By Penny Mullins
with photos from Val Ihde
The first time I heard the members of Pamyua sing, it was in a storefront office space in Marinette with high ceilings and sparse furnishings.
Perhaps the acoustics made their voices so sweet, so mystical. Or the words they sang a cappella in the Yup’ik language – words I didn’t know, but were so soothing and melodic that it touched me.
I closed my eyes and let the music roll over and through me. The hairs on my arms rose up in the moment. It reinforced that this was special.
After spending time with the members of the band and hearing their stories, I was even more moved by what they do.
And why they do it.
These are musicians and storytellers. Historians and record-keepers. They share the stories of their ancestors in songs and words that, in some instances, had never been written down. They sing the songs, do the dances and write new music in an effort to record the past for the present and the future.
Pamyua brought all of that to our area in late February as part of the World Fest Marinette/Menominee concert series.
Where it all started
Brothers Stephen “Qacung” and Phillip Blanchett formed Pamyua more than 28 years ago.
“Our very first performance, we had our mom and two elders backing us up … when Steve and I were dancing, they were drumming and then we sang our harmonies,” Phillip told me when we talked at a quick lunch interview at a restaurant in Wausaukee.
Their first performances were “really celebrated by the people who were there and everybody was so excited at our first shows. But we knew when we did this we couldn’t be on tours with two elders and our Mom … we were going to need somebody who is fluent and knows the language to work with,” Phillip said. “So we put a feeler out; and I had met Ossie, but we really didn’t know each other. I knew he was involved in drumming and then somebody recommended him.
“Ossie, can you sing?” Phillip asked him when they met. After finding out Ossie could sing and sharing that they both played saxophones in their youth, “I called Steve and said, ‘there’s this guy Ossie and he said sure.’”
They found out Phillip “Ossie” Kairaiuak is a distant relative.
“When we met, I realized he was Yup’ik,” Phillip said. They were in Anchorage at the time, but knew they were from the same area of Alaska. After exchanging information about their hometowns and family names, Ossie said ‘Hey, we’re related!’ which is often a trope, because everyone’s related!”
Ossie was the perfect fit for the band, which sought to recapture and share the music and language of their families, the indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Northern Pacific region.
Ossie is Pamyua’s tribal elder … the one who speaks the Yup’ik language and teaches the dance to others. He is an artist, who carves masks and creates the hand-held drums that keep the beat of the music. He smiles all the time – the face of a man who is in touch with his own place in this world and who is happy to share what he knows with others.
The perfect blend
The three men are the foundation of this band, called the most-famous Inuit band of Alaska. But they have formed solid relationships with other talented musicians, like Kristoffer Reenberg from Copenhagen, who has played with them since 1996, and Ivan Night (2007), Sara Anderholm (2020) and Taylor Vidic (2022), all from Alaska. The musicians share their talents not only in the instruments they play, but by engaging in the singing, dancing and interacting with the crowd.
Pamyua draws into their circle this cohesive blend of talent that makes their soulful sound even richer and more fluid.
“… It’s important for us to share who we are, our authentic indentity,” Phillip said about that blend. “We’re not trying to be just locked into one role … that just because we are an ingenious band – we are strict – we are limited to one thing.
“It gives us the actual opportunity – license – because our family encouraged us.
“You know, when you have encouragement, then you feel like you can do anything … as long as you do it with the right recipe; respect, respect for elders, keep the sense of spirituality … that’s what drives us to share and be inclusive, as far as taking the influence of other things and expressing them.”
The relationships the three core members of the band have formed with other talented musicians allow them to adapt their overall sound with the composition of the ensemble. It also has given them range to fill in openings when tours don’t mesh with people’s calendars.
“It is an adjustment to go on the road for three weeks at a time,” said Stephen, about the fluid changes they have made in the band to commit to the World Fest tour. They all have families and other projects and commitments at home, he said.`
Everyone found something else to do during the pandemic shutdown, Stephen said. “During COVID, everything was canceled. We had a crazy lineup that year; so they all got pushed, postponed. So 2020 was postponed, 2021 was postponed – all those gigs.”
Then it shifted gears, he said. “It all started happening in 2022. We were traveling every weekend somewhere. It was an adjustment for everyone, because we had just been sitting at home with our families for two years; my youngest daughter didn’t understand why I was leaving – ‘Where are you going?’ she would ask. She was just little when COVID happened,” Stephen said. “It was an adjustment for all of us – for me, for the family, for the kids.”
“So we miss a lot of birthdays, we miss a lot of first walks, first talks, first dances,” Stephen said.
