When Laetitia Tamko, also known as Vagabon, was called to the stage last Friday night at the Horn Gallery, there was a moment when the audience was not sure she was there at all. She was seated on a fold-out chair in the back of the room, and when she rose to walk on stage, the crowd enveloped her. “She’s so small,” a voice from the throng said. But, as someone else pointed out, “that doesn’t mean her voice is.”
Tamko’s powerful voice, which combines the atonal punk shout of Patti Smith with the ragged emotion of Courtney Barnett, soared on the chorus of her opening song “The Embers.” “Run and tell everybody that Laetitia is a small fish … And you’re a shark that hates everything, you’re a shark that eats every fish,” she sang, the nervous quaver in her tenor voice mirroring the focus on feeling small, self-conscious and overwhelmed. Tamko faced the audience alone when she sang this, using only a MIDI controller and her guitar to complement the raw power of her voice. During other songs, she sang without her guitar, her voice accompanied only by pre-recorded drums, bass and synthesizers.
Tamko was born in Cameroon, and immigrated to the U.S. at 14. Until a few years ago, music was just Tamko’s hobby; she pursued engineering in college and taught herself to play guitar at home as a teenager. After posting her music on Bandcamp and then releasing her 2017 album “Infinite Worlds” on Father/Daughter Records, Pitchfork hailed her as “an indie rock game changer” and she began touring internationally. Last Friday, Tamko came to the Horn Gallery at the invitation of the Black Student Union as part of a series of performances celebrating Black History Month.
The self-described “weird black girl” of the indie rock scene, Tamko’s set dealt at times with themes of cultural placelessness and marginalization. In “Minneapolis,” she sang, “I can’t go back to the place where I once was … where I was born.” In “Cleaning House,” she sang that “my standing there threatens your standing too,” and commanded the listener, and herself, to “no longer yearn to be gentle and pure and sweet.”
In Tamko’s lyrics, the constraining pressures of society on her femininity and her blackness are at the forefront; her instrumentation floods the senses, and her vocals sink deeply into the conscience of her audience. The surprised-sounding and self-conscious thank yous from Tamko that punctuated her performance seemed at odds with the unambiguous rallying cries to people like herself in her music.
The small stage and the clutter of microphones around Tamko seemed to fade out of focus as her songs gathered momentum. Toward the end of her set, which at just over 20 minutes was brief, she introduced a new, untitled song — perhaps the best one of the night. A droning wave of synths rendered her lyrics impossible to discern, but her dynamic tenor, with the microphone held a foot from her mouth, was sharp and affecting.
In a genre historically dominated by white, nasal men — Neutral Milk Hotel, Radiohead, The Smiths — Tamko is a breath of fresh air. She is, as she says, a small fish; she swims unencumbered by the currents of indie rock’s giants, and looks to expand the genre’s territory while making room for more people like herself within it.