96.1 FM, 780 AM, Yours for Western Alaska

PAMYUA!

The band arrived at the studio about a quater after noon last Saturday just as I was preparing to start the Music Request Show. Within minutes notice, our programming changed and Eva helped me welcome Pamyua (bum’yo-ah) live on the air to promote their concert later in the day.

Josh and Eva interviewing Pamyua

It’s easy for me to get stuck in producer mode and stare at my screen editing audio or writing scripts, but something changed when I had a living, breathing, group of musicians in the studio with me: I took off the producer hat and put on the musician hat I had forgotten about.

The statement “I love music” might sound vague  considering that a.) I work at a radio station and b.)  virtually everybody enjoys some type of music, though perhaps a little less obsessively than myself. Regardless, the statement remains simple and true: I love music. All types of music. I love listening to it, talking about it, I love  making it. I could listen to music all day (in fact, I do) and not get tired of it, but it takes a band like Pamyua to renew my appreciation for it. It happens every few years or so, and my Gross Personal Happiness levels rise significantly when this moment comes.

Pamyua on Stage

Self-described as “tribal funk,” Pamyua sings traditional Yup’ik drumsongs interpreted in modern styles. Their name means something along the lines of “the tail end” of an animal (I told the band that their name meant “la cola” in Spanish, crossing my fingers that I was giving them a translation in the proper context). Someone at the concert told me she didn’t know what the literal translation to “pamyua” was, but often heard people cry out “pamyua!” at the end of performances, kind of like an encore.

Their concert in Nome was the last of their tour promoting their latest album, Side A/Side B, where side A is composed of traditional native song arrangements while Side B holds new interpretations of the same songs.

The place was packed. Despite how tired and under the weather I felt, I knew I was in for something amazing and remained glued to my seat through the whole show, even through intermission. I had never seen Inuit dancing up close before.

I took in every minute and every note as if someone was giving me specific instructions to something I shouldn’t forget but would probably forget anyway. For two hours, I allowed myself to mindlessly indulge in the newness of this experience. I knew the inevitable would come the next day, after my brain had become too saturated with music and would try to digest it…

Pamyua performs their song “Pulling”. Photo by David Dodman

Phillip Blanchett of Pamyua as the masked man in “Pulling”

About 12 hours after the show, the Music-Lover Hat came off and the Analytical Producer Hat came back on. I began probing and dissecting Pamyua’s new CD in an attempt to understand what exactly it was that made it special and appealing to me. I don’t speak a word of Yup’ik. My culture is different, my musical background, too.

…now, my brain is a confusing, scary, and nonsensical place, so I’ll spare you the details of what happened for the next two days when it went all Jackson Pollock on the world. Let me share instead some of the conclussions it came to.

This is a rough image of my brain on music. Just imagine a row of dancing popcorn creatures on the upper left hand corner and maybe a dragon appearing at 50 second intervals.

Q: Why did the B tracks not come off as bad movie remakes of the A tracks?

A: Because the spirit of the A tracks is still there. It’s technically the same music, but it got on a plane, went on a journey, and came back with synthesizers and wicked harmonies as a souvenir. It might also be because- as my hunch turned out to be right- Pamyua wrote the B tracks before the A tracks. They didn’t run around trying to make traditional music modern. It was the other way around.

Q: Speaking of overall enjoyment, how is it that you find this music relevant if you don’t even speak Yup’ik?

A: SOUL. Blues. Funk. Jazz. Reggae. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-like harmony genius. It comes down to musical delivery triumphing over the actual content. Soul feeds off your emotions and moves you.

Native drumsongs do that, so it makes sense for Pamyua to seek music genres that also feed off strong emotions. I don’t have to understand Yup’ik to get what they’re trying to convey.

A musician friend of mine said it best: give me the most simple lyrics you can muster. Under the right circumstances I will sing you those same words but turn them into saddest song you’ve ever heard.

It’s all about the emotion behind how a song is delivered. If the music hits you, it hits you. It doesn’t matter what you are listening to or the technical aspects behind the music. If you are like me, sometimes it’s necessary to turn off the analytical part of your brain for a bit and just listen to the music play, and enjoy.