Dena Zagi is performing at the Adäka Cultural Festival this week. (Archbould Photography/Courtesy)

Dena Zagi is performing at the Adäka Cultural Festival this week. (Archbould Photography/Courtesy)

Dena Zagi bringing Kaska songs to the Adäka stage

Language preservation and spiritual connection are the keystones of Yukon folk rock group Dena Zagi’s work; this summer sees them taking some exciting new steps to further their mission.

From collaborations with the Whitehorse All City Band and Fiddleheads to their upcoming performance at the Adäka Cultural Festival, followed by the release of a new single later this summer, founders Dennis Shorty and Jenny Fröhling have a busy season ahead.

Formed as a duo in 2009, Dena Zagi originally wrote songs in English before Fröhling suggested translating their lyrics to Shorty’s Indigenous language, Kaska. As one of a few fluent speakers in his community of TuLidlini, also known as Ross River, Shorty has since been performing in Kaska to preserve his native language through music and storytelling, and also to encourage others to learn and speak their Indigenous languages.

“Our songs are teachings about our Mother Earth and all living around us, our relations and connections to animals, nature, water, air and the importance to protect and respect everything around us,” said Shorty, “Our message is to be one with it all and be kind and look after it… reconnect with our spiritual world and bring back our ceremonies.”

Since their inception, Shorty and Fröhling have added additional members to their lineup, Whitehorse musicians Michael Millar on drums, Roxx Hunter on bass and David Dugas on lead guitar. Their songs range from traditional to contemporary folk rock with some evolving reggae in the mix.

Over the years, the band has amassed a wide range of achievements on their collective resume, including two nominations at the Indigenous Music Awards and Canadian Folk Music Awards for their album Gucho Hin, which offered them a chance to travel and, in their words, an overall amazing experience.

Just last month they worked together with the All City Band and youth ensemble Fiddleheads, which Shorty describes as a career highlight.

“It warms our hearts to see the upcoming younger generations, to fill their lives with the interest in learning an instrument and express themselves through music and dance.”

Another recent development is the single they recorded with Jim Holland at Green Needle Studios.

“We just finished recording our new song, “Me”… The single will be released later this summer,” said Shorty. “This song is about my experience as a residential school survivor, it starts off in English and finishes in my first language, Kaska, as a sign of reclaiming my culture and to show that they could not break my spirit!”

Dena Zagi will be bringing that spirit, along with their expanded lineup, to the stage at Whitehorse’s upcoming Adäka Cultural Festival, where the group has been a fixture for years. “Adäka is one of our biggest supporters and our first platform to perform as Dena Zagi right from day one of the festival,” said Fröhling. “The exciting part about the Adäka Cultural Festival is that the organizers always bring amazing groups and visual artists from all over the world, and this is so inspiring for us to meet everyone and to exchange ideas and connect with other performers and also visual artists.”

Shorty himself is also a visual artist — his copper jewelry and moose antler sculptures will be available for sale through the Festival gallery.

The exchange of cultural ideas and connections with other communities is an important one for Dena Zagi, even more so given the remoteness of their Ross River home, which presents its own set of challenges. Bringing the full band together to rehearse and write has so far presented one of the biggest hurdles to the group’s development, but Shorty and Fröhling are not discouraged.

“We are in the midst of adding to our homestay business four rooms for accommodations in our remote community, so that we can provide space for visual and performing artists retreats,” said Fröhling. She hopes to create a retreat for artists from all over, to share the beauty and remoteness of the land that she and Shorty so appreciate, and offer a space for people to clear their minds from the stress of everyday life. “Music and visual art are ways of healing for us all, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Our world needs a lot of it right now!”

Catch Dena Zagi perform live at the Adäka Cultural Festival, June 29 to July 5 at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, and stay tuned for their new single “Me,” to be released in July through

READ MORE: Adäka Festival returns for 10th anniversary on June 29

Willow Gamberg is the owner of Road Dogs Music Supply and The Lab Rehearsal Studios in downtown Whitehorse.