“Yesterday was my baby’s 9th birthday,” Ossie said as an example on Feb. 21. He had photos and video on his phone.
Pamyua came to Marinette and Menominee through Arts Midwest’s World Fest project, funded through the National Endowment for the Arts, and by the local donations secured by Kim Brooks.
Kim, who owns Main Street Antiques in Marinette, is the local coordinator of World Fest Marinette/Menominee. She quietly and efficiently pulls everything together, with a very courteous, no-nonsense approach to rounding up funds, setting up concert and workshop dates and finding the right people to get the job done. She does all of this as a volunteer, and it is almost a full-time job. But it is a job she thinks is worth her time, and it does have an end date: the three-year commitment to provide World Fest to the area started in Fall 2022 and will end in Spring 2025.
I wasn’t able to see the first international band that came to the area in October 2022 – Okra Playground from Finland. I heard they were fantastic.
But in spending time with the members of Pamyua, I can’t imagine any experience could have been better. Kim recommended me to Arts Midwest to write a story for their website, and thanks to her, I had unlimited access to the band and the events.
I saw Pamyua captivate students and adults. Their energetic sound captured the audiences’ attention in gymnasiums and auditoriums. I was one of the people who tapped my feet and moved my body with the music. I admit I was dancing in my seat!
Pamyua’s members engaged people in conversation, song and dance. Students from schools all over Marinette and Menominee counties were pulled into the production of songs about seal hunting, goose hunting and other tribal rituals.
It didn’t matter that the words were in an unknown language. The dances, the movements, the masks were universal.
Ossie and Stephen said they love performing with and for the kids. They appreciate the interaction with young people, who ask all kinds of questions. In Crivitz, the band was asked about the native instruments among the electronic and acoustic equipment. Stephen chuckled at the statement he heard from one student, who noticed, “There’s girls in the band!”
“Sometimes, they ask about our food,” Stephen said. “Do we hunt moose?”
“You’d be surprised about the complexity of the questions kids ask,” he said. “It’s always dependent on the first question … if the first question is a really good one, or like ‘do you like to eat French Fries?’ then, every kid is going to ask something about food. So we try to preface it like how we are going to have this Q&A, so that we can have a good engaging conversation. Nine times out of 10, the kids ask absolutely amazing questions.”
Their workshops on the World Fest tour combine music with conversation, as a way of bringing different countries and cultures together. This fits nicely into Pamyua’s mission.
Band with a mission
Ossie is key to introducing and reaquainting others to the Yup’ik language, dance and history of the indigenous peoples.
“That’s also a big part of the mission of our group; to celebrate the identity and the importance of our language, but not be limited to only fluency and this level of knowledge,” he said. “… to integrate that Ossie (is) fluent, he speaks like the old way – in many ways – but the fact that I have to learn is a snapshot of our colonization and the form of assimilation that has happened – to show us where we are at today.
“And that’s what it is … that’s our identity,” Phillip explained. “ And we can still celebrate and prioritize our language and so, through the heart, we can transcend. You know, a lot of the intentional interpretation through art is subjective.”
A spiritual journey
Ossie is very willing to share what he knows and what he has learned.
“I love what I do.” He tries to challenge himself to internalize the song to become “poetry in motion” when he performs traditional dance, he said.
“Dance is my first love; then, when I became a drum leader, I kind of reluctantly accepted that as my peers were looking at me (before Pamyua),” he said. When he and others performed at a culture center in Alaska, sometimes there was only one person watching, “but we would perform as if there was a house-packed,” he said.
He thinks of the music and the dance as giving people “healing medicine without them knowing it.”
Ossie said the songs often tell stories of how people engage with the animals and world around them.
“We have to be engaged with (the world) because that is a big chunk of our identity. We celebrate it through song and dance and how we have to maintain that relationship. For example, if we catch our first seal or moose, we give it all away to the elders, to show we are grateful for its spirit … that we are grateful that they will come back. It reciprocates. It goes both ways in that relationship.”
Ossie said his parents filled him with the knowledge that the world and animals around him were always watching what he did.
It is an ideal he carries with him in what he does as a human being, as he travels his spiritual journey.
“The highest of what we aspire to become is, when a person is born, we are all born with a window. Every time we do a good deed, we are constantly clearing that window pane. And pretty soon, it will become ‘crystal clear.’ When that person’s character becomes clear, that individual can walk amongst the most dangerous of animals that this planet has to offer and will be left untouched.
“That’s my goal in life.”
I was moved by these people and their mission to share and preserve their heritage. They are pursuing what so many of us seek – the ability to do what we love and share it with others.
They do it with enthusiasm and joy.