By Angela Gonzalez, Communications Coordinator and Sonia Vent, Technical Assistance Coordinator
Fairbanks is the place to be in early November if you want to see and dance to Athabascan Fiddling music. It is home to two unique Athabascan fiddle events; the 33rd annual Athabascan Fiddle Festival and Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Gwich’in Old Time Athabascan Fiddling Dance. Fiddlers, guitar players and singers come from all over Alaska and Canada. Many people from around the country come to Fairbanks to attend the dances every year.
Fiddle music has been a tradition in interior Alaska for over a 100 years. Athabascans and other Alaska Natives in the interior learned how to play from miners and trappers in the late 1800’s. Many players learn by sound instead of having formal music lessons. They teach each other to play. Back in the early 1900’s, each household had a fiddle or guitar player. There were and still are many influences from country, western and bluegrass music.
The annual Athabascan Fiddle Festival is sponsored by the Athabascan Fiddlers Association, Inc., an interior Alaska-based Native musician organization that began in 1983. It is an association made up of members who have served many years with much dedication and commitment. There are many musicians who have attended the event year after year sharing their talent and goodwill with all who attend. One of the reasons the festival started was to document the fiddlers from villages. Villagers from the interior have a unique style of music, which may be described as a sweet bluesy blend of tradition and contemporary rock and country.
There were an estimated 80 bands this year that performed over the four day festival, which was held at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall. The festival began at 1:00 p.m. and went until after 2:00 a.m. on November 11-14. Many participants, especially Elders, stay the whole time to get the full impact of the event as many remember these fiddle dances when they had them in the villages while still living there.
Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) sponsored the Gwich’in Old Time Athabascan Fiddling Dance at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center on November 11-14. Cultural Programs Director for TCC Dixie Alexander says, “The Gwich’in Old Time Athabascan Fiddling Dance is the old time dances they do and that accompanies the music.” The Gwich’in Old Time Athabascan Fiddling Dance carries this tradition forward where much of the old way is practiced and taught to the younger generations.
In 2010, Gwich’in Athabascan fiddlers Bill Stevens and Trimble Gilbert were concerned about losing the old traditional dances. Two years prior, they helped start the Young Native Fiddlers. Bill teaches young fiddlers at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor’s Center. The youth also learn dances, like the jig, square dance, double dance, red river jig, barn dance, rabbit dance and Virginia reel. Many youth engage in dance contests during this event.
Both the Athabascan Fiddle Festival and Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Gwich’in Old Time Athabascan Fiddling Dance are held at the same time so many participants go between the two festivals as they are within walking distance. Each dance has its own vibe. The Athabascan Fiddle Festival brings in musicians who also play old rock and roll songs. The festival takes place at the Tribal Hall, a larger venue with lots of dance space for two-stepping, free style and line dancing. They also have fiddlers who come from Canada like a young fiddler & guitar player, Joel West. People, young and old, enjoyed hearing he and his friends perform. Younger fiddlers are welcomed and mentored throughout the year and demonstrate their talent during this time.
Elder couple, Alfred and Helen Attla of the upper Koyukuk village of Hughes who now reside in North Pole, have attended every Festival for the past 33 years. They commented how they enjoy dancing, listening to music, and visiting with friends and relatives. This is truly a place to meet old and new friends and have lots of fun!
The festival also fosters young fiddlers and guitar players by having them play with the more established players. As many as 80 groups play during the four-day event. The Athabascan Fiddlers Association owns the Voice of Denali radio station (KRFF). Ann Fears manages the Voice of Denali and is a long time organizer and coordinator for the Athabascan Fiddle Festival. She is also a well-known musician who has won many fans over the last decade for her vocals and popular rhythm. Ann says, “The younger generation are not inclined to pick up the fiddle. More and more, you are seeing upbeat tempos with more energy. They are trying to play what their grandparents played in their own way.” According to Fears, Joel West’s music is like good medicine. He plays gospel, Christmas and country music. Joel plays the guitar, keyboard and other instruments. Fears says, “I see how things have evolved over the years. You have to go with the flow.”
In addition to the Voice of Denali broadcasting the Festival, it was also re-broadcast on several different radio stations, such as KIYU Galena, KZPA Gwandak Public Radio in Fort Yukon, KSKO McGrath and repeater stations. People could also listen to it online on their website at http://www.krff891.com/. Listeners can also hear recordings from the Festival throughout the year on KRFF.
Whether you go to one dance or both, you get quite a workout through dancing and the music is very up-beat. Both events are drug and alcohol free. Tributes were held at each dance for musicians who passed on. Many find this event a great way to heal from past traumas or from other more recent loss. It provides great therapy as one meets up with everyone else.
These events take a lot of volunteers to help with fundraising and other preparation before the event. During the festival, there is lots of required coordination such as admissions, organizing musicians, daily cleaning of the space and much more.
It takes about 25 volunteers to put on a successful event each day. There have been many volunteers who have helped with the dance throughout the years; some of those long time organizers and volunteers are Ann Fears, Shirley Holmberg, Mary Jane Derendoff, Becky Gallen, Anna Frank, Mr. and Mrs. Kenny Charlie, Rose Yaeger-Lund, Pearl and David Chanar and many others.
Those involved in the festival really appreciate the many years of volunteering and donations to this joyous event as both the traditional and contemporary culture is carried forward for the young and old alike. Several musicians get a chance to practice old songs and learn new ones during the dances. They get ready for this event throughout the year; playing their old time favorites and learning new songs to bring to the four-day event for everyone’s enjoyment.