Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Tanya Tagaq – Uja

Swim over to Canada…


Dorian Sinclair: As an Indigenous Canadian (though from the prairie, not the North), I’m all too aware of the traps reviewers fall into when talking about our art. Words like “raw” or “savage” are easy clichés to describe something that is, ultimately, pretty alien to the European musical tradition. Much of Tanya Tagaq’s work is heavily improvisatory, yeah, but it’s no more “raw” than free jazz. Good improvisation takes discipline and understanding, takes art, takes clear vision — and Tagaq has all of these in spades. “Uja” is emotional, immediate, and above all vital, but dismissing the intelligence and care that went into it is a mistake that plays into centuries of bias regarding what counts as “real” music. With “Uja”, Tagaq is continuing to play a role in shaping modern Indigenous culture — creating a sound just as essentially Inuk as the traditional music she draws from and reimagines.

Alfred Soto: It’s hard to write about this Inuit wonder without adjectives like “tribal” beats or comparisons to similar women making monstrous electronic music like Karin Andersson or the Bjork of “Earth Intruders,” not when “Uja” uncovers something monstrous and primal in recent Aphex Twin.

Josh Langhoff: Well this is disappointing. Tagaq shackles a decent thwack of a beat to two unremarkable little melodies. Her several vocal tricks — the smoker’s wheeze, breath catch, demonic hook, cavernous echoes, and “Eeeeee” among them — loop and layer without climax. Tying avant-garde gestures to pop structure, Tagaq inhibits both, because the avant stuff only gets to gesture — “Hey, check out this sampler of what I can do!” — rather than overwhelm. I’m sure she kills it live. (For whatever reason, Björk, Galás, and Ono have all gotten away with uninhibited avant-pop, but even calling them “avant-pop” flirts with underhanded sexism: male weirdos get to define canons while females working similar turf receive arms-length appreciation and no radio play. Who do you think triple-A radio plays more, Thom Yorke or Björk?) And anyway, pop songs can handle the avant-garde gestures on their own, thanks. I mean, what does “Uja” accomplish that “Cry Me a River,” “Elastic Heart,” or freakin’ “Drop That #NaeNae” haven’t? Besides being one tenth as memorable?

Anthony Easton: I keep thinking that this is what the future sounds like: the refusal of ossifying traditional cultures, how her voice moves around and against those chainsaw beats, how the whole thing sounds bionic in ways that we had never before imagined. We cannot think of this as art, or as strange, because for so many people it is common music. It grafts the genuine folk music into the populist music of electronic production, intergrating both of traditions. There are also traditionally melodic portions that could even be considered pretty. 

Maxwell Cavaseno: Vocalese turned into a powerful maelstrom that tears off your roof and sends your refrigerator into the next county with the eggs inside somehow intact.

Kat Stevens: Blends in perfectly with my washing machine’s spin cycle.

Mo Kim: Guttural growls circle around gasping breaths and escalating drums, while the tick of a clock measures all of the danger in 4/4 patterns. I like this: it gallops.

Mark Sinker: Having to fight my worst digressive instincts here, and not let this turn into a 40,000 word essay on Inuit voices and what happened to the Franklin expedition, not all that far from Tanya T’s birthplace. From any cultural distance, this is also about patiently find out how to listen — delicately disentangling what goes into it, almost all noises we’re not a bit used to organising or finding patterns in — before we really even begin reliably to recognise what count as qualities or values (or curses or jokes or come-ons) for the singer. Actually the start reminds me of “Instant Hit” by The Slits, Viv Albertine’s portrait of her friend Keith Levene (there are worse ways in); and the end is three or four urgent all-R grrrowls as the blizzard of layered buzzing abruptly drops away. The middle’s still all semi-impenetrable mystery though; I think I probably need fairly digressive excuses to spend the required amount of time there. 

Madeleine Lee: “Uja” is an interior song, and listening to it has the effect of projecting that interior back at you: your secret fears and anxieties made into your surroundings, your inner rage made into your outer shield against them.

