Beyond Words: Severn Cullis-Suzuki & Tanya Tagaq with Jesse Zubot

Beyond Words: Severn Cullis-Suzuki & Tanya Tagaq with Jesse Zubot – October 16th & 17th – Chan Centre, Vancouver

These shows were part of the Beyond Words series put on by the Chan Centre. They brought together Severn Cullis-Suzuki – ecologist and biologist, and Tanya Tagaq – Polaris-winning Inuk throat singer.

I first heard of Tanya Tagaq when her #sealfie photo exploded on Twitter. I was impressed by her engagement with and education of people who couldn’t comprehend that folks can’t disassociate their food from the land. She braved a nasty backlash of folks threatening her and her family and is a staunch defender of the murdered and missing indigenous women.

The shows “start with the head and move to the heart, start with words and move to music.” They began with a heartfelt essay by Severn, and were followed by a discussion between her and Tanya moderated by UBC journalism professor Candis Callison. We were welcomed by xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) Elders Larry Grant and Mary Charles to their traditional, ancestral and unceded lands.

Severn began by examining who she is. Her profession, her family, her heritage, her place in the world – and moved to a discussion of who we are together, the human story. She talked about how our stories tell us who we are.


Generations ago, everything around us would have stories – a shawl made by a mother, our clothing, our food, everything created by people who we knew. “What would that tell me about who I am?” It made me realize how amazing it is that I have things made by people who know and love me. Her words made me think more of the importance of what I create and give to others, and on the interconnectedness of our relationships.

I loved her words, though I wonder whether some of the concepts she was bringing out were understood. Like ocean acidification, crucial but not discussed as much as climate change. I especially appreciated the emphasis on this Holocene/Anthropocene mass extinction being a result of us, of people.

After Severn’s talk, she was joined on stage by Candis and Tanya for the discussion. Much of the discussion was around empathy driving change in the world and how reconciliation starts. Tanya is surprisingly soft-spoken, but does not mince words – particularly when speaking about her anger.


“We have to learn to start treating racism like a disease that needs to be cured. If your people say something, that lateral violence, your people saying little comments – it’s your responsibility to stop that. Because I can yell about it, but it’s coming from an indigenous person. We need your help to stop this happening.” – Tanya Tagaq

The performance began with Tanya singing and Jesse Zubot playing with Severn’s spoken-word in English and Xaayda kil. “None of us is exempt from the laws of our nature.” She spoke of the privilege of seeing her sister giving birth to her first son. The second night this felt like it had blossomed into a full-on collaboration. Severn seemed to have relaxed into the role of an improviser – moving more, reacting to the music, singing and widening the range of volume she used. Tanya seemed to react to this by pushing the music further than she had the first night.

After the first part of the performance was done, Severn left the stage and Tanya stood up. Her voice… it follows you home. You hear it like a heartbeat. You hear it in the hissing rain, the hum of traffic, the sound of a shower taken to cope with what you’ve heard. It puts you into another place. I’ve never had music do that to me before.

If the planet, all the plants, animals, earth, rocks, birds, machines, clouds, insects, oceans – made a sound… it would be this. The sheer power that Tanya releases is astounding. Her voice is amazing, stunning. It’s brilliant to see a performance that is fully improvised, led by the music wherever it goes. Most improvised performances still have boundaries, ways that they are constrained. This performance, all bets were off, like she was channeling the voice of the earth, the tundra, the sea. The music was here and it was going to be heard. One of the most powerful moments was when she held the mic far above her head. It was a small theatre, and very intimate. Her voice reached all of us, unamplified, at the volume she had been at with the microphone.tanya_colour_with_frame_0

The range of her voice is hard to describe. There are sounds like love, like pain, like the darkest sounds you’ll ever hear, and high-soaring joy and elation. Even after seeing her live, a friend asked if there were effects on her voice. The singing techniques she uses mean that there can be a growl at the exact same time she’s hitting a high note.

While she’s singing, she embodies the sounds she’s making. She moves from the tips of her toes, stretching high into the air to crouching on the floor. She leans over the monitors to implore the audience. This was a much different show than her usual performances, and it was an honour to be able to see her. Her Animism album does not even vaguely prepare you for this.

“There’s been a system in place for a long time now where we’ve been exploited, and hurt, and it’s time to make sure that people are educated as to what happened and is happening now. And also for us to try to trust again. I believe in Canadians – I know that seems idyllic and maybe a little strange, but I believe in people. Ibelieve that we have it within us to solve these problems, but it’s a question of effort. If we work as a group, the government can’t stop us. Nobody can stop us.” -Tanya Tagaq

The two women developed a strong bond during the time they were together, and it was beautiful to see how much the new friends cared for each other. The highest praise I can give is that this show made me want to be a better person than I am. It re-invigorated me, invested me with purpose, and gave a stark reminder of the beautiful and terrible power of the world we live in, with, and on.

This review was written on the traditional and unceded territory of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) peoples. Why not go support the Squamish Language House?


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