Pamyua teaches Yup’ik song and dance at Edmonds Center for Arts

Members of the Alaskan Yup’ik musical group Pamyua led a song and dance workshop with 18 participants of all ages at the Edmonds Center for the Arts on Thursday. The members include Pamyua co-founder Qacung Blanchett, Aassanaaq “Ossie” Kairaiuak, Ivan Night and Kristoffer Jul Reenberg. Their aim is to honor and share indigenous traditions through ceremony, songs and dance.

While everyone sat in a circle on the stage, the participants received a quick introduction to the Yup’ik language and culture, learning the song in the Yup’ik language that tells a story of life in the Arctic. Parts of the dance include hand movements that indicate moving down river and to the bottom of the ocean, shoveling, patting and harpooning.

Pamyua cofounder Qacung Blanchett (right) talks about the band and its music at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

Throughout the workshop, Blanchett emphasized the most important part of the song and dance is the voice, because that is the medium to tell a story. “It’s an oral tradition and our stories are told and passed on and passed on,” he said. “The motions reinforce those stories, and each of those words are corresponding to the story. You can see, you hear it, you move and you feel it. It’s a strong way to commemorate a moment, whether it’s a ceremony or something fun. 

Kairaiuak said that the men would either sit or kneel to perform while the women would dance around them. “If a mother saw their child, they would come right behind them and dance with them to show their support,” he said. “Those songs belong to the families or those with ties. If you have teasing cousins, this is where we get to have fun.”

L-R: Pamyua members Qacung Blanchett, Kristoffer Jul Reenberg, Ivan Night and Aassanaaq “Ossie” Kairaiuak.

Blanchett beat on a cauyaq, a type of drum that various Inuit tribes use to play a song. Kairaiuak pointed to his cauyaq and said that he made his own out of elk antlers and ceconite, a type of fabric covering for aircrafts.

“The drumhead would’ve been the stomach lining of a walrus or whale, but we use synthetic materials because this is more durable and easier to transport,” he said.

Started in 1995 by brothers Qacung and Philip Blanchett, who are of Yup’ik and African American descent, Pamyua fuses various styles of music together, including R&B vocals and rock. Kairaiuak and Moeller joined a year later and Night joined in the mid-2000s. Thursday’s concert was their first performance in Edmonds.

Aassanaaq “Ossie” Kairaiuak on stage leading the workshop.

“ECA has always done pre-show talks that engage our audiences in a deeper way with the artists and our stage,” said ECA Executive Director Kathy Liu. “This time we wanted to try something different and made it interactive. We wanted to make this accessible to the entire community, and it’s really important to us to provide a sample of our main stage programming for free for everyone.”

ECA’s Director of Education and Community Engagement Diana Ortega-Chance said that she and her colleagues saw Pamyua perform two years ago at an arts conference in Calgary and were “blown away.”

L-R: Aassanaaq “Ossie” Kairaiuak, Qacung Blanchett and Kristoffer Jul Reenberg led the song and dance workshop.

“The sound that was coming out of them, the room was shaking,” she said, “and we all looked at each other and were like, ‘How do we book them?’ It’s so exciting to see them perform tonight, and their music is just so good for the soul.”

Liu said that she would like to see Pamyua return to perform in Edmonds in the near future and do similar workshops. “It’s fun to see everyone on stage and to make it open and free to the community even if they don’t have a ticket,” Liu said. “This is something we’d love to continue. I give so much credit to the [ECA] team for pulling this together and making this happen.” 

— Story, photos and video by Nick Ng

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