PAMYUA PULLS TOGETHER
Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012 4:05 pm
By Scott Christianson
The Yup’ik drum song “Pulling” has become a touchstone for Pamyua, the vocal group that has become one of Alaska’s most widely known musical exports. During that time Pamyua has used “Pulling” to open or close live sets, but also to bring the group together. The lyrics, sung in Yup’ik, are about looking for ground squirrels while on a hunt, but are also understood to be part-and-parcel of a prayer for strength.
“The way my mom would always explain it was it is a song about pulling from within,” Phillip Blanchett says. “A lot of our performances we don’t play a set list, and the a cappella version of that song has been something we use as a prayer. It’s one we rely on to focus the group and stay grounded.”
The foursome [Ossie Kairaiuak, Karina Moeller and brothers Phillip and Stephen Blanchett] often sing in front of a rock band, playing a world music genre they like to call “tribal funk” because of its connections to American soul music. The mix of modern and traditional music, and Pamyua’s ability (or perhaps insistence) to attract top-notch musicians, might be the reason they’ve traveled to Europe and across the United States, and been called “the world’s most famous Inuit band” in the Italian-language version Rolling Stone.
On Pamyua’s new double-disc release Side A/Side B, “Pulling” appears in no less than four variations, including as a sample from an old LP called Eskimo Songs and Stories and one version sung by the Blanchett brothers’ mother, Marie Meade. (The album presents traditional arrangements on the disc labeled Side A and Pamyua’s world-beat versions of the same songs on Side B—“Pulling” is an exception to the pattern.)
Meade is a culture-bearer in her own right. She has taught her sons “Pulling” when they were small boys. She has also taught Yup’ik language at University of Alaska. She’s used her language skills to interview elders in partnership with anthropologists and museums. She’s performed in dance troupes and traveled the globe. Phillip said Pamyua has not performed in half the places his mother has. “We are still trying to catch up,” he said.
But unlike her sons, Marie Meade didn’t grow up singing “Pulling” or any Yup’ik songs. Her home village of Nunapitchuk, about 20 miles from Bethel on the Johnson River, was one of the villages where Christian missionaries convinced the Yupiit to put away traditional ceremonies, even burn masks and drums, to show their devotion to the new faith.
“When we were dancing in the 1980s, it had already stopped a long time ago,” Meade said. “In the whole area [around Nunapitchuk] there was no dancing in the villages. I think I did my first dance when I was 38 or 39 years old. And I was in Anchorage.”
Meade learned “Pulling” at the crest of a cultural re-awakening that had begun about two decades before she started dancing, during the Native land claims movement of the 1960s. She learned the song from Chuna McIntyre, the Yupik culture bearer from Eek, who founded the dance troupe Numamta.
Celebrating cultural roots seems quite normal today, but Meade recalls being nervous the first time she performed songs with her own mother in the audience. “My mom was strong Christian, but she eventually would have a change of mind about some things,” Meade said. “It was a beautiful thing when I was told it was okay for me to dance, especially coming from my mother—that made my day.”
Pulling from within / pulling from within
My people I come to you
Are you looking for ground squirrels
The lyrics are sparse. The first line describes the muscular strength and internal discipline required to live off the land and provide for a village. The second line may be interpreted as a promise that the land will provide. To a non-Native the third line can be baffling—it places the smallest of land mammals as something to be sought after.
Meade, when asked about the ground squirrel, said there are no small animals. “They’re all big to me. They’re all big and they’re all important,” she said. “The song is a prayer for survival and for sustenance and you rely on all that is available.”
Pamyua’s cultural journey has taken place in more accepting times, but it’s no less complex than what Marie Mead has lived through. They’ve sung multiple languages (English, Yup’ik, Inupiat, Unangan and the Greenlandic of Karina Moeller’s home country) and sung about Native spirituality and traditions such as hunting, performance dance and public teasing. The group’s most radio-friendly tracks are a fusion, performed over electric instrumentation reminiscent of 1970s records produced by artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone.
Such diversity can be perplexing for listeners, and the band’s Achilles’ heal might be that their eclecticism wasn’t always disciplined into a singular form. For better or for worse, tension within the music itself has often been a palpable part of the experience. You might love a Pamyua set at an outdoor gathering such as Girdwood’s Forest Fair, but it was impossible to take that experience home—and even if you could, it wouldn’t capture quite what Pamyua is. The drum songs might more fairly reflect the group’s identity, but sometimes felt a bit starchy, particularly on records when the dance was absent. Even the most ardent fans could be forgiven for asking themselves where this band was going.
That’s why Side A/Side B is exciting. The project has been in the works since 2005, and is easily their best record since their 1998 debut Mengluni. The debut record ambitiously updated drum songs, but in gentler fashion. Here, Side B features full-band sounds—most often guitars, drums and electric keyboards, but a tenor sax, trumpet, violin and cello also appear—that fill out the songs in a manner Mengluni only hinted at.
As always, Pamyua has included both traditional songs and songs by contemporary songwriters who author drum songs on modern topics. Kairaiuak’s “Bubble Gum” was written as a teasing song for a student who chewed gum during a dance class. His “Ocean Prayer” pays respect to the ocean and the creator for sharing gifts. Kairairuak’s cousin, Vernon John contributed “Bulldozer,” a song inspired while operating heavy equipment.
As I shake I work / As I shake I work
I look around as I work
Where am I building a road to / Where am I building a road to
I look around as I work
As in the traditional song “Pulling,” Vernon John has used minimal lyrics to describe his bulldozer-driving experience. Meade is familiar with song, and quickly offered an interpretation, punctuated with laughter. “Well, he is building a road to the future. It can be understood quite easily,” she said.
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