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Byron Nicholai’s Yugtun concert in Bethel had the crowd crying 'Pamyua!'

Byron Nicholai
Emily Schwing
/
Byron Nicholai performed songs from his new album, "Ayagnera," in Bethel.

More than 125 people turned out in Bethel to hear Yup’ik artist Byron Nicholai perform music from his new album over the weekend.

Margarita Stoimenova, a first year teacher from Atmautluak, said that she learned about Nicholai’s music from her students. She made the short flight to Bethel just for the concert. “We just got hip to him,” she said. “I definitely love it. It’s really inspiring.” Most of Nicholai's songs are written and performed in Yugtun, a language that Stoimenova said that she does not speak. “I’m not gonna sing along, but I will hum along for sure!” she laughed.

This was only the second time Nicholai has performed songs from his latest album, "Ayagnera," in front of an audience. He also sang recently for fans in Goodnews Bay.

“I didn’t necessarily think of creating an album when I created these tracks,” said Nicholai. “I was just creating these tracks just to cope with things that I was going through,” he said.

His new songs, released at the end of March, seemed to resonate with the audience. Not only because Nicholai sings in Yugtun, but also because people can relate to the experiences he sings about: loneliness, isolation, and connections to land and family.

Makssi Charles, like Nicholai, is originally from Toksook Bay, but currently lives in Bethel. He and Nicholai are first cousins. Charles sang along with Nicholai during much of the concert.

“Oh man, it’s a change of game,” said Charles. “He’s trying to make a change in the music industry for our people, for the people that speak Yup’ik. But then all the songs that he does, it’s pretty much for everyone, for anyone to listen to,” he said.

“Yeah, having somebody from our own Yup’ik people gives them somebody to look up to,” said Trisha Patton. Her young sons were among a small group of kids who sat one row back, munching on Cheetos and rarely taking their eyes from the small stage where Nicholai, flanked by bright blue and white spotlights, sang, danced, and even did a little bit of rapping.

After an hour, the excitement was palpable. An enthusiastic crowd used the Yugtun word for "encore" throughout the night to hear songs in their Indigenous language.

“Pamyua!” they yelled. Nicholai simply laughed and agreed to repeat the song. Pamyua means “do it again," and a breathless Nicholai did. So many times throughout that night that he had to sit down on the stage at one point.

A handful of eighth graders at the concert left with broad smiles after they snapped photos with Nicholai, who said that he already has a new project in mind.

“Now the next project I was thinking about was to create kind of like a video set list, kind of like an album where you could watch and learn how to dance. And you could see the words and what I am talking about in these songs,” Nicholai said.

The aim is not only to preserve his Indigenous language and culture, but to make it accessible to everyone.

Updated: May 3, 2022 at 3:16 PM AKDT
The original headline of this story read "A small crowd turns out for Yugtun concert in Bethel."
Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.
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