– Lila Watson, Aboriginal activist
The New Yorker wrote about a young Inuit throat singer, Tanya Tagaq from Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada and it took me back and made me want to relate all I learned working with Native tribes in New Mexico and Northern Minnesota, which frankly might not fill a thimble, so humbled by all that was I. I loved this video of her. The vocal is deep, real, a bit disturbing aurally and an encapsulation of what I saw in those most profoundly Native lands. Her voice and sound take me back to another time. There is a sweetness, humor and primal honesty in Native life that is unique in America, but can actually be recognized across numerous tribes globally. Sometimes art helps to convey this.
First let’s go to a documentary I saw a few years back, Genghis Blues. A blind blues man in San Francisco, Paul Pena, had fallen on some hard times. He had some success, culminating in pop/rock star Steve Miller covering a song of his, which created a yearly money stream but his wife had died and in his grief his health suffered including insomnia. For consolation, he would listen to a short wave radio late into the night. The nighttime upper stratosphere can bring in broadcasts from half-way ‘round the world and he got Tuvan throat-singing, of all things.
The Autonomous Republic of Tuva, wedged between Siberia and Mongolia, for centuries had been isolated from the rest of the world by jagged mountains and Soviet restrictions. Only recently had the Tuvan art form of throat-singing become known to outsiders.
With a population of around 300,000, Tuva ended sovereignty in 1944, and is considered a federal subject of Russia. A southern end of Siberia, it’s a wild land of wide open spaces. Tuvans, proud descendants of the conqueror, Genghis Khan, have historically been cattle-herding nomads, tending to their goats, sheep, camels, reindeer, cattle and yaks, and still are. And developing a profound form of voice known as throat-singing. The simplest explanation is they are able to sing two and three notes at once, also called overtone singing, though this hardly covers it.
“The art of Mongolian throat-singing is a style in which one or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental pitch, producing a unique sound. The history of Mongolian throat-singing reaches very far back. Many of the male herders can throat sing, but women are beginning to practice the technique as well. The popularity of throat-singing among Mongolian seems to have arisen as a result of geographic location and culture. The open landscape of Mongolia allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Ethnomusicologists studying throat-singing in these areas mark khoomei as an integral part in the ancient pastoral animism that is still practiced today. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountainside to create the proper environment for throat-singing.” – Wikipedia
Paul Pena had such an aptitude for it that he was invited to their annual Tuvan throat- singing festival and competition, and WON! “The blind blues man’s performance was so well received, he became the 1995 throat-singing champion in the style of kargyraa. He also captured the “audience favorite” award for the week-long competition. The Tuvan people had never seen or heard anyone like him.”
It’s a great story, a journey across cultures and land to show our common humanity. A group from the movie toured and I got to see them live and it reminded me of the renowned jazz man Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who could use a circular breathing technique to play two and three saxophones at the same time, similar to throat-singing, not needing to stop for breath. Also blind, he would stand at the lip of the stage and wail in overtones that sent chills. It takes me back to the wonderful era known as Free or Avant-garde jazz, exploding in the 60’s. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and his Arkestra, NC native Master John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and others, forged a path into brave new worlds of sound after decades of study and woodshedding the fundamentals. Adventurous promoters brought all these guys to Ann Arbor and my brother would take me and I was blessed to have my consciousness expanded again and again. Perceived as “noise” due to its non-diatonic scale usage and atonal qualities, nothing could be further from the truth. (Asian music comes from a much different scale background than western music) These were the Masters of our time, leading the way into unchartered creative territories. As is so often the case, the brightest flames burn fast and some were gone soon, Coltrane dead by 1967. Drugs were the scourge of the jazzman’s life and some of these artists’ were victims of the dis-ease of addiction. One Master who survived, Sonny Rollins, is not only in long-term recovery but still wailing at the tender age of 84 years of age.
So, back to Tanya, who will be coming to the Triangle area. There is a quote from the New Yorker: “Being free includes wearing seal, an important Inuit resource. ‘The people are being denied our natural resource because Paul McCartney thinks seals are cute’?”
There is so much we can learn from Native culture, we need the tribal as we go forward.
Here’s an excerpt from: “~A Rwandan talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression.”
“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave.
They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.
Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”
From The Moth podcast, ‘Notes on an Exorcism’.
Here’s a glorious example of our North Carolina tribal history to watch as we ponder our western arrogance, which can be an impediment. Our need for open-mindedness is more important than ever.
I have faith we can get there.