by Greg Lincoln
Yup’ik singer Byron Nicholai of Toksook Bay is on a mission. He just recently released his new album “Ayagnera (The Beginning)” – his second one, and to help promotion he returned to his hometown and put on a concert for his friends and relatives.
“I record songs as I feel them,” he told the crowd in Yugtun, the native language of Nelson Island where Toksook Bay is located. “I want to move back here when I am old, I want to help my family. That’s what these songs are about. I made them from my heart.”
The opening song was “Tarvagnaumken”, the Blessing Song. Drummers and singers from the community participated, including Nicholai’s cousin – one of the twins Nolan or Logan Charles. Also drumming was elder John Abraham. Dancers gathered with Nicholai to perform this traditional yuraq song, which originated in Toksook Bay.
The concert was held outdoors near the Nunakauiak Yupik Corporation store. He stood on an empty trailer and belted out the songs from “Ayagnera” with an amplifier and microphone. Folks came in droves, driving their trucks and four wheelers to the event. They sat on their vehicles and enjoyed the show put on by their very own hometown singer who skyrocketed to fame in the past years. Youngsters played during the concert, while also enjoying the singing. Elders were also present, everyone was appreciative for the gesture of gratitude from Nicholai. And a very special guest – his mom Dora, was also there. It was heartwarming to see how proud she was of her son.
It all began with I Sing. You Dance. Byron Nicholai’s facebook page where he posted his songs sung in his native language Yup’ik. Soon after that he started performing at events – the Cama-i Festival in Bethel, the Alaska Federation of Natives, Canada and Greenland, Salmonfest, the Rock Auk’w Festival, the Raven’s Ball, and even for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Arctic Admiral Robert Papp in 2015. The list goes on and on.
Nicholai said the inspiration for his songs come late at night when thoughts come to him at his home in Anchorage. He performed I Want to Fly, You Are Not Alone, Ayiirriiyaa, Aanaka Qanellruuq, Kenkamken – a love song he composed for his cousin’s wedding, Nunaniqsiiyaagtuq, Yuraryugtua with the heartrending lyrics “assisqumaamken wii, assikamken wii” – I want you to be okay, you are someone that I admire. He also performed a song about Chris Apassingok of Gambell who caught a whale when he was 16, which was a song about subsistence living. He sang a song about a birthday. For the finale, he performed Tua-i-ngunrituq – this is not the end, which is what you say at partings.
He said these pieces helped him through the isolation of quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each song had a story which he shared and all were sung in Yup’ik.
“A few years ago, I read an article about native languages in Alaska. It predicted that most of the languages would be gone by 2100. Since then I’ve been focusing on making my songs in Yup’ik,” he wrote. His hope was that future generations would be able to hear Yup’ik, to keep it alive.
The songs from his new album are available on all platforms as of March 2022. Nicholai does his own song productions.
“I mention my family and friends a lot in the album,” he wrote. “It’s no surprise. I feel like I do better when I think of those I do it for. And I appreciate them all for showing me that I won’t make it far alone.”
Nicholai spent a few days in Toksook before and after his concert. We worked on some videography to promote his album with scenes from home for memories. Thanks everyone for an amazing trip!