The Yukon International Storytelling Festival

copyright 1997 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 43 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - August '97

I was recently honoured to be included as a musical performer at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival in Whitehorse. The event has been held annually since 1987. From its humble beginnings to its auspicious present day stature this organic event Brother Blue has been a showcase of the ancient art of story telling. With special guests from as far away as Bolivia, Denmark, Wales, Boston, New York, Vancouver and Guelph, this really is an international event.

First Nations artists figure prominently, with local and regional story tellers, dance troupes, drummers and musicians providing the festival attendees with a unique vision of native culture... truly a blend of humour and spirituality. Add to this: rolling thunder, lightning storms, hot sunny days, the Summer Solstice, a full moon and the midnight sun and you have the recipe for a peak experience.

I flew into Whitehorse via Canada 3000 (under $400 return from Vancouver), arriving on the Tuesday before the festival. I got there early to get the "lay of the land" and do some local business. The two-hour flight out of Vancouver was surprisingly-brief and the spectacular snowcovered mountains visible from the plane were breathtaking and remote. This is one BIG country!

It was my first visit to the Yukon so I had done some research on the area and its amenities. The city of Whitehorse lies in a valley on the banks of the mighty Yukon River. It has a population of 23,500 while the entire Yukon Territory has only another 10,000 citizens spread out over its entire area. There is a real feeling of community here and I immediately felt at home.

I was picked up at the airport by the festival volunteer co-ordinator, Lisa Treadwell and was taken to the main office where I met the Festival Manager, Brad White and some of the other staff including billet co-ordinator Tina Drew and one of the festival's originators and main spokes-persons, Louise Profeit-LeBlanc. Brad was my first "Storytelling" contact, when I had initially called, describing my CD "Northstream - Songs and Stories of People & Places" to him. I was to be one of only half-a-dozen musical acts, out of over 50 different performers. This was a great opportunity to promote "Northstream" and to network. Thanks "Storytelling"!

I went to the festival site at Rotary Park and checked out the layout. The main tent was up and running already with a scheduled children's show featuring Robert Munsch. This huge tent had a full production PA, tech support, monitor system, staging, lights, bleachers and security. There was a problem with the 2nd big tent, that was torn down the mainseam and would be replaced at the last minute. Canadian Tire also provided a big tent with a large PA setup and chair seating and there were two other smaller tents that had seating for about 50, and small stages, PA's and two techs, each. This was a comprehensive, quality setup.

For the kids there was a "FunFest" located in a large Gazebo where they could enjoy face painting and crafts. This was adjacent to an inflatable play area that seemed popular. For food and drink: a large concession tent, portable kitchen truck and a "Blackstone" coffee boutique wagon for the latte lovers.

Performers and staff had access to a large hospitality tent where meals were provided, and also an Elder care and infirmary tent. Recycling depots were set up at six locations thoughout the site and the large staff of volunteers kept everything running smoothly. Security wore headsets, providing full site coverage. What a high level of organization!

When I returned to the office, it was reaching a fever pitch with arrivals, last minute changes and the mayhem that typically occurs running a production of this size. At this point I was taken to my first billet's home, located about 20 minutes out of town in a peaceful spot called Hidden Valley. Here my hosts Madeleine and Piers are building a lovely home nestled in the pines overlooking a wide valley with mountains looming on the horizon.

Presently their sister-in-law (Festival billet captain), Tina Drew arrived with Brother Blue & his wife Ruth Hill. Brother Blue (Dr. Hugh Hill) is a world-renowned street poet. Ruth is an oral historian who lectures at colleges & universities. From Cambridge, Massachusetts, they had just flown in from the Vancouver Storytelling Festival.

After a delightful dinner, Brother Blue and I did some improvisatory work with him extrapolating on a story while I accompanied on free form guitar. Word & tone association, lingo riffing, onomatapaeic jazz, soul stirring. It was something different and we decided to try it again at a performance for the Yukon Arts Society in the park adjacent to the Captain Martin House Gallery.

