About the Tar Sands Songbook

Created by musician, author and activist Tanya Kalmanovitch, TAR SANDS SONGBOOK is an 80-minute solo performance that combines field recordings, storytelling, personal history, and live violin and fiddle music to investigate our invisible relationships to oil.

Tanya Kalmanovitch knows these relationships all too well. Born in Fort McMurray, Canada, near the site of the world’s largest bitumen reservoir, she made her decision to become a musician as a teenager because “it had nothing to do with oil.” But when Fort McMurray shot to international attention as the flashpoint of clashes over energy, the environment, and the economy—”ground zero for climate change”—she was called to go home.

Tanya’s polyphonic piece weaves together storytelling, original research, field recordings, photography, and a live, improvised musical score. Her singular narrative gathers together the voices of First Nations elders, activists, oil patch workers and members of her own family into an arresting meditation on our complicity in extractivist culture. With a fiddle in one hand and a laptop computer filled with sounds and images from Fort McMurray in the other, Tanya’s first-hand stories, visuals, and sounds place audiences at the centre of a place they might not see, but that has everything to do with how we all live today. 

I started this project a decade ago, as Fort McMurray gained international infamy as the source of “dirty oil” to be carried through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. In the international Tar Sands protest movement, Fort McMurray became the symbol of everything wrong with our addiction to oil. 

The Guardian called Fort McMurray “Canada’s most shameful secret”. But to me, it’s always been something else, too — my home. 

I am a child of oil country. My father, uncles, and cousins all worked for the oil sands. Oil paved our family’s way into the middle class. But my Ukrainian grandmother, mother and aunts taught me a different order of survival. Raised on a subsistence farm in central Manitoba, they taught me to honour the land because it was the difference between starving and staying alive. 

I’ve come to see my ability to relate these two worldviews as an authentic power. Just as my fiddle is also a violin (it’s the same instrument—the difference lies in how you play it), my personal history with oil lets me speak with a clear voice in communities fractured by oil development. My performances convene people from different walks of life to collectively grieve, laugh, love, and sing about our life after oil.