The following publication-ready feature story, "Yukon: A Festival Destination", was written for Tourism Yukon by writer Margo Pfieff. You are welcome to publish the piece free of charge and images to accompany the article are available by contacting our media relations department at the email address below. If you do print the story we would appreciate recveiving a copy of the published piece. Tourism Yukon wholly owns the rights to "Yukon: A Festival Destination".
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Yukon: A Festival Destination
by Margo Pfeiff
An Inuit throat singer, a rapper and a country crooner are whooping it up on stage. They’re belting out “I’m having a party all by myself…” but clearly that’s not true. On this warm summer day beneath the giant red and white candy-striped tent a vibrating dance floor is packed with folks gyrating with hoola hoops or with kids hoisted onto their shoulders. The celebration spills outside where the music mingles with the smell of freshly cut lawn and sizzling bar-b-ques in the open-air beer garden. Incense drifts from a wee village of New Age vendor stalls. It’s the Sunday afternoon Pot Luck jam session on the main stage of the annual Dawson City Music Festival (DCMF). The truth is, the whole town is having a party.
The festival – in its 28th year in 2006 from July 21-23 – is Dawson City’s biggest summer event and although the music runs the gamut from Celtic to rap, folk to jazz and rockabilly, festival organizer Dylan Griffith tries to keep the focus on Northern performers. “In 2005 we had musicians from all three Canadian territories for the first time,” he says, “as well as from Alaska, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.”
The opening act kicks off on a sunny Friday afternoon at an open-air gazebo where the audience sprawls on the grassy banks of the Yukon River. One of the most breathtaking performances is by the Arctic territory of Nunavut’s Tanya Tagaq Gillis, a contemporary Inuit throat singer performing to an electronica beat. Her primal syncopated moaning, panting, grunting and sinuous movements piqued the interest of Icelandic legend Bjork with whom she has toured and recorded. “When Tanya finishes performing,” a fellow beside me jokingly observed, “the audience needs a cigarette.” Throughout the long weekend there was everything from Toronto’s Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir with their dance floor hopping Appalachian rhythms, to the jazzy Whitehorse based Swingin’ Fish Nuggets and Faroe Islander Eivør Palsdottir singing traditional lullabies in Swedish.
The festival is intimate and many performers express a special affection for the DCMF. Musicians are billeted with locals as there aren’t enough hotel rooms to go around and residents volunteer en mass to feed them lavish sushi, Ethiopian and Greek spreads, a far cry from the canteen cuisine they are accustomed to on the folk music festival circuit. Location is another reason. “This place is in the middle of nowhere, expensive to reach and tiny,” says Laurel Parry, the Yukon government’s manager for the arts. “That takes it off the map for industry people and allows performers to be more relaxed and take more risks musically.”
Throughout a long weekend the music festival unfolds at five venues around town. You reach them by walking along wooden boardwalks or dusty dirt streets, past swinging bat-wing bar doors, taking a right at Klondike Kate’s Café or a left at the Eldorado Hotel. Concerts are held in Parks Canada’s spectacularly reconstructed Palace Grand, a theatre built in 1899 by Arizona Wild West showman Charlie Meadows. Intimate workshops are held among the pews of two churches where individual musicians from various groups are pitched together to perform songs with themes like “Lost” or “Heroes and Villains”. They improvise their way through some truly memorable, one-off musical moments. Small wonder that Vancouver’s alternative paper, the Georgia Straight called the DCMF “Canada’s tiny, perfect festival.”
But Dawson’s biggest summer event is only one festival celebrating a thriving cultural scene that is unparalleled in Canada. Without the Northwest Territories’ oil and diamond revenues, the Yukon has instead encouraged the arts. According to Statistics Canada (1998 are the latest figures) there is one artist – someone who makes more than 65% of their living from their craft – for every 1000 Canadian residents; in the Yukon there are 5.4 artists per 1000 residents. Since 1980 over 130 albums have been recorded in the Yukon. That is an average of one for every 1,500 residents; the national average is one for every 28,000 residents. And it’s not just music.
At the beginning of a long tradition of culture in the territory American author Jack London came north during the 1880’s Gold Rush and lived in the Yukon where he later set Call of the Wild and White Fang. His cabin still stands in Dawson City as does that of Robert Service whose poems are read aloud daily at open air gatherings, such classics as The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton grew up in Dawson City and he went on to write dozens of books including the Arctic Grail and Klondike. His childhood home is now the site of the Dawson City Writer in Residence program.
To celebrate their deep cultural roots – which have expanded in recent years to include everything from film and storytelling to aboriginal cultural festivals - Yukoners host a year round calendar of events. They don’t even let the cold of winter get in the way; the Frostbite Music Festival, held in Whitehorse each February, is Western Canada’s only winter music festival. It plays out under the Northern Lights for three nights and two days with a multitude of emerging and established Canadian and Yukon musical acts, dances, workshops, a kids' festival and a youth stage. Over the Victoria Day long weekend each May it’s Watson Lake’s turn with an annual music festival focusing on young people and families. And then in June, beneath the majestic St. Elias Mountains, bluegrass is celebrated in Haines Junction.
A new art school in Dawson City also has an artist in residence program as well as offering courses in everything from puppetry and tap dancing to caribou-hair tufting and ballet. The ODD gallery, with which it shares space, shows local works. This is also where the International Short Film Festival has been taking place and growing in size every April since 1999. The 2005 film festival screened over 65 films from around the world. Close on its heels in June is Whitehorse’s Yukon International Film Festival which celebrates overseas, Canadian and Yukon productions with a special focus on feature length environmental, independent and First Nations productions since the festival falls on National Aboriginal Day, June 21; on that same day in Dawson City the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation hosts a day of cultural celebrations.
August is literary month in the Yukon with Dawson’s Authors on Eighth named after the street where Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton’s residences are located. It’s where writing contest winners receive their prizes and awards on August 17th, part of the three day Yukon Riverside Arts Festival on the sunny banks of the Yukon River. Over 30 visual artists from around the North sell and demonstrate their art in open-air tents while offering one-on-one instruction and group workshops. Meanwhile, on the same weekend in Whitehorse at the Shipyards Park on the banks of the very same Yukon River, storytellers and performers from around the globe - particularly circumpolar artists - tell stories, dance, and perform in a multitude of languages.
The secret to the Yukon’s successful foray into culture is its emphasis on encouraging home-grown talent which spawn festivals with a genuine air of local character. As the Dawson City Music Festival drew to a close well after midnight in the summer of 2005 with a finale that brought a dozen performers on stage, the master of ceremonies strode in front of the microphone. “It’s over. Go home,” Katrina White told the crowd. “But drive carefully because I don’t want to see you later on tonight.” She was also the town doctor. Hoola hoops and sleepy children were gathered up and everyone headed outside into the endless northern summer twilight.
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