DJ and dancers deconstruct, reconstruct Tlingit songs

Two familiar acts from the Yukon arts and culture scene have come together to fuse Tlingit songs and electronic dance music into a one-of-a-kind multimedia show.

Two familiar acts from the Yukon arts and culture scene have come together to fuse Tlingit songs and electronic dance music into a one-of-a-kind multimedia show.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers and Daniel Ashley, better known as DJ Dash, have been working together since last summer to develop remixes that combine their two styles.

After debuting their creations at Ottawa’s Winterlude earlier this month they’re coming to the Yukon Arts Centre March 1 with a show dubbed Deconstruct/Reconstruct.

After spending most of their history focused on upholding the traditional song and dance style of their culture, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers are trying something new with this project that fuses modern and traditional sounds, said dancer and composer Blake Lepine.

“Now we’re finding that we need to evolve with that knowledge, we need to continue moving forward as First Nations people with what’s around us. That’s how our ancestors did it as well, they adapted to their surroundings so that they could keep moving forward.”

The idea of doing some sort of collaboration has been floating around for years, he said. Some of the dance group grew up with Ashley in Whitehorse and the two sides have gotten to know each other as their careers have developed.

“They have a real passion for the type of electronic music that I make. I have a real passion for the music that they’re performing and composing,” Ashley said.

“So we wanted to do something that was collaborative and meaningful. So it had a strong message of artists working together to come up with something interesting and new.”

Everybody made it into the studio to start working on an album last summer. No one in the dance group had experience with electronic music, Lepine said, but they trusted Ashley.

“We knew Dan. So that’s where that relationship led us.”

As a DJ and emcee, Ashley’s career has included performances at the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics as well as major music festivals .

Founded in 2007, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers perform songs, dances and drumming in the inland Tlingit tradition.

The audience for their collaboration won’t be hearing modern remixes of traditional clan songs. Everyone involved said they wanted to remain respectful of music with that kind of history.

Instead the remixes all started with Tlingit songs composed by Dakhká Khwáan members.

Those songs were mixed with electronic music, samples of drums and rattles as well as natural sounds like water, Ashley said.

“We wanted to approach those songs in a really organic way but then add the electronic music that has a really awesome sort of dance feel as well to it.”

The songs are being performed live at the Arts Centre. The show will also include dancing, drumming and video.

“We are trying to make it multimedia,” Lepine said.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers have been singing and performing original compositions for years, said dancer and composer Sean McDougall.

He composed his first song as a part of the group in 2010. The Box Drum Exit Song is sung when the group finishes a performance. It features a cedar box drum and was composed when McDougall was working for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

While walking in the bush and thinking about his ancestors’ traditions, the song came to him.

“It wasn’t something that felt internal, it was almost like I was hearing it,” he said.

“At that time, with the modern technology I just grabbed my phone and I started singing what I was hearing.”

He took what he had created to the group and before long they were performing it in shows.

After years of knowing the song’s original incarnation, hearing it remixed made him feel “cautious,” he said. But in the end he said he was happy with how it came together.

“I’m happy that hopefully this song can reach out to more people.”

Earlier this month Ashley and some members of the dance group performed at Winterlude in Ottawa.

It was their first chance to try out some of the remixes on an audience.

They performed five times in two days including on the main stage in Confederation Park.

The Whitehorse show will also feature some of Dakhká Khwáan’s junior dancers.

“I think that’s really important because we’re passing the work that we do down to them and I think that’s a good way of just ensuring that everything survives,” McDougall said.

Lepine acknowledged that not everyone who hears about the project is immediately on board with the idea of combining modern sounds with traditional music.

There are some “traditionalists” whose instinct is to maintain the traditions as they have always existed, he said.

“So it’s always kind of a juggling act, appeasing everybody so that we’re not stepping on toes with this project. We don’t want to offend anybody,” he said.

“We don’t want to make it seem like we’re trying to take advantage of our culture either. All we want to do is try something new and see how many people enjoy it and if it’s a way to connect people with their culture or inspire somebody to engage in their culture. I think that’s totally a win.”

All songs were new at some point, McDougall said.

“I look at it like maybe sometime in the future, when I’m long gone, that someone will look back and say ‘Well, that’s where our culture was at at that time. It had to learn to live in both worlds. It had to learn to pay respect to our cultural way but to also adapt to where we are today.’”

The plan is to release a double album featuring traditional and newly remixed songs later this year.

Tickets for the March 1 show are available on the Arts Centre’s website.

Contact Ashley Joannou at