Arriving 'like urban sprawl,' fiddle music surges on the Kuskokwim

khopkins@adn.comNovember 3, 2012 

BETHEL -- Two hours to gig time, the rhythm section of the Northern Lights band arrived from Napakiak in an uncovered aluminum skiff.

Rain pinged the belly of the 18-foot Lund boat. Bassist Larry Black, drummer Charlie Andrew and rhythm guitarist Mike Frye stepped ashore in rubber boots and hooded slickers for the second of two weekend shows.

Time for sound check at the old bowling alley. Time for another fiddle dance on the Lower Kuskokwim.

With roots in the tunes brought to Interior Alaska by miners, trappers and merchants in the 1800s, modern Alaska Native fiddle music has evolved into patchwork of country standards, classic rock and string-band music. The Carter Family and Johnny Cash retold in Athabascan dialects and, increasingly, in Yup'ik.

As 80 bands prepare for the 30th annual Athabascan Fiddle Festival beginning Wednesday in Fairbanks -- a marathon four-day hoedown -- fans say fiddle dances are seeing a resurgence here in western Alaska's biggest city.

"This is an extension of the Yukon villages fiddle music that crawled over like urban sprawl to this part of the country," said Northern Lights guitarist and singer Bobby Gregory.

A Yup'ik songwriter and a veteran of several Bethel-based bands, Gregory tuned a $55 electric guitar for the Saturday night show in Bethel as his band mates dried off from their half-hour boat ride. "(Fiddle music) is a fairly new pastime, besides bingo and drinking, here in Bethel," Gregory said. "So this is a healthy pastime other than other addictive behavior. It's good to be addicted to music."

Northern Lights may be the newest among a growing roster of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta fiddle bands. Formed over the past year by Bethel musician Joe Andrew (vocals, electric violin, mandolin), the group has played "Bad Moon Rising" in Atmautluak and "Margaritaville" in Napakiak. Rather than driving a tour van, the quintet motors to shows along the roadless Delta in skiffs and Bush planes.

The crowds often travel just as far, paying $8 a ticket to waltz, two-step and jitterbug into the early morning. Despite wind-chopped waters on the river and blankets of rain on a night in October, about 175 people arrived for the evening show. Among the crowd: A boy in a Bethel high school hoodie fussing over his hair in the bathroom, the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents and an elder from Kwethluk scanning the crowd for familiar waltz partners

For a fiddle band, finding work on the Lower Kuskokwim wasn't always this easy.

The Bethel Search and Rescue team has hosted a major dance for nearly 20 years -- an event that almost single-handedly pays for the volunteers' first-aid kids, snowmachine fuel and thin-ice markers. But other gigs were scarce.

"It went away for awhile and it came back," said Geri John, a teacher's aide and counselor at a local treatment center for boys who attends maybe 20 dances a year in five communities.

Her husband, a barrel of man who slips Inupiaq and Yup'ik moves into his western folk dancing, turned in a slow waltz with the couple's 11-year-daughter. The girl made a tight spin on the dance floor, her clogs whirling on the hardwood.

In the back of the room, a few teenagers stared at iPhones and whispered. Most made their way to the dance floor when Andrew began playing what the band calls an up-tempo schottische and the kids call a "bunny hop." The young dancers step and bounce in pace with the music as it races, slows nearly to a stop and speeds again.

John said she used to be one of the few dancers who brought her children. "In the last couple months we're starting to see an overload of kids coming to the fiddle dances," she said.

Soon, inevitably, someone requested a Lower Kuskokwim favorite called "Nakleng Wiinga." That's "Poor Me" in English.

Gregory wrote the song while he was living on the road system in Glennallen and feeling homesick for Bethel, he said. He leaned close to the microphone, singing in Yup'ik:


Kalikiwikkmi aqumkauqcartua

yaciicuaram akiani

waqaa camai tanerrcaqlliqva

tauggam wiinga malikkngaitemken

Nakleng Wiinga cekangekciatua.


"That translates to, 'I'm sitting here at the post office, at the bench across from my post office box," Gregory said. "'I'm sorry I'm not going to go with you when you invite me to go to have tea because I'm still waiting for my check here at the post office. Poor me."

Villagers often ask the band to play the song more than once during the same show.

Several members of Northern Lights grew up in Napakiak listening to rock music and playing Creedence Clearwater Revival and Santana songs in high school.

Black, 49, doesn't remember his parents going to fiddle dances. Now fiddle and country music -- not all the band's songs feature a fiddle or violin -- is what people want to hear across the Delta, he said.

At the Bethel gig, the band played B.B. King and the Beatles ("The Ballad of John and Oko"), "Okie From Muskogee" and the Stanley Brothers' mournful "Rambling Letters." The music of rustic longing and barn-storming affirmations.

Among the dancers were several Alaska Native community leaders. In a city where police say nearly every crime can be linked to alcohol, fiddle dances outlaw liquor.

"In villages they have VPSOs at the door, checking. If they so much as smell alcohol, they won't let you in," said Moxie Alexie, who is originally from Sleetmute and now lives in Bethel. Last winter, as temperatures fell to 20 and 30 below, Alexie drove a Ford Ranger for two hours on the frozen Kuskokwim River to hear fiddle music in Tuluksak.

Alexie excused himself and returned to the dance floor. Time for a few more songs before the guitarists thanked the crowd for coming shortly after 1 a.m.

The band was on the river again an hour later, navigating the banks by flashlight as they headed for home.


Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at

Meet the Northern Lights band, a Bethel-based quintet that is bringing an Alaska Native fiddle dance tradition to the Lower Kuskokwim River. (Kyle Hopkins / Anchorage Daily News)

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