Young Inuit throat singers in Ottawa, Canada. © Art Babych/Shutterstock.com

A song of one’s own

American composer Caroline Shaw drew criticism because her award-winning work Partita for 8 Voices, according to singer Tanya Tagaq, profited on Inuit throat singing but failed to credit an endangered music culture. Cultural appropriation is very much a socio-economic issue.
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It was David Harrington, leader of the Kronos Quartet, who introduced me to Inuit throat singing. Specifically, to katajjaq – an animalistic, rhythmic form of antiphonal vocalizing native to the Arctic land mass northwest of the Hudson Bay in Canada. ‘Tanya Tagaq is the only artist alive who can follow Kimmo Pohjonen,’ said Harrington of the leading international exponent of the art, a musician who has made katajjaq into a solo pursuit, ‘and Kimmo Pohjonen is what you get when you cross James Brown and Jimi Hendrix,’ he added for good measure about the accordion player from Finland.

That was 2016, from a conversation in which a wide-eyed Harrington described the colossal expansion of notated music’s vocabulary in the 43 years since he established Kronos in 1973. ‘We’ve brought a lot of music into our concerts from places where the string quartet has never existed,’ he said; ‘it is a way to make our instruments sound like they haven’t sounded before.’ The implication was clear enough: musical progress thrives on sampling, exchanging, borrowing and imitating.

Nunavut

Ten years earlier, Kronos had met Tagaq in Whitehorn, Yukon. A video account of their collaboration has been posted on Youtube – a meeting of creative minds so free-spirited that it begins with a hands-up admission that neither party has done their homework. All they can muster up are some colour codes and a sketch of a wavy line. It’s idealistic, warm-hearted and just a little cutesy.

Harrington loves the sound made by throat singers – ‘like they have a string in their body and are trying to find a way to bow that string.’ He is particularly fired up by Tagaq: ‘she responds to things totally and honestly and I just love musical people like that.’ Tagaq, in turn, is beguiled by Kronos’s ability to transfer her ideas into instrumental sound. ‘I keep having this feeling that we’re walking towards the edge and if we had enough time together we could […] go further and further into it,’ she says; ‘I will learn how to make better music because of them.’

Tanya Tagaq and Kronos Quartet working together on ‘Nunavut’. © Kronos Quartet

The piece they produced together, Nunavut, is a collage of sexually charged duets in which the natural impulse of free improvisation, and Tagaq’s treasure-trove of a voice, take the quartet to a new place (the title refers to the vast tundra of land, islands and frozen water that extends from Canada to the North Pole). It’s a stimulating experience and frequently beautiful, not least in the open spaces of its first half, peppered with Tagaq’s cooing bird song. And yet, it all feels a bit contrived. The uncanny mimicking of Tagaq’s vocalizing by four stringed instruments rarely leads into anything but a cul-de-sac. Neither of the traditions represented seems to come out of it authentic or enhanced. Perhaps that wasn’t the point.

If the Tagaq/Kronos partnership didn’t deliver a masterpiece, it did build some bridges. Journalists bashed out standard Music Transcends Cultural Boundaries headlines when Nunavut had a short tail of performances in the noughties. Nobody was talking then about the steady stream of injustices waged against Inuit culture by Western civilization. The spirit of friendship and mutual respect in which Nunavut was created meant they didn’t need to.

Massachusetts

Fast-forward thirteen years, and those bridges were quite publically torched. On 16 October 2019, Tagaq took to Twitter to highlight use of the throat-singing technique in Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices, first performed seven years earlier. ‘This is appropriation,’ tweeted Tagaq, citing chapter and verse. In a thread of tweets, she went on to explain, in her opinion, precisely why.

Partita for 8 Voices is a more wide-ranging work than Nunavut. It is a joyous, open-minded and open-throated traversal of vocal sounds from tight vertical harmony to soaring lyricism that takes in breathing, speaking, babbling, humming, whispering, murmuring and screeching. As Tagaq underlined in her Twitter thread, it is full of references to ‘exotic’ musical cultures – including katajjaq but also taking in Tuvan throat singing, Gregorian music and the old American hymn (to European ears, just as exotic). Borrowing is its whole shtick.

