BETHEL – Byron Nicholai, already a teen Facebook smash for his powerful and sometimes funny songs celebrating his Yup'ik roots, has had an unexpected year. He had only left Alaska once before this spring when he performed for world leaders in Washington, D.C. Now the 17-year-old from the small Western Alaska village of Toksook Bay has etched another mark with his first album.
Nicholai's Facebook page is called "I Sing. You Dance." and he's titled the album after his signature song, "I Am Yup'ik." Or, in his first language, "Wiinga Yup'iugua."
"It turned out pretty great, actually," said Nicholai, a high school senior.
Nicholai wanted to make an album fast, in time for the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in mid-October that draws thousands to Anchorage.
Nicholai and his producer, Mike McIntyre, a Bethel artist and musician, recorded the 12 songs over the span of five hours on Saturday, Oct. 10, less than a week before the start of AFN, where Nicholai performed with the Nelson Island dance group. McIntyre's second-floor home studio overlooking the tundra at Bethel's edge makes for surprisingly good acoustics. They released the album Oct. 13.
"He was jamming," said McIntyre, 31. "We had a blast."
By the following Tuesday, the album was on its first digital media site, CD Baby. Now it's on iTunes and Amazon, Google Play and Spotify. They plan to have a CD out before Christmas. It's all Nicholai's singing and drumming, no backup band and no special effects. And it's mainly in Yup'ik.
It's the first musical release by McIntyre's Yuk Media Co. He started the company in June with the help of a small business Best in the West award to create music, photography, graphics and possibly movies by and for Yup'ik people. He calls Nicholai "an insane talent."
The teen doesn't seem to have a slow gear. He is one of the stars on a Toksook Bay high school basketball team that has made it to the state tournament three years in a row. He competes in the Native Youth Olympics and likes the wrist carry and Indian stick pull. He along with his older sisters help their mom with their three younger brothers. He became leader of the Nelson Island dance group when he was just a sophomore. It's grown to include 60 or more kids.
He listens to a little R&B, sometimes hip-hop, but mainly his own music.
"Every time I sing, I'm in my own little world, free from the things that are bothering me," he said in an interview last spring. "I'm in my own little place."
His music -- not to mention his popularity on social media -- generates opportunities that are rare for a teen from a small remote village. In Toksook Bay, on Nelson Island 500 miles from Anchorage, the revered late elder Paul John ensured the culture was nurtured and children learn Yup'ik first.
Last May, Nicholai traveled to Washington, D.C., to perform for Secretary of State John Kerry and Arctic nation leaders at a reception marking the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council -- only his second time out of Alaska.
"What a strong, resonant, extraordinary voice," Kerry said after Nicholai sang and drummed three songs. "And most importantly, thank you for really not just giving a person and a face to the Arctic, but also a voice and especially a spirit."
Nicholai performed again before Kerry, heads of state and top U.S. officials at the GLACIER Conference in Anchorage last August. He's played at fairs and festivals around Alaska, including at Bethel's Cama-i Dance Festival, where he was a featured soloist in April before a loud and happy crowd. A key sponsor, Yute Air, covers Nicholai's flights in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Nicholai's turned down invitations in New York, South Carolina and Barrow because of school conflicts.
His songs spiral around the listener, a haunting approach that freshens old-school Yup'ik singing. He says he is trying to bring in modern elements to connect kids more closely to Yup'ik culture, like in his version of "Be My Baby."
He was just 15 when he started posting on his "I Sing, You Dance" Facebook fan page, starting with a silly one done with a chipmunk voice app.
"You should make a song about waking up the spirit of our ancestors inside of all us, that there is still hope for those who are hopeless, happiness and love can be found all around us, " Adrian Francis, a half-Yup'ik follower in Anchorage, wrote when Nicholai asked for ideas back in 2013.
A video in September was about inerquuteqs, rules of wisdom passed down from parents and elders. It drew 96,000 Facebook views and dozens of comments, including from supporters wanting him to mentor their children. He said he feels the weight of that. He knows he's a role model.
As of late October, his Facebook followers topped 20,000.
'Kinda sweet spot'
All the while his music flows, faster than even he can keep up with.
"Since most of my songs on my Facebook page are kind of freestyling, it's hard for me to memorize all of them, so I just picked the ones that I memorized," Nicholai said, describing the song selection for "I Am Yup'ik."
He sings about traveling by boat in "Angyaurlua Ayagali," and about a mother and father in "Aanan Aatan-Llu." There's a traditional blessing song and one called "My Grandma Used to Tell Me …"
The last three songs he freestyled on the spot while making the record, including "Ellu'urtautanga," or the "Sledding Song." He's now listened to it over and over. It's catchy. It's from his world, how they travel by snowmachine up a hill on Nelson Island then have fun sliding down.
"I Am Yup'ik" took the most takes, more than 10, to get just right. On a drum that he made, he held back at first. He was afraid to beat too hard and drown out his voice. McIntyre told him to play the way he usually did.
He did. It sounded raw, clean and good, McIntyre said. They went with it.
"We got kinda a sweet spot," McIntyre said.
They will get monthly reports on digital sales but have a few promising signs. The album has been the best-seller in world music for New Zealand and Australia on Amazon.
It's big attention for any teen. He won an AFN President's Award for youth leadership. A December 2014 interview on Indian Country Today Media Network was headlined "Must See: This 16-year-old Singer from Alaska is Amazing." An Alaska Dispatch video about him was featured on The Atlantic's website.
Now Nicholai is thinking about what is next. He'll travel to Nuuk, Greenland, to sing at the Arctic Winter Games in March. That is the same time as the state basketball tournament, so he will miss it his senior year, if Toksook makes it in again.
He plans to go to college at University of Alaska Anchorage and study to be a teacher, with a minor in Alaska Native studies. He wants to live in a different village, one that needs help finding its way back to the Yup'ik culture.
His use of social media has taken him far already.
"The outcome of that is crazy," he said. "All the offers. The album. The traveling. The performing."
He never thought he would be anything but a normal village teenager. But by embracing the culture, he said, "you can get something out of it. You really can."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing