World Music Foundation Podcast | Season 1, Episode 7

We’re doing this to save our lives.

About this Episode

Pamyua’s musical footprint, spanning two decades and several countries, is a testament to the ongoing vibrancy of Inuit music, the group members, and their unique heritage. Brothers Phillip and Stephen Blanchett speak from the heart on issues of identity, culture and music expressed through Pamyua (pronounced bum-yo-ah) with collaborators Ossie Kairaiuak and Karina Moeller. They are preservers of an amazing musical tradition that is still alive but has historically been marked for extinction and continues to face the threat of becoming lost to this day.

(Intro Music Begins)

John Gardner: Hello, hello and welcome again to the World Music Foundation Podcast. I’m your host John Gardner, and today, we speak with Yupik Inuit band Pamyua. Our guests today, Phillip and Stephen Blanchett, formed the band Pamyua in 1995, a group that Rolling Stone magazine called “the most famous Inuit band in the world.” Native People magazine has described their music as a blizzard of interlocking harmonies. I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of theirs in Downtown Anchorage, Alaska. I’m very happy to share with you and I hope you enjoy our conversation with Phillip and Stephen Blanchett of Pamyua.  

(Interview Begins)

John Gardner: Great to have y’all here today.

Phillip Blanchett: Kacu it’s good to be here. 

Stephen Blanchett: Yeah it’s an honor, it’s great to be here, to meet you, and to talk about our music which we’re very proud of and love.

John Gardner: I’ll tell you this, I love it too. Just had the chance to hear y’all live for the first time, absolutely blown away. Really loved it. So one of the first things I wanted to do, is kinda get an overview of what kind of music do you create, how do you classify your music, which in y’alls case might be a little difficult, but just a little bit of background of what is the music of Pamyua.

Phillip Blanchett: The way that we look at our music is it’s really, it’s about our identity of who we are the influences that inspire us as artists, which maybe sounds a pretty generic,  but for us it’s been such a guide because the family influence that we had growing up, you know, as little ones was so beautiful and it was so rich, and also so misunderstood. And there were so many ties and links between the various cultural influences, just within our background. For example growing up African American from our father’s background and history and things that he taught us growing up, and then being raised out in rural Alaska with my mom’s family which is all just, immersion of Yupik. So we grew up understanding the Yupik sensibility and Yupik culture and way of being, and that part of us. And musically, it was kind of just a reflection of life and our identity and how were inspired to communicate and live and be us, be who we are and to express that through dance and music sharing our shared cultures. It was just kinda like a no brainer for us to do, and 20 years later we’re still doing it, and it’s still us. We’re still just expressing who we are as individuals, Stephen, Phillip, Ossie, Karina. All the members of our group. But we represent my mom, our mom, our dad, and so many of the people who have really influenced us growing up to have this identity. So we really want to, with Pamyua, we try to honor that identity that is within us that comes from the influences that we have been lucky enough to be apart of. Which is immense. It’s rich, it’s incredible. And in many ways nobody knows. Like really, from Alaska nobody knows that we even exist. So from Pamyua, we exist, our culture is alive, our songs are beautiful, our dances are inspiring. And when we go out to other communities we’re like this is a part of you, this is a reflection of you. Because everywhere we go, we’re introduced to people who are just like us, that have their own background, their own story and that’s really what it’s about. Identity, Culture, and Love.

Stephen Blanchett: And I also think that, you know, to put in perspective, we come from about 35,000 people in the world who identify as Yupik and this artistic expression that we’re doing. But I think we took a turn, and made something that was different, was when we collaborated with Karina Moeller from Greenland and we started to kinda internalize and talk about our shared expressions as Inuit people and then from there it really started to expand from there, so that was kinda like the catalyst. Us as Yupik people expressing our music, meeting and collaborating with an Inuit performer from Greenland and having our very very close and  shared cultures and also very different, that just spring-boarded into meeting other artists as we started to perform and share around the world. And meeting artists indifferent indigenous expressions. So it was hard for us for a long time to really put a finger on what we are and who we are because we get that question, Well what kind of music do you play, what genre are you. It’s easy to just clunk it into world music but it’s there’s so much in that, it becomes this, world music what is that? So for us, it’s like, we’re Inuit, but we also have this expression from other cultures around the world that we really have been influenced and inspired by. So it becomes this fusion of that, you know. Even though, if you’re thinking of it like cooking, you’re creating these different experiences and flavors from around the world and creating something beautiful and tasty and yummy. So that’s Pamyua.  