Not that you stop to think about that. So compulsive is the rollercoaster ride of Partita – so full of unlikely twists, turns and plateaus – that you tend to enjoy the journey more than analyse its provenance. Unlike Nunavut, it directs your mind to things other than its actual material. The suggestion that it’s doing anything more than spooling out the fruits of white-hot inspiration is only ever subconscious. That’s the trick of it: all the sense and sensuality concealed by rip-roaring music.

‘No Inuit are named as composers, no Inuit hired’

That’s how a white European music critic hears it, anyhow. Naturally, Tagaq heard something else. ‘The third movement (at about 12 min) is entirely based on Inuit throat singing. Specifically the Love Song. No Inuit are named as composers, no Inuit hired,’ she tweeted with a link to a Youtube video in which the piece is performed by the ensemble for which it was tailor-made, Roomful of Teeth.

Tagaq was purposefully precise in her wording: Shaw hadn’t technically ‘hired’ any Inuk musicians. Roomful of Teeth had invited ‘two accomplished Inuit singers to our summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’ with expenses paid, according to a statement issued by the composer and Roomful of Teeth’s founder Brad Wells, as part of a full, conciliatory response to Tagaq’s complaint.

Politically, the presentation of Nunavut and Partita for 8 Voices are chalk and cheese. One lays its collaboration bare and celebrates it as both the means and the end; the other rejoices in the effect of the end result only, giving provenance a back seat to musical experience. But the genesis of each project must have been more-or-less identical: a bunch of mostly American musicians trained in Western classical ways hearing a throat singer, feeling instantly intrigued and delighted by this unusual sound, and wanting somehow to use it.

For the string players of Kronos, that necessitated working actively with Tagaq as a collaborator in the workshop and on the stage. She had to be a part of their piece and she’s by far the most captivating element of it. For Shaw, working with versatile vocal artists hungry to extend the reach of what their larynxes could produce, the obvious goal was to approach the sound of katajjaq as proximately as possible. Kronos wound up making it all about Tagaq. Partita is all about Roomful of Teeth; its sprawling range of references, coerced into tight classical forms, purposefully showcases the group’s new-old concept of ensemble singing.

[Disputed Territories]

On aesthetic grounds, you might argue that the idea of a classical vocal octet singing its way through a handful of traditions and alighting upon Inuit throat singing as one of them is heartening: a reminder that there are more ‘classical musics’ than the one nurtured in Europe for the last five centuries. That, suggests Tagaq, is deeply naïve.

Her Twitter thread of October 2019 explains why: ‘The dominating culture is a colonial based hive mind that constantly undermines our voices. They are used to taking without asking, without naming our names. Everything has been taken. Our land, our bodies, our children, our lives, our blood, OUR SONGS. When we finally stand up and try to keep something THAT IS OURS like the love song, people get angry like we took a toy away from a toddler. They are used to taking. WE ARE NOT PUBLIC PROPERTY. We are not YOUR indigenous population. To reduce our songs and culture to public property vocal techniques is problematic for a series of reasons. Firstly, we are in a manifest destiny induced socio economic crisis. Taking from poor brown people and siphoning it into white throats and profiteering is wrong. AT LEAST CREDIT THE INUIT WHO TAUGHT YOU AS COMPOSERS so they too can benefit and book more gigs to put food on the table.’

Roomful of Teeth performing Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices in 2016. © Music on Main

There are few better arguments for the existence and problem of ‘cultural appropriation’ around, and certainly none on social media. The tweets also underline the fact that it’s a socio-economic issue rather more than an aesthetic one. As such, it is easy for open-eared musicians to stumble mistakenly into appropriation as Kronos may well have in the early stages of their 47 years scouring the globe for interesting ethnic sounds with which to expand the vocabulary of the paragon of the Western classical tradition, the string quartet. (As it happens, Shaw did credit the Inuit singers in the work’s score, but suggested herself, in retrospect, that crediting was ‘limited’).

