can be heard in her vocals that can rise to howls and screams, as well as visceral and threatening grunts and growls – sessions that she has described in the past as almost cathartic.

Nyla, her child and a puppy are featured in this scene from “Nanook of the North.”

Nyla, her child and a puppy are featured in this scene from “Nanook of the North.”

Some of her concerts have featured a backdrop of scrolling names of 1,200 indigenous women missing or murdered since 1980. She and her two daughters are four times more likely to be murdered than any other demographic group in Canada, she told an interviewer for The New Yorker.

Tagaq mostly sings wordlessly, but she sometimes adds words in Inuktitut and English, she told Journal North. She has learned some of the traditional Inuit songs, she said, and sometimes throws some of those lines in to ground her as she improvises.

Her vocals to “Nanook of the North,” though, will carry no lyrics and less improvisation than her other concerts.

“I like to let the film speak for itself,” she said, adding that it lasts 72 minutes. “It’s not my place to put my wordy ideas on top of it.”

But, she adds, “What’s important about the project is having the contemporary soundtrack to let people know we are alive and kicking.”