The next day was a bit rainy so Brother Blue and I performed his story "Muddy Duddy" in the gallery where we met CBC radio personality, Elaine Shorty. Elaine interviewed Brother Blue and set up an interview with me, scheduled for the next morning. After checking out some of the local clubs and doing research on the local scene I surmised the spot to go to was the T&M Hotel for their "Showcase Wednesday". I ran into Elaine later on in the afternoon and she took me into CBC to do a pre-interview, lining up a sketch of the Q&A.

Later on, I kidnapped Brad White and we convened at the T&M to enjoy longnecks and some of the local talent. We joined Elaine Shorty and I got a chance to speak with the host Barb Chamberlin (aka Wynona & The Turnpikes - see CD reviews). Barb's band, "The Agents (of Kaos)" featuring Manfred Janssen on guitar, Lonnie on drums and Vancouver's Brian Scott guesting on bass, has been a mainstay on the Whitehorse scene for some time now. (I heard that they came to town on a gig and just stayed, but this could just be legend).

The night's showcase line-up featured a talented singer/songwriter, Lisa Bonnefoy who has been in the Yukon for 17 years. Lisa wants to record her own material and cites Patsy Cline, Melissa Ethridge and Stevie Ray Vaughan as her main influences. The former Manitoban currently holds down a Government Stats gig.

Next up was Michael Brooks and Friends which included guitarists, Nathan Tinkham and Bruce Bergman with George McConkey on harp and the rhythm section of Tom Barnaby and Kim Rodgers. Michael's songs were mostly of a historical nature referring to the Goldrush and the Great White North. He also performed at the Storytelling festival.

I did a few tunes next and was followed by Marty Waldman who was joined by a bassist. They performed some of Marty's introspective original songs and were followed up by the houseband who invited me up for some blues. "Everyday...." The next day I did my CBC interview by phone and was thankful to have the Q&A notes handy (I was lucky to be interviewed a second time during the festival and to have the song "North All Night" get some spins)! Next I got to go for a drive to Carcross, about an hour south towards Skagway and was really impressed with the mountainous scenery of the region and the beautiful lakes. Later that afternoon I performed an outdoor show, "Music in the Park" for the Whitehorse Arts Society and in the evening attended the opening concert.

The Opening Night show opened with a local French Canadian group called Acoustique Poutine who performed a variety of amusing and entertaining traditional and original material en francaise. Also on the program were Katari Taiko from Vancouver. This group of female Asian-Canadians put on an energetic inspiring show with choreography and percussion. They were an exciting addition to the Festival.

Another percussive group on the show were the Inuvik Drummers & Dancers. This ensemble struck a deep chord with me with their rigid rhythmic structure, chanting and interpretive dancing. It was such a beautiful thing to see a group of young people devoting their energy to the preservation & celebration of their traditional culture. I managed to see all of their shows and was affected each time.

The next group to perform was the Whitehorse-based native music ensemble, Sundog who's spiritual chants, drumming, dancing and singing were uplifting and transcendant. I wish I had a recording of their set. Sundog will be appearing at the Indigenous Games in Victoria, the first week of August. Watch for them! (Don't miss the chance to attend the Games and to support Visionquest)

Finishing up the evenings show was the big buzz of the festival, the return of the Bolivian quintet, Rumillajta. With exquisite harmonies, panpipes, clay flute, drum, guitar and a small ten-string instrument called the "charango", these virtuoso musicians are ambassadors of their country's music and turned-in several inspired performances throughout the weekend (see the reviews of their CD's in this issue).

Over the following three days I was treated to a wild and wide variety of story telling and Northern life experiences at the festival. - The Throat Singers, Haunak Mikkigak and Imanigiak Petaulassie performed their rhythmic chanting sounds, creating the most fascinating humanly produced music I have ever heard. From Cape Dorset, NWT. These performers did several shows and always drew a crowd. The "songs" sung face to face, usually ended with one then the other singer breaking out in a spontaneous, raucous laughter.