Shaw’s Partita may have burned a good number of the bridges that her string-playing colleagues built, but it did so mostly in the detail of its preparation and presentation and certainly not in its artistic message. She and Roomful of Teeth apologized for their errors of judgment and set rigorous new guidelines for themselves. For all their naivety, they held their hands up, despite the ambush of having the complaint raised via Twitter where a mob pile-on was inevitable and an instantaneous response was demanded.

Behind the block capitals, Tagaq’s tweets are measured and analytical. Besides, any anger is easily explained. The Inuit community from which she hails – inaccessible by road, on the south coast of Victoria Island in Nunavut itself – has links to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Greenland. It is threatened from almost every angle imaginable: economic, political, cultural and meteorological. Canada’s tiny Inuit population is spread over its biggest and most northerly territory, whose environment it is obliged to protect. As in the USA, native people in Canada find themselves at the wrong end of swathes of statistics – unjustly discriminated against in the doling out of everything from jobs to violent crime.

Behind the block capitals, Tagaq’s tweets are measured and analytical. Besides, any anger is easily explained

Culturally, the battle is just as real. According to research from the University of Amsterdam, Inuit sign language – which bears no relation to any comparable linguistic tradition on earth – is in danger of disappearing. When the Inuit aren’t fighting to keep their culture alive, their very means of survival is being questioned by well-meaning activists who know even less about the ecosystem of the place than Western musicians know about throat singing (for more on the plight of Inuit seal hunting communities, see Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk, available to watch on the CBC website with a good VPN). Much like the Scandinavian governments’ collective treatment of the Sámi, decisions are generally taken with a tacit contempt for indigenous people’s way of life and a concealed motive to bring it more in line with Western capitalism’s version of a value system. Meanwhile, Inuit artists, like the late musician Kelly Fraser, are literally killing themselves.

The concept of appropriation as understood by those who warn against it rests on the notion of a dominant culture abusing an endangered, sacred or colonized one. Wandering into a dress-up party in Nørrebro wearing a piece of iconography highly sacred to a particular people might be an entirely innocent act, but that doesn’t preclude its ignorance, some would argue. Similarly, passing-off a long ingrained and endangered musical tradition developed by a suppressed people as a kooky, novel section of a piece of music written in the comfort of a university might be seen as equally insensitive.

Graceland

It’s hard for musicians of any tradition to be faced with a new reality where, in the hitherto universal language of music, some musics are more universal than others. It was a given from Vivlaldi onwards that every musician poached from everywhere and that the process would only enrich the artform. ‘If blackness can turn the chorus of Carly Simon’s You Belong to Me into a gospel hymn, if it can animate the swagger in the sardonic vulnerabilities of Amy Winehouse, it’s proof of how deeply it matters,’ writes Wesley Morris in a considered New York Times article which homes-in on the grand theft that has underpinned the popular music industry for the last five decades (essential reading on cultural appropriation in the Black Lives Matter age).

In both classical and popular music, this picking and choosing has been an essential tool for progress. The best artistic examples of such acts of ‘borrowing’ are those concealed by the quality and originality of the music, but that reveal a distinct respect when actually detected (Dvořák’s New World Symphony is the most obvious canonical example). The idea of a respectful cultural exchange is built in to Nunavut, but that’s also a reason it falters as a work of art. There is no such feeling in Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986), a genuine fusion that takes the whole world as its subject.

South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the recording of Paul Simon’s album. © Sony

However his album turned out and went down, Simon was always off the hook: he paid his Johannesburg musicians $200 an hour, almost 7,000% of the going rate. He broke the Apartheid boycott in the process, but kick-started Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s career in Europe and America. Does that mean it was justified? Discuss.

