It’s taken a few years — or, arguably, generations — for what’s billed as the only Indigenous music festival in the United States to be fully realized. But a preview of the performances to come was offered during a “youth jam” Wednesday night by some of the 70 musicians scheduled to appear at the three-day Áakʼw Rock festival starting Thursday.
“It’s a monumental, historic event,” said Qacung Stephen Blanchett, a festival organizer and member of the Inuit-soul band Pamyua, introducing the preview show featuring three bands Wednesday at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. “And we’re so excited to be able to kick it off with this jam for you guys.”
The inaugural Áakʼw Rock in 2021 was a virtual event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year the festival will take place at three venues — featured concerts at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall and Centennial Hall, and nightly open jams at the Juneau Arts and Cultural Center lounge — with shows starting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Blanchett, who said the idea for the festival originated from a 2019 conversation with Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, is scheduled to host an open jam from 7-9 p.m. Friday at the JAHC lounge and perform at 10 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall.
Bringing the dozens of musicians to Juneau for a lineup of about 20 shows is a showcase of both unity and diversity, said Allison Akootchook Warden, also known as AKU-MATU, an Iñupiaq New Genre artist who served as the emcee for Wednesday night’s preview show. Most importantly for all of them, she said, is their shared artistic culture is the sole focus of attention at the festival.
“I think Indigenous musicians want to be at something like this, we want to feel that sense of camaraderie and togetherness, and affinity for our unique gifts that we bring to the table,” she said in an interview after introducing the band performing during the evening. “We don’t want to just be an offshoot at some other festival.”
Warden said she’s been part of a large-scale festival dedicated entirely to Indigenous musicians overseas, but nothing like Áakʼw Rock before in the U.S.
“This is from us,” she said. “This is our stories, this is who we are and there is a huge underrepresentation in the nation. That I mean, I’m a rapper, I see it, I’m living it. So I think for major music festivals that want to engage with Native artists and musicians, there’s a gap there on how to get Native artists to the stage or how to connect or who’s out there.”
Among the notorious local and regional performers is Ya Tseen (a.k.a. Nicholas Galanin), a Sitka-born Tlingit and Unangax̂ who has collaborated with a range of national and international Indigenous artists. He is Friday’s featured musician at Centennial Hall, with his concert scheduled as the evening’s finale at 11 p.m.
Among the other featured bands are Halluci Nation, a Canadian duo that combines traditional First Nations music with modern electronica in a fusion they refer to as “powwow-step,” scheduled at 10 p.m. Thursday at Centennial Hall; Snotty Nose Rez Kids, an Indigenous hip-hop duo from the Haisla Nation in British Columbia, Canada, scheduled to perform at 11 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Hall.
Among those attending Wednesday night’s preview show was Michelle Phelps, a Zach Gordon Youth Center employee who offered to be a chaperone for the evening. She said she’s friends with Arias Hoyle (a local Tlingit hip-hop artist who performs under the name Air Jazz and is scheduled to appear at Centennial Hall at 7 p.m. Friday), and heard other scheduled festival bands including Hallici Nation elsewhere in the state previously.
“Their music is really good. It’s just they have a really good dance beat, I feel like,” she said, referring to Halluci Nation. But beyond that, making such music distinctive, “I feel like it’s the wording. It’s the beats. I think there’s like an underlying of tradition to it.”
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