Art is, of itself, an intersection. Lyrics of poetry come from songs past, evoking powerful imaginings of stories told.
One of the current artists who understands this deep connection intersecting art, life, myth and tradition is award-winning Inuk artist Tanya Tagaq.
An emotional powerhouse of womanhood, motherhood, community, reclamation and embracing your roots, Tongues may be Tagaq’s best album to date.
With nods to past albums, particularly on interlude-like tracks like “Birth” and “Nuclear,” Tongues is itself an intersection, standing both firmly alone as a solid solo piece and reading as program music to Tagaq’s award-winning 2018 mythobiography Split Tooth.
From the opening of Tongues, the first tones of “In Me” indicate the album’s own intersection — and Tagaq’s staple sound — of present-day electronic music and traditional throat singing.
Just as program music is set to portray the action and emotion of the lyrics, songs like “In Me,” “Teeth Agape,” “I Forgive Me,” “Do Not Fear Love” and “Earth Monster” all borrow their lyrics from Tagaq’s Split Tooth, with the music expertly painting the emotion, struggle or thoughts of the overlaid lyrics.
Even the tracks developed exclusively for the album convey this musical brushstroking. The title track, “Tongues,” takes on the rebuilding of the mother tongue after its assault by the Christian missionary work of residential schools.
The traditional drumming in the song is taken up by electronic beats that accompany the words “they tried to take our tongues [...] you can’t take that from us [...] you can’t take my tongue,” intertwining the resurgence and regeneration of tradition through present-day musical tools.
“Tongues” is fittingly followed by the song “Colonizer,” an electronic dance number that consistently repeats “you’re guilty, colonizer.” The melodious backbone of the song conveys the anger just as much as Tagaq’s voice.
“Colonizer (Tundra Remix)” is a more traditional alternative version of the song which makes for a fitting end to an album that combines and weaves the intersections of tradition, present and future.
Tongues deals in uncomfortable subjects. The sixth track, “I Forgive Me,” focuses on rape, and the current, incessant focus in society on the victim of assault to forgive the perpetrator.
Tagaq emphasizes, “‘Forgive them,’ they say, ‘forgive those that have hurt you,’ ‘don’t hang onto the past,’ they say,” before pushing back, “I do not forgive and forget, I protect and prevent.” In Tagaq’s own words from Split Tooth, “It is not violence against women [i]t is violence done by men” — her song is questioning why the perpetrator should be forgiven.
Moreover, the song melodically paints the mental grappling of past trauma, with conflicting tones portraying the brain-fog of thoughts as the mind continues to process violence against the body.
Lovingly aligned with Split Tooth, which is dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and residential school survivors, the gem of the album is “Teeth Agape,” both musically and visually.
One of the most powerful tracks on the album, “Teeth Agape” perfectly intertwines Tagaq’s poem from Split Tooth with music — an electronic beat growing stronger and stronger as the lyrics speak powerfully of motherhood and the responsibility of women to protect and support other women.
Most obvious in Split Tooth, blending media is a favourite pastime of Tagaq, with the beautiful music video of “Teeth Agape” portraying the poem about women through a mother wolf that has learned how to defend through survival.
Director and animator David Seitz illustrates the theme of the song by vividly animating animism — the wolf turning into spit, blood and placenta which turns into a woman who turns into a rock that turns into a wolf, whose shadow turns into a wolfpack, ready to defend the next generation.
Tagaq’s other visual representation of her album is for the title track “Tongues.” The tundra landscape, brought to life by Afro-Indigenous artist Omar Rivero, depicts how the land created tongues, and even if the slashing Christian crosses of residential schools try to destroy the mother tongues and traditions, the land itself will always restore and regenerate what was once torn apart.
A journey of pain, love and healing, Tongues as an album, intertwined with the multimedia Split Tooth and paired with visual accompaniment, is a feat of intersectional art. A must-listen and a must-watch, Tagaq’s latest project evokes eager anticipation for her next compositions.
Tanya Tagaq’s new album, Tongues, drops on all music platforms on Jan. 21. Her novel Split Tooth is available from major retailers.