John Gardner: I’ve heard in y’alls music reggae, R&B, all sorts of different influences.

Stephen Blanchett: Yeah, I think one really memorable experience for me was our bass player Nikolaj Frandsen 7:17 from Copenhagen, and his grandmother, at that time, I think she was probably in her 80s, she came to our show over there at the North Atlantic House in Copenhagen, and after our show she went to Nikoli and he was like What’d you think, you know just like you said, and she said They really get around! And in Danish, it’s hard to translate in English, but in Danish what she was saying, which roughly in English is we really moved around, like musically, all over. They really get around!

John Gardner: Yeah, one concert from y’all you get a tour of the world. And you mentioned that this music comes out of your identity, as Yupik, as Inuit, but then as Philip and Stephen. We saw a huge influence in that tonight, we had the honor of seeing your mother perform, amazing of course, and felt really fortunate to be there for that. I’m sure she’s involved in this next question, I think you mentioned this on stage, what is your first memory of music?

Stephen Blanchett: Well, yeah. My mom is a huge part of that. Like that song we were singing, the very first song called Jaukaadup ? that was a song that she sang to us as we were babies. That was lullabies. Those were, these many many songs that she sang to us, which were all almost primarily Yupik, that was the first memory really for me. But we’ve always been musical, our uncles and aunties they all play guitar and sing and we have this strong tradition of singing together as community. One that’s probably huge, one of the biggest influences is the Church. Both in my dad’s church, the African American side, and on our mom’s side our grandfather was a deacon in the Russian Orthodox. And so there’s a tradition called Slavic where you go house to house and you follow the star and you sing these songs throughout the evening and there’s usually a message that the person designated to the house, maybe it’s the person who owns the house or whoever they designated, gives a message and then there’s food and gifts that are handed out, yeah candy was huge for us! And then you sing. So those songs were huge for us. So when we first started, Philip and I, I think half our repertoire was Slavic songs

Philip Blanchett: That’s definitely, in the village where our mom was born it’s a tiny, very remote village out in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta and it’s called Nunapitchuk and there, when we were just babies we spent so much time with our family, and that Slavic was so incredibly soulful. Like it was, at that time, in the early 70s, there were still so many elders that were still alive back pre turn of the century. They were still alive. Their voices. Well, and their harmonies. Vocally, it’s so intimate when you share your voice. It’s something that we all have, everybody can sing. And these Yup’ik elders in the village, would be signing their version of these hymns, these Russian hymns, so they were taught in Russian but then they were also sung in English but then also sung in Yupik. So when we were introduced to that as kids, we heard these three languages represented, sung, through the instrument of our people. Which was this really interesting, dissonant harmony of like twang and low, and the women are like eeee and the man are like oooo, you know, but they’re all singing in harmony and they find that harmony. And when we first started with Pamyua, in 95, we were thinking is this a realistic goal for us? We went to our local music store and checked out all the music and one of the albums that was a big influence, that was recommended actually by the guy there, was LadySmith Black Mambazo and then I listened to that and those eeeeoo and the harmonies they were doing, it was almost like I was hearing the sounds of the turn of the century elders that were still alive back in the 70s when we were kids. Because those harmonies, they were singing hymns, like Black Mambazo, they’re singing hymns, church songs, but they’re singing in their own way. With their own voice, with their own identity. Something about that was internalized by us as musicians, as people. It’s not about musicians but people, like I said identity. That’s how we were raised. Well, if they in the village, these elders who nobody in the world knows can sing so beautifully there’s no reason we shouldn’t be singing and trying to at least resonate the sounds of our experience. So that, definitely the Russian Orthodox was one of those things that really stood up and rivaled the immense pride and power we get when we hear black music. When we hear African American music. When we hear music from our experience, from the African American experience, from the culture of R&B, soul, rap, hip hop, the whole evolution of sound from the Americas of black culture. Because that’s our dad’s side. So when we hear that, it’s just like how the elders are singing in our experience. So we’re like, there’s no difference. In Pamyua, we don’t see a difference between those two aspects. So it’s like an example of like well there’s no difference between any of the aspects of our human experience of how we share intimacies and the passions of our stories and the soul that exists within ourselves. That’s why when we describe our music, we just say it’s Inuit soul music, or Native American soul music. We do this indigenous cultural music, and it’s soul music. And soul music, hey folk, country, soul music is soul music. You’re speaking with you and your soul, that’s indigienous, Inuit, American Indian, whatever it is that’s that soul. 

