All photos courtesy of Walter Strong
Tanya Tagaq came of age as a teenager in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, the scrappy working class town that sits a handful of hours south of the Arctic Circle on the shores of Great Slave Lake. "When I first came to this festival," she told the Folk on the Rocks crowd before beginning her homecoming set on Saturday, "I was just a baby folk singer." The crowd—weighted with cousins, aunts, longstanding friends—roared with joy and laughter before falling still on the sandy grounds of the NWT Pride stage. The visceral and compelling throat singer settled at her mark in the middle of the stage and Jesse Zubot stroked his bow across the gut of his strings. Then, a sound to match the vastness of the festival setting: water, trees, the thunder of the Canadian Shield, and skies that bled from blue to red over the artist's 40 minute, single-movement improvised piece.
Word had spread that Tagaq was nervous and uncertain about her homecoming show, but Zubot said the opposite was true. "No, she's very excited," he told me before the set. "She wants to play for her friends and for the city." One of the great conceits of a Tanya Tagaq show is how relaxed and kind and hilarious she is on stage before the intensity of the performance starts. At a benefit event a few months ago for the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, she told the audience about how, when her water broke while giving birth the first time, she tasted it, and that "it tasted like the ocean." The story disarmed the crowd, freeing everyone for the wild storm of her music. In Yellowknife, the duo was joined by a drummer Jean-Marc whose towering work helped to swell the sound to impossible and profound heights.
Performance poet Shayne Koyaczan, also a product of this strange, beguiling and distant city, had played earlier, and in his set he spoke about missing and murdered aboriginal women, and the importance of being allowed to openly address this issue. The same theme had been brought to light in shows by Leela Gilday and Corb Lund, and if they articulated their feelings through verse/chorus/verse, Tagaq painted a more abstract horrorscape of the life. The band was heavier than ever—part Zeppelinesque, part nordic metal, part Dene thumping—riding the ebbing, then surging, tides of sound. A few women—some indigenous, some not—were in tears through the course of the show. When, for her short, closing piece, Tagaq invited singer Tiffany Ayalik—as well as two other women—on stage, she emerged from the crowd with her hands covering her face, wrenched with emotion and wet with tears.
Leela Gilday, the gifted singer and songwriter, told me: "Young women seeing indigenous performers play is important. It gives them someone to point to and to say, 'I could be that.' I love performing for everyone, but you connect on different levels with different fans. For sure this is true with Tanya and the young girls who watch her work." Yellowknife writer Andrew Livingstone echoed this sentiment: "Her sound is the sound of the north. So knowing that she's reaching the rest of Canada through her popularity gives people hope that we're being heard, read, whatever."
There have been a few occasions—though only a few, and most of them in Quebec—when Canadian artists have dovetailed with their times, but none has been as acute as Tanya Tagaq's resonance with all that has been happening in the indigenous world: the awareness of our society's treatment of aborginal women, Truth and Reconcilliation, the recent self-governance in Deline, the negotiation of land claims and new developments in invasive northern industries. As a white suburban male watching her perform at Folk on the Rocks, I was moved, shaken, and inspired by the power of her work. I can only imagine what she means to young native women. It may not be until this generation grows up that we fully understand.
Dave Bidini is a writer living in Toronto - @hockeyesque