- George Blake, a native of Jamaica, ordained as a Buddist monk in Thailand and now a resident of Oshawa has practised clincal Psychology for 20 years. He told his moral stories accompanied by his beautiful handmade drum.
- Itah Sadhu, born in Canada, raised in Barbados, mixed urban grittiness with dub poetry while telling her stories of humour and power.
- Daniel Morden, from Wales delivered a riveting performance, captivating the audience with his masterful stage presence. While sitting in a chair. I imagine he could do it standing on his head.
- Wes Fine Day, a plains Cree artist from Saskatchewan delivered a tender tale with great delicacy. Amidst some rather large laughs. A down to earth performer he also accompanied himself on the guitar.
Other storytellers I managed to take in were: - Dan Yashinsky, who has been a PROFESSIONAL storyteller for 20 years and is recognized as a premier consultant on the genre. A solid performer!
- Jamie Olivero, who I saw do a brilliant bit where he improvised a storyline using various articles of unrelated items provided by the audience. At the story's conclusion Jamie had the crowd falling out of their seats in stitches.
- Ester Jacko, from Ontario, told the fable of how God gave Snake its duty to preserve nature and how it affected Rabbit who wasn't so interested in ecology.
- Roddy Blackjack, who usually appears with his wife Bessie, telling practical tales of survival wisdom, handed down from generation to generation. Bessie wasn't feeling well, so Roddy did a solo where he described the stories he wished he could tell us, ending up telling us anyways in a backdoor sort of way. He remarked about a particular flood in an area that was devastated and how the people remembered the event in song. "It's a really good song. I wish I could sing it to you" Its really nice, eh?" Then, wanting to leave us with some sort of moral, he related the wisdom of testing the thin ice of spring with a long stick. "Kids today gotta listen, you don't want to fall through and they just don't know" He went on about this in an elliptical manner for a few minutes and wrapped it up by saying, "Well, I listened to my elders and I guess that's why I'm here today". So it was a true story.
- Edith Josie, a Native elder who has been writing a weekly newspaper column since the 60's, told fantastic tales of supernatural beings and archetypes mixed with everyday events of Northern living. The kind of scary stories you want to send kids to bed with.
- Martha Barron related the story of how she, at the age of five, got up before her parents awoke and pre-dawn went out on her little trapline with her lantern and an axe. Pretty independant for five... a warm, humourous rendition of an event that had the audience's attention wrapped. After having to be rescued from one of her traps by her worried parents, she described staying in bed as long as possible to avoid the parental consequences that were awaiting her. I think we all can related to that feeling.

One of the recurring highlights of the festival weekend were the comedic emcee/performers Sara and Susie, who were compilation characters based on Jackie Bear and Sharon Shorty's actual grandmothers. Their humourous and at times outrageous stories were both entertaining and interactive as they portrayed Native elders with wicked charm. This pair of performers should have their own weekly CBC program. Hilarious!

Of course, at any festival it's impossible to see every performance, but I managed to get a good taste of this event and would not hestitate to return. If you haven't been to Whitehorse, try to take in next year's event. To get on their mailing list contact:
The Storytelling Festival, P.O. Box 5029, Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 4S2

Some of the other highlights of the week that come to mind:
- A kitchen jam at Brad White's with Juan Carlos Cordero, Juan Jorge Laura, Max Carlos Ponce and Nestor Tintaya of Rumillajta, George Blake and myself playing til 6 AM. Such harmony and rhythm. Thanks for the use of your carpet, Brad!
- Salmon and Bannock at the Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ with Elaine, Emma and Terry.
- The full moon sharing the sky with the solstice sun (and the odd mosquito).
- The "Drum Circle Dance" at the conclusion of the festival, where hundreds of attendees, staff and performers joined hands in a circle that evolved into criss-crossing lines of revellers skipping in evershrinking loops around the hand drummers at the core. Talk about perma-grin. Joyousness rampant.
- Then the wrap-up party at the Capital Hotel, which closed its doors for a private kegger after 2 in the morning. A jam broke out with Juan Carlos and myself on guitar, Max Carlos on drums, Mike Wanner on washtub bass and George Blake on conga, climaxing with "Walking After Midnight" by Jackie Bear. Oh-la!
-Jamming with Barb Chamberlin's band at the T&M on my last night in town, with Manfred Janssen on guitar, Brian Scott on Bass, George McConkey on Harp. Then getting Juan Carlos up on guitar for Black Magic Woman, All Along the Watchtower and being joined by Nestor on vocals for Guantanamara and the showstopper, La Bamba. What a week...! Thankyou, Whitehorse. Hope to see you soon.

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at:

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