John: Right on. You did exactly what I wanted to ask you, you’re describing this Slavic music, and I love that I have a frame of reference for LadySmith Black Mambazo now. And do you know of any albums you’d recommend? We try to recommend those to our listeners and play it as clips during. For Slavic music. 

Stephen Blanchett: Oh for Slavic music? Oh I don’t know. 

John Gardner: There’s really nothing? I wonder if the Smithsonian Folkways or anything? Man that hurts, that’s scary. 

Stephen Blanchett: Well see the thing is, in the Yupik area that was back in, before Alaska was an Alsakan state, it was this territory that had a relationship with its neighbors, Russia. And all the traders and missionaries, it was this long relationship that we had. There’s not much right? This is a period of time when, this is not that long ago, we’re late 40s, and we were little kids listening to this, and like we were talking about, these folks that were singing as they were hearing these songs are real deep Yupik people, most of them didn’t even speak English. This was a really strong tradition that resonated with our community, which was our community. It had very few outsiders and definitely not the technology to record it. Now a days it’s more well known and people talk about it, but back then, it was seriously like this world that people had no clue. And we didn’t even realize how special it was, even being there. The only thing we knew was we couldn’t wait for the next year. Every year, we could not wait until it was Slavic again and we were flying, and not just for the candy! And I would be sitting there as a little kid, and sitting there watching, because it was very honorable position to be the man spinning the star. I would be like, I wanna spin the star.

Philip Blanchett: Well one thing, that just reminded me of like what we’re talking about in the Americas, a little bit in New Oreleans with that Cajun culture. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, you gotta check them out. It’s the tribe where, you know Aaron Neville, his family, his lineage is they’re Black Indians, so that culture, that influence, that mix it’s really similar to kinda like what we’re talking about and it really resonated. And when I went to Metro Music and was recommend LadySmith Black Mambazo, I was also recommend The Wild Tchoupitoulas and I heard them and it was the same harmony of soul and it was something like, I don’t know, you just can’t recreate that, it happens in real time and it happens outside the community of people it’s like a collective, resonate collective sound. You know, with like folk music and certain things. From our style, we only have a drum and vocals. So everything really comes down to those sounds and those tones. With Pamyua we play around with all kinds of instrumentation, but for us, we try to drive the tone and the sound and the character of the narrative story of the melody from the vocal tones because that’s our main instrument. 

John Gardner: I was looking, and that’s why I’m so fortunate to be speaking to y’all, cause I’m the first to admit how ignorant I am about this style of music, and I was like let me find out about all the different melody instruments they have in their tradition and it was pretty quick research. It’s voice right? It’s voice and percussion.

