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Cross-Cultural Exchange: Inuit Music in the Midwest

by Penny Mullins

Six people on a spotlighted stage; three play traditional Inuit percussion instruments, and three engage in dance and movement.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
Pamyua, an Inuit band from Alaska, performs Feb. 25 at the Herbert L. Williams Theatre on The Bay at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Marinette campus as part of World Fest.

The music of Alaskan ensemble Pamyua moved communities in rural Wisconsin and Michigan, creating "one-in-a-lifetime" moments of connection, collaboration and curiosity.

The drum beat starts. It vibrates in your feet, your chest, your ears.

Slowly, it blends with melodic tones – the harmonies of brothers with similar vocal genes and a cousin vocalizing the sound of ages. They merge with the voices and instruments of talented kindred souls.

Three members of Pamyua singing into microphones on stage.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
The melodic tones of Ossie Kairaiuak, Stephen Qacung Blanchett and his brother Phillip Blanchett went from haunting to exhilarating during their visit to Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan, in late February. The three are the core members of Pamyua. Photo by Val Ihde.

Across the miles and collected over centuries, the Inuit music of Pamyua reached young and old in Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan in late February through Arts Midwest World Fest. This performing arts residency program tours world music ensembles to communities in the Midwest, with a focus on smaller and mid-size communities.

Pamyua, a Yup’ik Inuit word that means “encore or do it again,” blends traditional songs of the Yup’ik culture – Indigenous peoples of Alaska – with worldwide influences. Their songs range from stirring tribal melodies to soul and R&B renderings that invigorate the body and soothe the spirit.

“Our emphasis as a group is about identity,” said Phillip Blanchett, who formed Pamyua with his brother, Stephen Qacung Blanchett. “The foundation is our Indigenous identity and our relationship in our understanding and awareness of that in our family. … life is diverse and magical everywhere and we try to relate that in everything. When we go to other areas, we are trying to find a way to relate how the relationships mirror the relationships we are familiar with.”

A Unique Opportunity

Over their week-long residency, Pamyua held workshops in seven area schools before a public concert. Kim Brooks, the volunteer coordinator of World Fest in Marinette and Menominee, wanted to ensure as many young people as possible could experience this unique program.

These two counties in different states are among the largest in land mass, with a spread of population. In the combined cities of Marinette and Menominee live about 19,500 people, but the surrounding towns and villages add another 46,000.

Kids in this region don’t always have the opportunity to hear live music, and are even less likely to hear music from other parts of the world. World Fest will bring six internationally-acclaimed musical groups to the area over a three-year period.

It is a big commitment for these smaller communities to host World Fest. But for Brooks, it was “worth the risk, because the payoff is so big—to think that the same kids are going to get the repeated periods of exposure, is, in my mind, impactful.”

A musical group performs in front of an audience full of students on bleachers.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
Pamyua, an Inuit Band from Alaska, performs for students in the Crivitz School District in Marinette, WI. Photo by Val Ihde.

The connection started the moment the drums and voices rang out. Children danced in their seats to Pamyua’s uplifting, energizing sound and song in gymnasiums to theaters. Stretched over four days, Brooks estimates the workshops reach about 75% of the area students each time.

Stacey Schraub, second-grade teacher at St. John Paul II Catholic Academy, Menominee, said students were introduced to Pamyua’s music prior to the workshop and were excited to hear them live. Many of the schools used Pamyua’s visit as a teaching tool before and after the workshops.

Hilary Oskey, Marinette High School band director, planned to discuss the performance with students and talk about not only the music, but the possibilities of music as a career. “I think it’s really cool that students get to see the options that are out there in the future. This is definitely beyond what they have experienced in music.”

Two adults and two young people hold their arms out and dance on stage with feathers in their hands.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
Students from Marinette High School joined Sara Anderholm and Ossie Kairaiuak onstage Feb. 22 during a performance workshop from Pamyua. Photo by Val Ihde.

At workshops, several students were chosen to participate in the “Seal Hunt,” where they sat in rows, forming a kayak, and “hunted the seals” with band members. While they paddled, students in the bleachers called out the seal sounds. At Marinette High, students jumped on stage to participate in the “Goose Hunt Song” and a song about “Seal Boy.”

One of those was MHS junior Koen Roach, who said afterward, “I was not expecting this. I thought it was truly just amazing. I was blown away—and the energy—I felt so happy and energetic! I think it is a good lesson of how music really brings together a lot of people.”

The reaction was reciprocal.

