When tradition and tribal soul combine: The story of Pamyua

When tradition and tribal soul combine: The story of Pamyua
Published: Oct. 3, 2023 at 9:48 AM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Qacung Blanchett loves music and performing. Growing up, he was exposed to various musical traditions from his Yup’ik Inuit mother and African-American father.

“My whole childhood, I was just kind of following where my mom and her peers were just being able to share the culture and that love of dancing. So that was really a big part of our childhood and our upbringing on our mom’s side,” Blanchett said.

Passing on that same passion, Blanchett’s been a performing musician for nearly 30 years with the group Pamyua, a Yup’ik Inuit word meaning “encore” or “do it again.”

“We kind of call it tribal funk, Inuit soul [music]. We sing a lot of our songs in our Yup’ik language,” he explained. “And so expressing our culture, our language, our ceremonies, our customs through music and dance.”

A little nervous about how elders would receive their tribal funk sound, Blanchett recalled the moment he knew they were on to something when they performed in their hometown Bethel’s Cama-i Festival.

“When we finished that first dance, we stood up, and we went up to the mics and we sang it in the way that it’s done traditionally,” he said.

Blanchett said they then began singing with a more soulful harmony, calling that moment “one of the most memorable moments of my career.”

The entire audience gave Pamyua a standing ovation and started clapping for them. Blanchett said they were only 10 seconds into their song.

“Right then in that moment, we knew what we were about to embark on was given the blessing by our community and our people,” he said.

Pamyua would go on to continue sharing their message with audiences across Alaska and around the country.

“The music was a way for us to really talk about identity and who you are and the complexity of so many people’s identities, especially in this contemporary world that we are [in], there’s so much cultures and peoples coming together and mixing,” Blanchett said. “So our message then was being proud of every part of who you are, loving yourself, every part of yourself.”

Seeing that representation matters, Aak’w Rock Fest was born in 2021 and is the only Indigenous music festival in the United States. The full festival was held in person for the first time last month, gathering 25 Indigenous musicians and groups from all over the world to Juneau for three days of song and dance.

“This is about amplifying voices, and you know, underrepresented voices in the music industry and we’re really uplifting them,” he explained.

Blanchett, the festival’s creative director, said it’s been a dream for decades and long overdue.

“From here on out, Aak’w Rock is that celebration of Indigenous music, Indigenous excellence, and we’re doing it with the intention of ceremony and protocol,” he said.

Aak’w Rock Fest is slated to be held every two years in Juneau.