Philip Blanchett: Well the thing that people are missing, we’ve been around for 20 years plus and as long as we’ve been doing this there’s been a real strong demand and interest for video because so much of the story and the style of what we do musically is coming through our presentation of what we’re doing on stage which is so influenced by the dancing. And so the songs that we do are inspired by a dancing tradition. So that dancing tradition is what is unseen when you’re listening. But that motion is so important to the pulse and the groove of the music. And what we’re really trying to bring to the stage and into our performance is mask dancing. So traditional Yupik dancing is all mask dancing. But that was the first thing the missionaries prohibited. And really, I’m sure they’re kinda like successfully going back like we got rid of that. But we’re here to say, no you didn’t because we are making masks, we are performing masks, we are honoring that tradition. So it’s just that relationship that it’s still a living tradition. That’s what’s exciting for us because as artists, especially us doing this for so many years, oh we’re doing the same song again, but for us it’s so alive. Every time we perform even if it’s the same song. Like today, we were trying out all these midi controls, we had all these, trying to do these new high tech sound thing, down in the states everyone’s bands doing it but here it’s a new thing, it’s a whole new style. We are just honoring the songs still. And it’s still alive and it’s still fresh and we’re just, and it’s just alive. And we are apart of it and that’s such an honor, because really, they were trying to kill it. They’re still trying to kill it. It’s still, the pressure, the colonization and the regression of cultural expression from our, from where we’re from, it’s like we’re in real time living it. Things are going this way or that way. And we could have easily said no to this gig. But just by saying yes to it we get an opportunity to still continue to explore our way of expressing these traditional songs which have been going on for thousands of years. So it’s a real amazing gift or opportunity to do that. And it keeps us inspired. Even though we’ve been singing Uivaraanga from the beginning, we’ve been singing Cauyaqa Nauwa ever since we started. Every time we do it, we do it differently, and we are able to enjoy and be really inspired by the expression of doing it because it’s not from us. It’s from our culture which is a representation of our experience in relationship to existence in our world, with our ancestors that have been living with the land, on the land. And that’s why we’re here. So we wanna honor our immediate ancestors who we grew up with in Nunap A Choik, Bethel, Fish Camp, and that we grew up with that are there and no one in the world is listening to, knows about, hate to say cares about, but it goes deeper than that. We wanna bring and resonate that intention of honoring this ancestral message, that is a universal thing throughout all people. To be able to celebrate and protect and really try to understand what it means to be alive and to be a human being, a real human being. 

John Gardner: Well, you talked about that mask dancing, and I’m very glad you did say yes to this gig, because you’ve got people from 32 different countries mask dancing and you even got me stumbling around out there trying to keep up. You promised to start slow but it didn’t take long before you got– honestly, it really was a great, great experience to experience the music that way; you just feel like you fall inside of it. You know, you feel the drums around us and following your motions — it really was a special thing. For all of those that were too scared to get out there, that  was one of those things they look back and are like “man, I wish I would’ve”—

Stephen Blanchett: You could see the ones that were like “uhhhh–

John Gardner: Wishing.

Stephen Blanchett: Cause that’s how we keep going.

John: I noticed that’s how you do it, and you give them a warning: “this might be your only chance to do something like this; get up here.”

Stephen Blanchett: And then they’ll watch–

John Gardner: Second round!

Stephen Blanchett: And then it’s like “second time!” and then we’ll come out and they’ll see the other ones the third time, and then they come out– and then the floor starts to fill up.

John Gardner: They could see the experience from there, y’all got them out there, it was awesome. From, from the– one of the things you were saying was that you were trying out new things, you were trying out many, but one other thing you tried out today for the first time was one of your traditional drums. What was that, what is that drum and how is it traditionally used, and how do you incorporate it into your music today?

Stephen Blanchett: Well, the drum is called a Cauyaq, that’s the name of the drum, and traditionally the materials are made from like the stomach lining of a bearded seal, which is the largest of the seals around here, or the stomach of a walrus, or the liver lining of a whale. So, it’s the membrane that covers the stomach, right, so it’s a very thin material, so that’s the skin you hit on. The rim itself would be like driftwood, because most, when you’re looking at Inuit communities and Inuit area, it’s treeless, it’s tundra, right. So there’s no trees that can be rooted into Permafrost, so there’s no trees. So we live in tundra land. So we depend upon driftwood, so that driftwood becomes this, like, really awesome, hard wood that you can work with. You can steam it and bend it. You can steam and bend the frame. So that’s what you hear with that drum hitting on that membrane. And typically there’s multiple drums when there’s performances or when there’s dancing going on in ceremony, there’s multiple drums. Really that sound really reverberates and resonates–This huge bass–I mean we’re taking six, for those of you guys who are listening, we’re taking a six foot piece of wood and then bending it into a hoop. So imagine a six feet piece of  wood and that radius and the drum sound that would come from that. It’s really impressive. So it really gets you moving. So that drum is basically there to, you know, keep the beat, keep the intensity — typically, when there’s dancing, it starts out kinda soft and then builds up and gets harder and harder. But the words are the most important part, when we’re singing the words, that’s the key. That’s the perpetuation of a story. If you change one part of a word or one part of a song, that changes the whole story. So, our language was not a written language, so these were the ways we passed along stuff. Music. Storytelling. Dance. And it all, especially the dancing, cause when you look at it you see something, you see the person painting a picture of what the words are being said. It makes that solid, right. It really ingrains that into you. So that was the way we did it, and the language written is very new, you know. I guess to put it into perspective again, our mom was part of the first cohort of Yupiks that created the first official Yupik dictionary.

