CD Transplants Native Music
to World Setting
By Mike Dunham
Daily News arts editor
For three years, the reputation of Pamyua has grown as more audiences have heard the unique "Yup'ik doo-wop" group live in America and Europe. The group's first CD will be available Friday at a concert in Sydney Laurence Theatre.
"Mengluni" appears to be the first Alaska album of world music -music from specific ethnic backgrounds of the globe that attains acceptance among listeners throughout the world. The addition of Native Alaska material to the American-pop melting pot creates a genuinely new sound.
The performers reflect the demise of borders. Brothers Phillip and Stephen Blanchett are of African-American and Yup'ik Eskimo parentage. Their cousin, Ossie Kairaiuak, is full-blood Yup'ik and Phillip's wife Karina Moller, is Greenlandic Eskimo. The quartet is joined by Danish pianist Kristoffer Jul.
Pamyua takes the dance and song traditions of Northern indigenous people and reinterprets it through the filters of better-known styles from street-corner harmony to calypso.
Unity in diversity is among the CD's main message. Individual songs and the album as a whole express the connections between people, generations, the larger circles of seasons, life and being. Even the cover suggests this shape, the four singers dancing in a ring framed by the Yup'ik words "Pamyua" ("end") and "Mengluni" ("beginning").
The first song describes a spring hunter watching geese circle overhead, the people-animal cycle. The next three songs celebrate singing and dancing -the domestic or people-people cycle- concluding with Phillip Blanchett's anthem "My People."
The people-spirit circle forms in the middle of the album with the "Purification Song." In its original form, it is used both as a dance piece and as a church hymn by Yup'ik people.
Pamyua's version features a long, slow introduction, an effect they use in several of the other songs. In the middle, however, with Kairaiuak beating a traditional drum and the piano at full chord, it becomes driven and loud, crowded with energy.
This call to things that cannot be seen is answered by a chant from the Yup'iks' far-off relatives in Greenland. Moller had a recording career in her home country before coming to America. Her experienced voice, which ranges from low and dusky to a wail more akin to Old-World keening than to New-World blues, provides an essential dimension in the otherwise all-male group.
The cycle of family and generations is evoked in "Where's My Drum?" in which a cousin teases, then comforts the singer, who has lost his drum. The meaning: Even removed from our culture, we can carry its strengths within us.
That cycle is further expanded to people in all places and times in Stephen Blanchett's "Perpetual Continuity." It reflects his brother's a cappella song in melody, thought and shared lyrics, but features piano backup, the power-soul sound of gospel and jazzlike breaks and improvisations.
A traditional lullaby, again a capella, summons the spiritual peace of untroubled sleep and leads to the concluding "Night Time Has Come To Me." This song also mirrors another - the opening song - in both meter and tune, closing the circle begun with the album's first notes. Voices drop out until only Moller is left singing breathily: "Moonlight falls on me making everything beautiful."
Jul's soft-jazz piano accompaniment in some songs makes one wonder what more orchestration and sculpting by producers in a major professional studio could do with some of the pieces. The unaccompanied voices generally are satisfying, but given the ever-improving technique of Pamyua's original members, one guess that more tightening will come with the next album.
Still, this first, self-produced album is a class act and may be hard to follow.
Special praise should go to the band for including exquisite songs by some of Alaska's finest Native songwriters - John Pingayak, the late Teddy Sundown and Bretina Chanar - whose work may, for the first time, be heard by a wider public.
By Mike Dunham
Daily News arts editor
Reprinted with kind permission from Anchorage Daily News, April 1998