The extraordinary fare served up in Hobart’s annual Dark Mofo Festival continues to astound and delight. Set in the dark mid-winter Hobart, the southernmost point in Australia, the Festival must be one of the most unique and eclectic festivals in the world, both in terms of its setting, its motifs and its events that deliberately push the boundaries of art and music.
Last year’s controversy was the performance piece by Hermann Nitsch involving the slaughter of a bull. This year, the city is studded by massive upside down red-lit crosses, a performance artist is being buried for three days under one of Hobart’s busiest thoroughfares and you can take a ferry trip down the cold Derwent River learning about the decomposition of bodies. Every year a nude solstice swim takes place in the river, and every year a spectacular light show strobes the town in one form or another.
But where the festival excels for me (other than the wondrous Dark Winter Feast that takes place every night in Salamanca Square) is the music. Last year saw Mogwai, Einstürzende Neubauten amongst a variety of exemplary performances. This year sees St Vincent, Jagwar Ma, Alice Glass and Zola Jesus, Lydia Lunch and the return of Einstürzende Neubauten (who were so impressed last year they requested to come back).
Dark Mofo this year had a sort of preview weekend before the bacchanalia formally begins on 15 June 2018 and the highlight was a performance by Tanya Tagaq providing a soundtrack to the legendary black and white quasi-documentary ‘Nanook of the North’. ‘Nanook of the North’ is a 1922 silent film by American Robert Flaherty depicting Inuk Nanook and his family in northern Quebec. Purportedly one of the first ever documentaries, there is debate about its veracity and whether scenes were staged, but nonetheless it is an incredible portarti of the life of the Inuk – the indigenous peoples of the far north of Canada who led a harsh nomadic life in the barren wilderness.
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk ‘throat’ singer which is a form of singing normally undertaken by two women.
Tagaq has developed her own style singing in solo because she could never find a partner. But she is more than this: she is an accomplished songwriter, collaborator, an advocate for indigenous rights, a poet and writer. She has worked with Bjork, The Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton and won a slew of awards.
On this evening, however, she and her band provided an improvised soundtrack to ‘Nanook of the North’ – a film she admits where “they put a bunch of bullshit happy Eskimo stereotypes” on screen through a 1922 white man’s perspective. In a sense, this performance acknowledges the film for its historic capture of the harsh life of the Inuit and reclaims it through an extraordinary musical performance.
As fascinating as the film is, it is hard not to be mesmerised by Tagaq’s performance and the extraordinary talent of her band. Her voice is transcendent – it rumbles from the depths like a singer from a Norwegian death metal band, it soars like an opera singer and sometime chatters and sometimes laughs. The expressive delivery of the voice is matched by her physical performance – her hands, her fingers stretch and ripple, her body sways and her eyes sometimes closed in concentration and sometimes sparkle and entice. It is utterly mesmerising.
The improvised nature of the music is stunning – the band swell, peak and descend together, the movements on the film accentuated by the responsive, expressive sounds and Tagaq’s voice commands and leads. The drumming is vibrant and subtle, thunderous and ominous at times, the theremin and back-up singing providing atmosphere, violin and keys a vibrant spine. The end came much too soon. Tagaq is also performing her album ‘Retribution’ in full during the festival – details and tickets available here.
Photo Credit: Dark Mofo/Remi Chauvin
Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia