Anchorage-based band Pamyua is a fitting choice to perform as part of tonight’s 2014 Governor’s Awards for the Arts ceremony: In addition to having received this honor in 2005, the band is widely regarded as an ambassador of Alaska Native art and culture, and has built an international reputation through its celebration of traditional and original Inuit songs. And though music is the band’s primary medium, its work in supporting Alaska Native language revitalization has been equally substantial — in fact, founding band member Stephen Blanchett said the two are intertwined in the band’s approach to their craft.
“The language is key. The language is like the DNA of the culture. Without that, there’s so much that you will lose. And I think people are really recognizing that,” Blanchett said from Anchorage earlier this week.
The songs on the band’s latest album, “Side A/Side B,” are sung primarily in Yup’ik, with one track sung in Unangax. “Side A” consists of traditional drum songs, with just a drum and vocals, and “Side B” features the same songs reinterpreted in modern “tribal funk” arrangements, with guitars and other instruments.
Tonight Pamyua will give Juneau audiences a taste of this album at the Governor’s Awards ceremony at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, and then present a more extensive concert Friday night in the same location. Pamyua was last here in 2008, to perform as part of the Turning the Tides Ocean Celebration. Over the past two decades, they’ve carried their music around the world, earning high praise from critics, including the label of “the most famous Inuit band in the world” by Italy’s “Rolling Stone” magazine.
Blanchett and his brother Phillip, who are of Yup’ik and African-American descent, began the project that would become Pamyua in 1995 while both were students at the University of Alaska Anchorage, adding core members Ossie Kairaiuak of Chefornak and Karina Moeller of Nuuk, Greenland, the next year. Kairaiuak, who is the brothers’ cousin, brought his extensive knowledge of traditional Yup’ik drumming and language to the group, and Moeller extended the group’s perspective to include the indigenous cultures of Greenland, where the band continues to perform and work. Moeller is currently in Europe, so she won’t be taking part in Thursday and Friday’s performances, but the band will feature a female guest in her place: Cheyenne Leggett, the wife of one of this year’s award recipients, Aaron Leggett. Also playing with the band will be Ivan Night and percussionist James Dommek, of the Whipsaws.
Blanchett said some of the traditional songs on “Side A/Side B,” such as the first track, “Pulling,” are songs the Blanchett brothers’ mother, Marie Meade, sang to them as babies. Singing traditional songs was one of the ways Meade carried her cultural ties across the span of years when dancing and other overt forms of expression were discouraged in Nunapitchuk, her home village. Meade didn’t dance for the first time until she was in her late 30s.
“She didn’t dance, but she sang to us,” Blanchett said. “People still sang and hummed the songs, they just didn’t have the drums and the dancing.”
Blanchett said it’s been an amazing experience to watch traditional dancing return to Nunapitchuk and other villages over the past few decades.
“It’s really awesome to see,” he said.
In addition to strengthening ties to the past by using old songs in its work, the band fosters the creation of new work built on traditional styles, visiting communities all over the state. Members also work in the schools as a group and individually.
“That’s a huge thing for us,” Blanchett said. “We love to go into the schools and work with students. That’s one of our missions — that’s exactly why Phillip and I started it in the beginning, to get with young people and have them be proud of who they are, proud of their heritage, no matter what it is.”
“The band also does similar work in Greenland, band member Moeller’s homeland, where cultural revitalization through music and dance has been on a similar trajectory to that of Alaska.
Pamyua has released five music albums — one of which won Record of the Year at the 2003 Native American Music Awards — and a handful of others that are devoted to language: recordings of elders and others singing and telling stories in their language. The band also practices traditional Yup’ik dances and recently commissioned a mask and a pair of “shaman’s hands” from Anchorage carver Drew Michael to use in performances. The cover of “Side A/Side B” features this mask, which was on view at the Alaska State Museum in February as part of Michael’s solo exhibit.
Blanchett said the band was looking forward to celebrating the recipients of this year’s Governor’s Awards at the ceremony. Recipient Aaron Leggett, special exhibits curator at the Anchorage Museum, is a good friend, he said, and recipient William Iggiagruk Hensley has been one of his idols since childhood.
“I had a poster of him, growing up, on the wall,” Blanchett said. “He was a complete rock star to me.”
The Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities will be held tonight, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. An opening reception begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $25.
Also performing at the ceremony will be Leslie Kimiko Ward, Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, Ishmael Hope and Allison Warden, with dance by Lda Kat Naax Sati Yatx’l, and music by the Juneau Alaska Music Matters violinists.
Friday’s Pamyua concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at the JACC. Tickets are $15. For tickets and concert information, visit www.jahc.org and for more on the band, visit tribalfunk.wordpress.com.