Phillip Blanchett's thoughts on the release of his band Pamyua's new double album "Side A/Side B" likely echo those of many fans of the local Inuit quartet: "It's about time."
The group -- composed of Blanchett and his brother Stephen, Phillip "Ossie" Kairaiuak and Karina Moeller -- put out its last full-length in 2005. Since then, the members have continued to harmonize, perform and travel together while a new album was molded slowly. Now, with a launch party Tuesday and Wednesday, the fruits of years of labor are ready to be shared.
Work on "Side A/Side B" began seven years ago. Pamyua was touring Greenland when they started putting together a few arrangements that would eventually end up on "Side B." The rest of the album was essentially put together piecemeal, with songs recorded whenever there was time.
"We basically pingponged in Denmark and Alaska over these years, since 2005," Blanchett said in a phone interview earlier this month. "But it really wasn't until 2009 that we collected all of the music that we've been working on and put these particular songs together for this album."
The result is a project that features songs presented in two variations: "Side A" features songs with a traditional style of vocals with Inuit drumming (the band refers to these arrangements as "drumsongs"), while "Side B" includes more modern arrangements that incorporate styles like jazz and funk. The songs, sung mostly in Yup'ik, are meant to invoke the traditional drum song form of the Yup'ik and Greenlandic Natives, though about half are modern. Kairaiuak composed new works for the album, including the song "Ocean Prayer," which is already available on the EP of the same name.
Whether selecting songs to perform and reinterpret or singing original compositions, Pamyua maintained a specific goal for the album.
"We just wanted to try to find a way to communicate who we are as Pamyua and our identity," said Blanchett, "respecting the roots that come from our Inuit background and the roots that come from our backgrounds as individuals, growing up in the late '60s, early '70s and loving retro soul, R&B music."
Part of respecting the past includes an added element in the live performances. Pamyua already communicates the stories of songs through dance, and now it'll also include masks. The group commissioned local Native artist Drew Michael to create a mask, a piece titled "Deep Down," that will be featured at the record release concerts and serves as the cover to the new album.
Blanchett said that masks were a part of the Native dance tradition for hundreds of years before use dropped off. When traditional dance made a comeback in the last few decades, he said, the masks never enjoyed the same resurgence. Bringing back masks to the dance is something Blanchett's wanted to do for some time.
"That also feels really good to be able to collaborate with other young Alaska Native artists that are working with the traditional art forms, but personalizing it and making it something alive for them that they can share," said Blanchett of Pamyua's collaboration with Michael. "We kind of feel that he's doing the same thing we're doing, just in another medium."
Michael's other works will be showcased in an art show on the first day of Pamyua's two performances at the Discovery Theatre in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
Blanchett explained the group's added excitement for being able to release "Side A/Side B" just as the First Alaskans' Elders and Youth Conference wraps up and the Alaska Federation of Natives conference gets under way in downtown Anchorage. He said the group looked forward to being in the thick of all that "rural energy."
"Me personally, I can't wait to see people's reactions from hearing the album," he said. "A lot of our core fans have seen us perform a lot of these songs for years now, but they haven't heard this album. They haven't heard these particular renditions, so it's just really gratifying to be at this point where this big chapter of 'SideA/SideB' is ready to be launched."