As much as music thrives on borrowing, the balance can tip the wrong way when gesture and language are shared just as it can in the dividing of the spoils that follow. At least one element was clearly out of kilter in the creation of Partita for 8 Voices. But with respect to Nunavut, the perfect equilibrium delivered little more than the sound of one culture imitating another at the latter’s invitation. Forgetting about end results for the moment, Tagaq’s frustration is that it’s left to the likes of her to police matters when the deal isn’t so sweet. She is forced to take to the internet to defend her cultural heritage.

As much as music thrives on borrowing, the balance can tip the wrong way when gesture and language are shared just as it can in the dividing of the spoils that follow

The irony of appropriation warnings is that they erect barriers between cultures while trying to engender solidarity between them. This is where Roomful of Teeth’s comprehensive response to Tagaq can prove useful; yes, it can be about money, but it’s more about realism and respect – which can involve money as part of a series of channels which ensure the authentic practitioners of a particular art are strengthened by its use elsewhere, not weakened or robbed by it. It should be a residual benefit of Partita for 8 Voices that anyone who hears it takes a greater interest in Inuit throat singing; Shaw might have expected nothing less, but as her score proves, we’re not all as perceptive as she is.

Tagaq and others are legitimately concerned that even in discussions such as this one, white European journalists can’t help but betray their prejudice by talking too much about the dominant artists and the dominant art. It’s something to put right, especially now, four hundred years since a group of Europeans set sail from my home-town in England, arrived at the tip of Cape Cod and immediately presumed ownership of land that wasn’t theirs at all while throwing cultural persecution of natives into the mix for good measure. In the spirit of which, I owe it to every Inuk to end with an appreciation of the practice that has apparently so intrigued American musicians.

Iqaluktuuttiaq

When Tagaq referred in her tweet to ‘something that is ours like the love song,’ she was referencing the part of Partita for 8 Voices, also referred to as Love Song, in which two women in the ensemble form a to-and-fro rhythmic pattern via exhaling from the throat. The sound is unmistakably that heard at 08’44 on the Youtube video of Nunavut, when Tagaq initiates the same form of love song with Kronos violist Hank Dutt.

The sound goes well beyond the throat, like Harrington’s description of a human body trying to bow an inner string. According to a paper by Sophie Stévance of the University of Montreal, throat-singing is ‘a dialogue, an entertainment and a competition between two women executing rhythmic patterns answering to one another, the goal being holding on as long as possible.’

Piqsiq performing ‘Echoes & Electricity’ in Yellowknife, Canada. © Piqsiq

Tagaq’s mastery of it is as remarkable as her advancement of it. She learned the practice from her mother in her hometown of Cambridge Bay (in Inuttitut, Iqaluktuuttiaq). Searching for precisely the same sort of renewal as her classical colleagues, she moved the practice beyond its original competitive elements. Across a series of collaborations and albums, of which Animism won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, she has steadily explored how the technique can be taken back to its roots or used as the basis for wild, loving and railing metamorphoses. Retribution (2016) dealt vehemently with sexual abuse, harnessing the power of hard rock and opera. Toothsayer (2019) was a potent reminder that indigenous Arctic people, whether in Canada or Norway, exist at the sharp end of the environmental crisis.

Some have suggested a ‘new wave’ of throat singers is emerging in the far north of Canada. Tiffany Ayalik and her sister Kayley Inuksuk Mackay are exponents of the duo-form of katajjaq, performing as Piqsiq (the name refers to a particular form of snowstorm which gives the illusion of snow being sucked back up into the sky). Riit (Rita Claire Mike-Murphy), from Panniqtuq in Nunavut, released her debut album, Ataataga, in 2019. It fearlessly injects the distinctive sound of the technique into smooth commercial electropop (she also hosts an Inuttitut-language show on children’s television).

There are religious, magical and animalistic connotations to Inuit throat singing that bear some comparison with the yoiks of the Sámi: the individual performer entrusted to bring an instinctive, emotional dimension to existing rhythmic parameters that might spool organically into something cumulatively more significant and distinctive. In this respect, it is entirely individual and therefore entirely authentic, if meant sincerely. Listen to a genuine throat singer, and you soon learn the difference between the real deal and synthetic, learned imitation.