Baker Lake meet the Bronx: concerts bring throat-boxer to National Arts Centre

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OTTAWA - Baker Lake meet the Bronx.

And when they meet, they come together in the unique sound of 19-year-old throat-boxer Nelson Tagoona.

Tagoona will be performing his novel blend of traditional Inuit throat-singing and hip-hop beat-boxing at an opening event of a Northern art and culture festival arriving in Ottawa this spring.

The lineup for the Northern Scene Festival was announced Monday at the National Arts Centre.

The festival will bring in 250 artists from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon making it the largest gathering of Northern artists ever held outside the region. It begins April 25th and features 50 events held across the city.

“It’s definitely a different experience compared to what I’m used to up North, it’s a cultural explosion for me,” Tagoona said.

Beat-boxers mimic the percussion instruments used in hip-hop through control of their lips, throat and breathing. Their music sprang to life in the 1980s in urban America. You couldn't get any further from urban America than Baker Lake, Nunavut.

Tagoona was steeped in the tradition of Inuit throat singing as a child. He grew up in a small hamlet of less than 2,000 people in Baker Lake, about 300 kilometres west of Hudson Bay. He watched the spike in youth suicides that came with the isolation of the Far North. Focusing on his passion for music helped him broaden as an individual and connect with others. He used that spiritual base to launch his traditional music into the orbit of American hip-hop and came up with a hybrid genre: throat-boxing.

“I was fortunate enough to see a shining spark and push as far as I could go,” Tagoona said while still perspiring after a performance.

He has performed in Ottawa twice before at the Winterlude Festival and the Northern Lights Conference, but still described his experience performing at Monday's Northern Scene launch as a rush.

"It's a blissful blessing and I'm very grateful to be here."

Clad in the requisite rapper ensemble of ball-cap and sweat pants, Tagoona said he hopes people who hear his modern take on throat-singing will be inspired to learn more about Inuit culture.

Back at home Tagoona uses his music to engage youth and is an advocate for suicide prevention. He said he sees art as a way to help people control their struggles or frustrations.

“You find your art and it helps you learn how to heal and cope, it gives you that extra inspirational drive,” he said.

Northern Scene is the sixth in a series of festivals produced by the National Arts Centre that spotlights a specific region of the country. The aim is to educate Canadians about other regions through art and culture and break down existing stereotypes.

This festival is significant because very few Canadians get the opportunity to travel to the North and experience their art and culture first-hand, according to Heather Moore, executive producer at the NAC.

“The North is more and more becoming a part of our national consciousness, and this is a really good way for people to get a vision of the modern North,” Moore said.

As part of the festival planning Moore travelled to Canada’s north to seek a culturally diverse mix of artists that could represent the region in the nation’s capital.

“I saw a lot of things I wasn’t expecting, and that’s what people who come to the festival will see,” Moore said.

The festival will bring back what it calls the SWARM program on April 26, which has been part of past Scene festivals. It includes a gallery crawl, high fashion show and a party at different venues across the capital, with shuttle buses provided for festival-goers. Tagoona will be performing at the NAC for the opening night party starting at 9 p.m.

Relish Gourmet Truck will also be on hand delivering a taste of the North to Ottawa by serving up traditional delicacies such as caribou meat.

A circus spectacle at the Canadian Museum of Civilization on April 30 features Artcirq, a group founded in small town of Igloolik, Nunavut. They have represented the Canadian North in front of the Queen as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations last summer and at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The classic silent film Nanook of the North will get a modern twist with a new live soundtrack performed by throat-singer Tanya Tagaq at the Mayfair Theatre on May 4.

“It’s very respectful to traditional with a contemporary feel to it so it offers a modern view of what makes the North so special,” Moore said.

Organizations: National Arts Centre, The North, Canadian Museum of Civilization Mayfair Theatre

Geographic location: Baker Lake, OTTAWA, Bronx Nunavut America Northwest Territories Yukon Northern Scene Hudson Bay Igloolik

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