July 4, 2008

Sunshine stiff competition for many of Alianait's entertainers

Some performers play to empty seats


About a year ago, 81-year-old Igloolik elder Enoki Kunuk managed to come out alive from a solo hunting trip that went terribly wrong.

During his ordeal, he subsisted for more than three weeks on six fish, two ptarmigans and tea from castaway tea bags while he waiting for searchers to find him.

Last week, Kunuk told his tale of survival to an audience of 200 at Iqaluit's Alianait festival, with the help of interpreter Emily Irniq.

Storyteller and musician Dave Bidini told a less-harrowing story - about touring Ireland with the Canadian indie rock band, the Rheostatics, a trip that included a near strangulation experience at the hands of the band's drummer.

Igloolik elder Enoki Kunuk pauses while his words are translated during storytelling night at the Alianait arts festival June 25. Kunuk, now 81, told the story of how he survived alone on the land last summer for nearly a month.

And children's author Michael Kusugak of Rankin Inlet created animal figures from string as he shared stories passed down to him by his grandmother - such as the tale of the boy who lived with a mean-spirited family and fed them to a polar bear.

Despite a full schedule of events during the final week of the 11-day Alianait festival, performers often played to rows of empty seats, perhaps because sunny weather and warm temperatures lured Iqaluit residents away from the festival's free afternoon shows.

John Ningaark of Kugaaruk performs with the Gjoa Band inside the Alianait tent June 30 in Iqaluit. The former MLA began recording his songs about five years ago.

But the small groups of people who did attend benefited from intimate performances by local and visiting musicians, even if the music was sometimes marred by a wonky sound system.

At a multicultural concert this past Saturday afternoon, a handful of people heard music from around the world, played by musicians who live in Iqaluit: a Faroese song from Rannva Simonsen about love's ability to melt snow over flowers and jazzy reggae numbers from Jamal Shirley and Donovan Fox.

Dave Bidini, the former guitarist and vocalist with the Toronto band Rheostatics, sings during a free afternoon show at the Alianait big top Sunday, June 29.

For kids who gave up playing outdoors on Saturday to come to Alianait, there was also a treat: a funny-looking guy with long grey hair, a huge beret and a knack for getting people of all ages to smile.

Ishdafish, clad in gaudy orange shirt and pink sweat-pants, even drew in three junior hip-hoppers to clap along with his songs. Another young boy cuddled up on his father's lap, as he attentively tracked Ish's antics.

Meet Ishdafish, the singing clown, balloon-maker and merry-maker from Vancouver. He did his best to enliven a sparse crowd who gathered in Iqaluit for a free afternoon concert last weekend.

Ishdafish chose his name "Ish," which is an acronym for "I Share Happiness," because he says he wanted to spread joy, which he did during his 20-year career as a clown.

Now, Ish is mainly a performer. His goal? To make the world a better place. "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice," Ish told the audience.

Little Miss Higgins, also known as Jolene Higgins of Nokomis, Sask., entertained Iqaluit residents with vintage blues songs by Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy at Alianait’s closing concert June 30. She also at a free Canada Day concert the following afternoon.

To get everyone in the mood, Ishdafish arrived in Iqaluit with 150 red clown noses and hundreds of pencil balloons to mold into animals.

Ish's unique ability - so he says - is to blow up four pencil balloons simultaneously, without an air pump. He says he uses this talent as an opportunity to talk to children about the benefits of not smoking.

Way back on June 21, the Alianait festival kicked off with an impressive performance by Namgar, a Mongolian-Buryat group from the Russian Far East.

It's too bad more youth didn't spend $5 to see June 28's evening youth concert to hear Juno award nominee Fara Palmer, a Saulteaux-Cree singer with a deep, soulful voice.

Frustrated by a bad sound system, Palmer delivered her first number a cappela, but still got the audience's hands clapping without the help of a soundtrack.

Donovan Fox of Iqaluit teamed up with Jamal Shirley on June 28 to entertain Iqaluit residents with a variety of reggae, soul and pop tunes.

Palmer's new album, Phoenix, is dedicated to her brother Gabriel, murdered in 2002 by two men who knew him - an event she described to the audience.

The Alianait festival ended Monday evening in front of a nearly full house.

Luis Emilio Rios, formerly of Havana, Cuba, has enjoyed major stardom in his native country for nearly 20 years. He now performs with Bomba, a talented Latin jazz group based in ­Edmonton. Bomba played the Alianait closing concert, and on the following afternoon, entertained Iqaluit residents at a free show on Canada Day.

There was rumba and cha-cha from the Edmonton-based Latin jazz group Bomba, a Mongolian and country music mix by folksinger Nathan Rogers, a ballad by John Ningark backed by the Gjoa Band as well as Maori music with Ora Barlow of Pacific Curls.

For Pacific Curls' combination of Maori and Celtic music, Barlow twirled poi balls, used by New Zealand Maori women for telling stories, imitating natural sounds and motions for teaching purposes.

Ora Barlow of Pacific Curls performs at the Alianait closing concert June 30 in Iqaluit. Her New Zealand group combines music from Maori, Pacific Island and Celtic cultures.

Monday's final Alianait concert also honoured two musicians who died in 2008, Nunavik's Charlie Adams and Jimmy Ekho of Iqaluit.

Festival organizers played recordings of their best-known songs - "Guti," Ekho's hymn to love and life, and "Quviasupunga," Adams' upbeat hit to happiness.

Iqaluit singer-songwriter Karen Mackenzie performing at a free afternoon show under the Alianait big top June 29.

Alianait will return in 2009, organizers say, with a packed schedule of music and arts events from National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day.

Performers sometimes played to rows of empty seats inside Alianait festival’s big top tent this past week.

Fara Palmer, a Saulteaux-Cree singer who now lives in British Columbia, struggled with a bad sound system and a half-empty hall when she headlined Alianait’s youth music concert on June 28.