Brad Shoup:Unearthly” is how RPM put it, and that’s clearly not right at all. “Unearthly” is the result of death metallers depicting gods that never were, ruling forests of the will. This is a very earthly skill, mastered and made as palatable as possible with a static rock/industrial backing. The piano line that eventually surfaces suggests where Tagaq’s talent may actually find a home.

Reader average: [7] (2 votes)

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8 Responses to “Tanya Tagaq – Uja”

  1. My writing is such shit here, this song is so vital for me, and I think I did it a disservice. I am so excited of late, in the upswing of Indigenous writers, musicians, visual artists and dancers reconstructing traditional forms for pugenent critiques of exoticism and tourism, and I try really hard not to be a tourist. I also think that this is some of the most important political music that I have heard recently, including that indigenous political context. I also think that Uja is formally brilliant—it’s really hard to discuss, but abrasive and pretty at the same time–and both of those are just really terrible fucking words. I don’t think Josh’s list of influences are bad ones–but thinking about how much Owen Pallett borrows from Buffy St. Marie’s 70s output, and how much Owen says this, and how much of this comes from a Canadian art rock tradition (god help us GSYBE!) maybe it’s also kind of like that? I keep thinking that the four or five albums that Buffy did from 68 to 72 are these secret history of rock, and there are so many threads and strings being picked up as a kind of avant shibboleth, maybe without being pop, and maybe without being western folk or art in ways that we understand it…I don’t know–this is just so vital to me, and I can’t figure out how to write about or how to speak about it without being colonial, because you know white racism, you can’t say that this is only indiengenious b/c it denies other aesthetics, and you cannot underplay the indigenious aesthetic, because motherfucking throat singing–John Ralston Saul is sometimes a tony, uptight asshole, but the unstable ground that she is playing with her, it reminds me of his formulation of Canada as a metis culture, not denying that the actual Metis are a thing…SO SO SO GOOD THIS TRACK, AND THE WRITING ABOUT IT HERE IS SO GENERIOUS AND SO SMART. Even Josh, who is just wrong.

  2. I suspect listening format is crucial to this one: I just tried listening to it on my phone and it sounded strained and messy, so I’m going to give it another shot later when I have access to better speakers. Really glad we covered it, though; I wouldn’t have had a prayer of finding it on my own. (And thanks to Mark for posting that link to her demonstration.)

  3. I think one thing that helped me with this is that Tagaq wasn’t my introduction to Inuk throat-singing? There’s an album I found by chance at the library some years ago called Quaraaluktuq, made by a Canadian composer called Michael Reinhart in collaboration with a group of Nunavut singers. I found a place you can listen to track previews online, actually.

    It’s not strictly speaking a traditional take on Inuit music either, but it features a lot of throat singing and sort of allowed me to get used to the sound and the ways it differs from other types of vocal music, if that makes sense? It’s always easier to review something when you have a context to place it in, anyhow.

  4. (In particular check out “shaman”, “party”, and “aurora” at that link I posted for vocal techniques pretty similar to the ones Tagaq is drawing on)

  5. I’m seriously conflicted about how I listen to and write about songs like this, too: in retrospect I don’t think “danger” was the right word to use in my blurb. But I really appreciate the context that Dorian gave, the open grappling in Alfred’s blurb, and Anthony’s point that what seems avant-garde to us is more about integrating old traditions into new sounds for the people whom these traditions belong to.

    In any case, it’s a lot to chew on.

  6. Also, remember her work wiht Bjork!

  7. “It’s always easier to review something when you have a context to place it in, anyhow.” <—yes! There's a lot of stuff — very mainstream, well-known stuff — I don't blurb because I know I'm lacking a great deal of context. Or feel obligated, in reviewing, to make it clear that I don't have a lot of context (see: my review of "Pop Out") so that reader knows not to treat my take as at all "authoritative."

    Thank you for the additional links!

  8. Listened to her album a few times today. It’s really fantastic, on par with the also great new Sleater-Kinney and Jazmine Sullivan albums.