The Alaska String Band (ASB) is back from a Russian tour with stories of their experiences abroad fresh on their tongues and will share their tales during their upcoming concert.
The ASB is a local musical group made up by the Zahasky family. They have taken their show across the U.S as well as internationally to countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Recently, their musical prowess caught the attention of Sister City Committee member Barbara Burnett, who referred the band to The Consul Generals Office in Juneau’s sister city Vladivostok, Russia. From there, the Consul General Michael Keays applied for a grant to bring the band up to perform at the U.S Consulate’s formal Fourth of July Reception; and through the facilitation of the Public Affairs Office acquired the grant from their main embassy office in Moscow.
That invite turned into a six-day tour in the Russian Far East, where they performed at a wide range of venues, from a church to bars and clubs, in the cities of Vladivostok, Arytom and Nahodka.
“Russia was amazing,” said ASB’s bass player Quinn Zahasky. “Meeting the people, being able to see the country and get past the stereotype of what it is like over there.”
The trip gave the ASB an opportunity to be a kind of cultural ambassador, and from the positive response that Keays mentioned, witnessing at the ASB events he attended in Russia, it was a position that they excelled in.
“This family represents the very best of frontier people- warm, generous, sharing, flexible, brave and undaunted. I was able to see them perform in three locations in Vladivostok- most importantly at our annual Independence Day reception at the Lotte Hotel to a crowd of 200 people- and I can honestly say that they won over more Russians in those few hours than we could hope to charm in six months,” Keays stated in a letter of recommendation given to the Zahasky family.
The ASB plays Americana, which is a contemporary style of music that integrates parts of country, folk, bluegrass, R&B, blues and other American roots music styles.
Many songs they perform can also be attributed to their Christian faith. Public Affairs Officer Darren Thies, who accompanied the ASB on their travels through Russia, commented that Americana is virtually unknown in Russia. However, when the Zahasky family unleashed their musical genius of the genre the positive reaction was undeniable.
“…audiences of all ages and backgrounds became fans of their style,” Thies stated in a letter of recommendation of the ASB. “At a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are strained, it is a great feat to have such a warm reception.”
The Zahasky family’s presence wasn’t always a welcome one.
ASB member Paul Zahasky said when they first arrived, the band was met by Russian journalists who were standoffish and skeptical. Eventually they became advocates of ASB’s visit.
At one point they were scheduled to play at a music school, but the Russian Secret Service, which used to be the KGB, intervened and had the event canceled. The event was rescheduled at the last minute to be held at a local Lutheran Church that had recently re-opened after being used as a military museum during the Cold War.
“The event ended up being one of the best attended and most fun of all the events we played at and created a great connection with the community,” said Paul Zahasky.
The Alaska String Band’s genesis can be tracked back to when two people fell in love.
“Melissa and I met playing music,” said Paul Zahasky. “It’s been a part of our home and our family ever since.”
Over the years, Paul and Melissa Zahasky have birthed, raised and instructed the ASB’s additional musicians: Laura, Quinn and Abigail. Their children are all well versed in multiple forms of musical revelry. During performances instruments such as the guitar, violin-fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer, banjo, bass, ukulele and percussion; are often swapped between members, all while utilizing vocal harmonies. The official beginning of the Alaska String Band was after years of performing up at the Tram and was a gradual occurrence of their growing popularity.
A new addition to their crew is Quinn’s wife, Emily (Cummins), who was welcomed into the Zahasky family as well as into the family business. Emily Zahasky plays the mandolin as well as the clarinet. Although she’s played in many other Juneau functions with the ASB this will be her first concert specifically for locals, and will be the first the ASB has performed just for Juneauites in four years.
“We are so stoked to do something locally,” said Paul Zahasky.
Their Juneau concert “Back in the USSA” will be held at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. and will showcase what took place during their time in Russia.
There will be storytelling with some tales highlighting how music has the ability to break down cultural barriers.
“People speak different languages but everyone understands music,” said Laura Zahasky. “We can all communicate through music and I love to see that transpire. During our trip I became friends with people in Russia, even though we can’t communicate we have music and in that we have a common understanding.”
There will be photos and, of course, there will be music and quite a bit of new music to boot. The bands three CDs “Hidden Hand,” “Farther on” and “The Alaska String Band” as well as their movie “The Southeast Alaska Odyssey” will be available at the upcoming concert.
Tickets can be purchased online at the Alaska String Band’s webpage http://www.alaskastringband.com/home.html, at Hearthside Books, the JACC, or at the door.
The future for the ASB is filled with the promise of travelling and performing with a purpose as there is talk of going to Thailand to play for the relief agency that is set up there.
“If God opens the door we will walk through it,” said Paul Zahasky.
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.