John Gardner: Wow.

Stephen Blanchett: That’s our mom. So, that’s how new it is. And so we pass down these stories for generations upon generations. And if you change a little bit of it, you change so much. So, even with our songs, when we’re singing the songs, the Unugaanga or the Cayuurlakunguur, we don’t change that. What we do is put some instrumentation to it and we put all this stuff, all this flavor, all this fusion, all this stuff to the words. But those words, they do not change. That base of the message of what that originally what would be a dance, does not change. We do not change it.

John Gardner: Yeah, I heard that on your albums Side A, Side B, that those words stay, stay the same for what– you’re not messing with that. Wow.

Philip Blanchett: Well, one thing that I was thinking of as you were talking about that is that the one thing that’s really, when you’re in the celebration, like when you’re in the cultural celebration of, of the Yupik experience of dance, the music and everything happening together– there’s this energy and this tonal sound that viscerally makes your body feel this certain way. And when you perform that traditionally with the drums, and we’ve been doing that for, forever. That sound doesn’t transfer through the speakers and the subs in a way that the audience can really, you know, capture and appreciate what we’re trying to communicate. And so, as we’re doing the MIDI and making these triggers and we’re like basically working in the studio, really trying to bring out the nuances of what we’re trying to communicate. So that when we’re on stage we can then *bam* tell that story and bring that energy. Which is something that is new for us, because we’ve always done it in that analogue, realtime — see it, you’re here or not, this is what it is. But now, we’re starting to, with this new development or this new style, we’re starting to bring this intentionality of what we’re trying to work on and this character of what we’re trying to say and then have that come across in the experiences of the performance, so that nothing’s lost. So that the energy and the excitement and that spirit of what we’re trying to communicate is there. And so, I really am excited about this style because, digitally, there’s nothing but possibility. It’s crazy, like, and so for us, the reason why, it’s so overwhelming, but the reason why I’m excited because of what we’re doing and what we’ve been sharing, we have a foundation of what we want to communicate. And so that, that’s never changed and so if you focus on that, we can digitally bring all this thing. And that’s all just technical mumbo jumbo and preparation and 

John Gardner: It seems like it’s just a continuation of your same approach

Philip Blanchett: Exactly.

John Gardner: Y’all start with the message and now it’s just different tools of how to bring that out, but you also seem, even from the first time live, I’ve heard your albums, but the first time live it’s so clear that you have this message and whatever it takes y’all are on a mission to get that across.

Stephen Blanchett: (laughing) Whatever it takes…And I mean it would be so easy to just like do an album of like English songs and stuff, right? But, it’s so important for us to save our language, to inspire kids to speak Yupik or whatever langauge that we’re talking about here, the twenty different languages that are here in Alaska and the multiple dialects that are under threat of just being lost. We sing in Yupik for a reason, and to show that these need to be shared. We’d probably be more successful and get out there and be more commercial if we sang–

John Gardner: Yeah well like when you said you were going to sing a song in English, I was like “ooh– are they really…”

Stephen Blanchett: And we didn’t! (laughing)

John Gardner: And then you were like “nope!”

Stephen Blanchett: We didn’t, yeah, but we can, right? We have English songs–

John Gardner: Yeah, of course.

