When Pamyua’s frontman Qacung Stephen Blanchett was touring across North Slope communities decades ago, he was happy to share funk, soul and rock music in the villages, but he was also excited to come in closer contact with the musicians who create the unique sound of the region.
“I just remember it being just an awesome exchange. You’re able to dance with the local village dance groups,” Blanchett said. “It was amazing.”
While the Arctic is home to myriad musicians and performers, spreading the word about those artists can be a challenge, Blanchett said. That’s why he’s been helping with efforts to reach musicians in the Arctic and other rural areas for the Alaska Music Census.
The statewide music census aims to make the work of musicians across the state more visible, said Marian Call, program director at the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative, which created the survey. Traditional drummers, local hip-hop artists, church choir singers, fiddle players and even karaoke enthusiasts are all invited to anonymously answer a few questions about the time and effort they dedicate to their art. The survey can be found at alaskamusiccensus.com or by calling 206-552-9296.
So far, the census, which opened July 2 and will close Saturday, has received more than 1,200 responses from around the state, including communities such as Sitka, Metlakatla and Kotzebue, Call said. Organizers want to make sure they reach as many musicians as possible, especially those in the Arctic.
“Music makers in Alaska’s Arctic communities should be represented and visible, no matter what kind of music they make,” Call said.
Performance and hip-hop artist Allison Akootchook Warden, also known by her stage name AKU-MATU, grew up in Fairbanks and Kaktovik, listening to church hymns her mother sang in Inupiaq while leading a choir. Since then, Warden has lived and performed in many places around the world and now splits her time between Fairbanks and Anchorage. But whenever she goes back to Kaktovik, she said, she’s surrounded by an inviting and rich gospel music scene that fills community spaces in the village.
“In Singspirations, or funerals, or different events, they will turn up and play their instruments all together,” she said. “Things in the village happen organically. People just show up and they know where to sit, and then they know what to do.”
Warden said that while some Kaktovik musicians have been sharing their songs online, it can be a challenge for them to present their art in a Westernized way, for example, by putting up an album or performing at a festival as a band.
“I think it’s very counterintuitive to who we are as a people to put out a project with our name on it. It feels like we’re hoisting ourselves up above others, and that’s not a value of us,” she said. “In the village, it’s the community that is the focus, and serving the community.”
“But even if it feels unnatural,” she added, “the impact of that project on people’s hearts is worth feeling that uncomfortability.”
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Blanchett grew up in Bethel and later formed the Inuit soul band Pamyua, which has performed for about 25 years all over the world, including about 100 communities across Alaska. When he was a child in Bethel, he was also surrounded by music, too. Most of his family played music for fun, which might be the case for many musicians in rural communities, he said. But uplifting those musicians is as important, he said.
“If you think you’re not a musician or performer, that you just enjoy it, you know — you’re singing in a choir at church or if you have done something at a school assembly or any event — those are the people that we want to be hearing from,” he said.
After the survey is done, the Alaska Independent Musicians Initiative plans to analyze the results with help from the University of Alaska, the Institute of Social and Economic Research and other local organizations. Together, they want to look into how many musicians there are in all corners of the state, whether they are fairly compensated and how music events they participate in shape and affect their communities economically, Call said.
The idea is to use the data to develop infrastructure and resources that will benefit music makers, including those in the Arctic and rural communities — for example, by developing travel subsidies and offering help to publish music online, Call said.
Census data can also help connect musicians in places like Nome, Kotzebue or Teller to grants and performance opportunities, Blanchett said.
“If you have a clear understanding of what music is and what performance is in Alaska,” he said, “it gives us a chance and opportunity to really bolster and launch careers and launch the industry of music in Alaska.”
Understanding the role arts and culture play in different Alaska regions can also help draw visitors to events and unique cultural experiences they can find there, Call said. This, in turn, can support tourism-adjacent industries and local businesses, and it can start with collaborating with tourism offices and policymakers, she said.
For musicians in Inupiaq communities, the survey could also lead to new ways for them to share their unique sound and message, Warden said.
“It’s the quality of our voice and our passion in our hearts the way that we sing, and it’s our incredibly strong faith. … The beauty and the power of their faith comes through their voice in a way that touches hearts, and melts hearts and causes people to cry,” she said. “To hear such a beautiful voice come from such a harsh place to survive is very, very special.”