JUNEAU — Áak’w Rock Indigenous music festival held its first full in-person event last weekend in Juneau. The festival featured three days of music across three venues with more than 25 artists performing.
We talked to five of the artists who performed at Áak’w Rock, from a blues man to a transformative rapper.
Marc Brown, Athabascan
Marc Brown kicked off the festival Thursday in a performance with his band the Blues Crew. Brown and the band could very well be the busiest outfit in Alaska. Their travel itinerary this year reads like a 49th state version of the country classic “I’ve Been Everywhere”: Bethel, Pilot Station, Hoonah, Galena, Nulato, Barrow, Prince of Wales Island plus shows in bigger cities like Anchorage for AFN and the Athabascan Fiddle Festival in Fairbanks, where Brown is based.
Born in Huslia, Brown comes from a long line of musicians, including a number of fiddlers and musicians who played with Interior legend Herbie Vent. Combining blues and cultural influences, Brown brings with him more than 30 years of experience and some serious chops — Brown attended the prestigious Berklee School of Music.
“It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 4,” he said. “I didn’t start learning anything until I was 11. I just made noise for about seven years.”
Brown and the Blues Crew have a new album coming out soon called “The Seattle Sessions.”
Allison Warden, who performs as Aku-Matu, surprised some in the audience with her performance Thursday. The Inupiaq rapper is known for her transformations, taking on the perspective of animals and rapping as a polar bear or a bowhead whale.
She took the stage in a black gown, and much of the early part of her set spoke to her Christian faith. It was mostly extemporaneous, and Warden plans to go back and listen to the performance with the idea of engineering written songs out of what she did at Áak’w Rock.
“I am known for this set where I’m a polar bear and an ancestor from the future,” she said. “I need new material to cut my teeth on, so tonight was all improv.”
She was inspired by a Native rapper nearly 30 years ago who performed at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall, where she took the stage for the festival. She lives in Anchorage but has family roots in Kaktovik.
Ashley Young, Tlingit
After spending 13 years in Boise, Idaho, Ashley Young returned to Alaska last year, making an immediate impression on the state’s music scene. It was a major life change for her and brought the risk that it could cause a step back for her musical ambitions. But the move has proven to be opportune.
She recently returned from a West Coast tour, and last week performed at the Anchorage Museum with Black Belt Eagle Scout before heading to Juneau for Áak’w Rock.
“I ultimately decided I needed to be with my family and that it was important for me to be closer to my ancestral lands,” she said. “I have no doubt that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be at this point in my career.”
Young worked as a high school ceramics teacher and still substitutes, allowing plenty of space and time to pursue music. She is set to record an EP, produced by Anchorage musician Husse. It will be released in part by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, which awarded Young a grant for the project.
Katherine Paul, Swinomish/Kewa
Katherine Paul, who performs as Black Belt Eagle Scout, was one of the most established artists at the festival. She released “The Land, The Water, The Sky” earlier this year on powerhouse indie label Saddle Creek Records.
She said she was able to connect with Alaska artists at the festival as well as renew old friendships, including taking in a performance by her friend Raye Zaragoza.
“We’re good friends but we’re ships in the night sometimes at music festivals, so we’ll say hi and chat,” Paul said. “It was nice to see her perform pretty much for the first time here.”
While Paul grew up in Washington, her mother is from the Kotzebue area. Both of Paul’s parents — Pat and Kevin Paul — joined her on stage during the trip, her first time performing in the state.
“It made sense to have her and to have my dad come to our first time (performing) in Alaska because of that connection to our heritage,” she said. “I just wanted to experience that with them.”
Chantil Dukart, Tsimshian/Sugpiaq
Chantil Dukart, a piano player whose music incorporates jazz and funk, was born in Anchorage and grew up in Alaska. She eventually found her way south, graduating from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
She is now based in Colorado but has returned to the state multiple times to perform, including with the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band earlier this year.
“I was here pretty recently and it’s good to be back in a timely fashion,” she said.
Her most recent record, “Lady and the Champ,” was released last year.
The festival was an opportunity for her to continue to take steps to reclaim her identity.
“Both my grandparents got sent to boarding schools and were forbidden to speak the language,” she said. “A lot of the culture got lost, to the point where people like me (wonder), ’Am I even Native?’ because you don’t have those cultures. You get stripped of your identity in some ways. ... Just to feel accepted and be able to reclaim that identity is very powerful for me.”