Stephen Blanchett: But, that’s the point of us doing this music, it’s for our kids, you know. Me and Phillip have little kids that we want, and they don’t have English names, they have Yupik names. And the language and who we are is very important. And we’re just messengers for so many people, like, yeah, all your different cultures and languages are so beautiful and so important that you should uplift that of yourself, no matter what. So we just use our experience as a vehicle for that, that’s it. And it’s music, it’s a key or a tool for us to keep our culture alive, our language alive. To save our people. We’re doing this to save our lives. We’re doing this to prevent suicide, prevent all these things that are happening. Abuse. There are so many things that are happening to our culture, to our people, that are these historical traumas that our people have gone through, and using this as a way to just try to bring a light in that darkness. So there’s a song that we sing called Ernerpak-qaa Qavarartua and it says “Nighttime has come to me, darkness has come to me.” (Yupik language) “But the moonlight above is shining down and showing our people that, in darkness, there is still beauty.” 

John Gardner: Beautiful. And it’s great to see that you’re passing on the language in a lot of ways that it’s traditionally been done, like you said, it’s passed on through music. Like, I’m sure there’s people that have the ability to continue the language, because I find myself knowing zero of the language, and I’m trying to sing along (laughing). So there’s, you can know there’s somebody who has access 

Stephen Blanchett: A hit song will save our language!

John Gardner: Yeah, there you go! It’s gonna be Bubblegum Igloo that’s gonna revive it all.

Philip Blanchett: Well from, you know, where we’re from, from our perspective, it’s so clear how the music and culture and where the need is for positivity, and how important it is. Because there’s so, there’s such, when somebody dies, their body’s in the house. You know, there’s not a crematorium or some, you know, everything’s like right there. And so all of those things that are right there, like when somebody’s dealing with trauma, it’s right there in a small community. You know, when there’s 200 people on the village. And that’s our reflection of humanity, and our culture is like that, dealing with suicide, alcoholism, depression. You know, all of these things that are problems within our society and they are things that we need to reflect on and work towards and try to uplift. But, just like music, just like soul music and the happiness that we bring, those are the same things, those things are still alien, they’re still a problem with our cultures wherever you go. We have all of these things that are within our culture that are so hard to deal with and so difficult to come to terms with. And in our culture, we have, in our music, it’s something about the spiritual nature of the way the songs are presented, in a way, and honored that relieves a certain tension and releases it in a way that is a prayer. And it, it’s something that inspires us in our culture through all of the struggles and all of the human things that we deal with. And that’s why it’s like, these same human resonances, these same things that we grew up dealing with, and that are really beautiful, it’s so amazing to like travel out like in the world and see the same damn thing everywhere you go. It’s humanity. And it’s our connection to each other. It’s our understanding of the universe and how it all works together and we can celebrate that.

John Gardner: Yeah, yeah…

Stephen Blanchett: As we’re talking, I’m texting with friends in Yupik.

John Gardner: Oh come on now.

Philip Blanchett: That’s awesome!

John Gardner: That’s great.

Stephen Blanchett: I’m gonna go meet them. (laughing)

John Gardner: Okay, right on, go for it.

Philip Blanchett: I think I gotta go tear down all our equipment…

John Gardner: Are you?

Philip Blanchett: The sound guy’s like: “are you guys gonna tear down your stuff?” (laughing)

John Gardner: Yeah, like, “are you guys donating this to the museum?” Okay, well then, I’ll let y’all get to it, I could talk for hours with you all, there’s so much–

Philip Blanchett: Another time…

John Gardner: Yeah, another time. Y’all gotta get out there, so…

Stephen Blanchett: Excellent.

(Outro Music Begins)

John Gardner: Oh! What a beautiful and heavy conversation. I’m so thankful they were willing to speak so openly with me about their personal histories and most importantly about their dire circumstances that their music battles against, within and for the Inuit community. It’s heartbreaking to think of the music and traditions that have already been lost but this is an amazing and still living tradition. We can’t just sit back and allow it to remain unheard. Really it’s up to people like you, fans of music, the extra curious or respecter of cultures, please join me and share with somebody, anybody, about this amazing Inuit music and traditions that you’ve heard about today. A great place to start is to direct them to, that’s spelled P A M Y U A .com. 

In general, we really thank you for listening. We ask you to continue to listen widely. Open ears equals open minds. And we’ll catch you next time. 

For The Extra Curious


Strunz & Farah 1979

Musical Mentions