For Pamyua’s Phillip “Ossie” Kairaiuak, the energy of the students who joined the band on the stage was “the highlight of the day.” He finds each school and its students have their own “unique personality” but he found the students at MHS “flamboyant and awesome” and very engaged.

A Collaborative Endeavor

Bringing World Fest to the rural communities of Marinette and Menominee counties is a world-class endeavor, enlisting the cooperation of multiple K-12 school systems, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Marinette, local businesses and community foundations, and a core group of volunteers putting in the lion’s share of organizing and hands-on work.

It is not a simple task.      

It started almost three years ago, when Brooks received a call from Arts Midwest staff, who said Marinette was on their radar.

A community is chosen to host World Fest for a three-year commitment. If Marinette and Menominee agreed, it would bring musicians from Fall 2022 to Spring 2025.

Arts Midwest covers artists’ fees, per diems, transportation, visas and international travel costs. The local communities fund hotel rooms, reception events, and everything in between.

“Anything that happens on the ground is on us,” Brooks said. That equates to about $75,000 for three years, “and that’s not small.” She reached out to see if there was local support. Stephenson National Bank & Trust said, “we’re all in,” and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Marinette said “we will do everything we can to make it happen at no expense to you,” said Brooks.      

Dan Peterson, President and CEO of Stephenson National Bank & Trust, said his organization was happy to contribute.

“It’s a cultural experience for our students, sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Peterson said. “It’s like having them visit other parts of the world without having to leave Marinette and Menominee.” He added it benefits not only the students, “but there are a lot of people in the community that can participate in these events and go to the free concerts that are being held at Theatre on the Bay.”

An theater full of engaged elementary school students watch a performance
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
Almost every seat was filled when students from elementary schools in Menominee County, Mich., visited Blesch Auditorium at the Menominee Intermediate School Feb. 24 to hear Pamyua. Despite a snow day that canceled schools throughout the area the day before, the workshop/concert was still able to be held. Photo by Val Ihde.

Provident Health Foundation and the M&M Area Community Foundation awarded grants and offered their services, including “boots on the ground,” Brooks said. Others volunteered to help with hospitality, ticket collection and more. With that backing, Brooks told Arts Midwest she was in.

She just asked for one thing.

“Even though it is a Wisconsin designation, I have to have it be on both sides of the river. You can’t do something in this community, in my opinion, and not have it equally represented as best as possible.”

Create Wisconsin and Wisconsin Art Board, two statewide arts organizations which work with Arts Midwest, agreed.

A man shows a traditional Yup’ik drum to a woman who watches intently.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde
Ossie Kairaiuak shows his Yup’ik drum to Laura Rowe, an employee at The Stephenson National Bank & Trust in Marinette, Wis., who volunteered at the free community concert held Feb. 25 at UWGB-Marinette’s Theatre on the Bay. Photo by Val Ihde.

The full community experienced Pamyua in concert on February 25 at the Herbert L. Williams Theatre on the Bay, the area’s musical launching pad at University of Wisconsin Green Bay’s Marinette campus, where they packed the audience.

“I thought it was really eclectic; it was not what I expected,” said Dr. Paul Haupt, who attended the concert with his wife, Cheryl. “The mix of music from literally reggae all the way up to blues was great.”

For Novah Pecard, 11, and Maia Pecard, 15, it was the talents of Sara Anderholm, who played piano and bass, that caught their attention. “It was cool, I liked how they played piano and the drums,” Novah said, who is teaching herself piano. “It was not what I was expecting,” said Maia, a singer, who said her 3-year-old brother was dancing throughout the concert.

Ossie, a keeper of the Yup’ik language, wrapped up the exchange of cultures eloquently.

“These guys—they are the future,” he said pointing to the young people in the audience. “We only have one planet. We should never be afraid of each other, but be curious. If you look at the world through that lens, it is a beautiful, amazing place to be.”

Pamyua: Music, people that speak to your soul

The first time that author Penny Mullins heard the members of Pamyua sing, the “hairs on [her] arms rose up.” Read about her experience covering Pamyua’s residency in Marinette over on her personal blog.

Read More

A man from Inuit band Pamyua sings with his eyes closed, holding small feathered objects in his hands.
Photo Credit: Val Ihde

A program of Arts Midwest, the 2022–2023 World Fest artist tours are generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

Arts Midwest is also generously supported by the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, Wisconsin Arts Board, 3M, Crane Group, and individual donors and partners. In Marinette, World Fest is sponsored by Stephenson National Bank & Trust , Provident Health Foundation, the M&M Area Community Foundation, UW-GB Marinette Theatre on the Bay, Rusty Wolfe Studio and other local donors.