The inaugural Rock Aak’w Indigenous Music Festival held its opening ceremonies beneath the mural of Elizabeth Peratrovich on the Juneau waterfront, with drums and singing ringing out across the Gastineau Channel.
This year’s festival is the first in what organizers hope to be a recurring event highlighting Indigenous artists, according to Stephen Qucang Blanchett, Rock Aak’w’s creative director, who told the Empire in an interview he has wanted to hold this kind of event for 20 years.
Standing on the waterfront Friday evening, Blanchett said he teared up as one of the acts finished their performance.
“It’s been two years of hard work and the community coming together,” Blanchett said. “I didn’t expect to get that emotional.”
The songs on the waterfront Friday were meant to welcome the artists, and invite them to share their gifts. All of the artists performing in the festival stood alongside Blanchett and his bandmates during the song.
Dozens of people turned out for the performance, including Josh Jackson, a teacher at Harborview Elementary School. Jackson came with his three daughters, Micahelyn, 8; Karmyn, 6; and Jayelyn, 4.
“It was very cool,” Michaelyn said. “I don’t think I’ve seen people out in public sing that much.”
This year all of the performances are virtual, but Blanchett said he wants the festival to run every other year, opposite Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial Celebration event.
Blanchett is a member of the band Pamyua and said in his own experience in the music industry, Indigenous bands are almost never given center stage at large music festivals.
“We were always kind of this afterthought,” Blanchett said. “It was always like, OK we made our quota.”
The Rock Aak’w festival is solely dedicated to Indigenous artists, not just artists from Alaska but around the world, Blanchett said, and this year features artists from the U.S., Canada and Mozambique.
“We wanted to show people Indigenous music is more than just flutes and drums,” Blanchett said. “There’s a huge palette of music from these artists.”
In addition to rock music, Rock Aak’w features performances from singer-songwriters, hip-hop artists, jazz, funk and soul, among others.
The festival began streaming at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, tickets can be purchased online at rockaakwfestival.com. Blanchett said the Red Dog Saloon in downtown Juneau will be streaming the performances.