The first electro band to ever play the Dawson City Music Festival stands behind a wall of synthesizers.
While Shout Out Out Out Out packed the main stage tent, dancing, jumping and generally rocking out Friday night, on Saturday afternoon they set up their equipment on the ground to teach an hour-long, “electro for beginners” workshop.
Microphone in hand Nik Kozub starts attempting to explain what each little knob does.
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It quickly turns into a lesson on electricity.
“It’s almost like a language in and of itself,” said Lyle Bell, another of six bandmates. “It’s all electricity. It’s almost like a secret code.”
“The funny thing is, we didn’t start the band knowing all this stuff,” said Will Zimmerman. “The synthesizers we picked up. At the beginning it was just f***ing around.”
“But we truly did immerse ourselves in it,” said Bell, adding that he still learns something new every week with the numerous electro forums he is a member of. “After six years of that I’m still so obsessed.”
“It’s the most fun in music,” said Kozub.
Most of the equipment models they use haven’t changed much since the ‘70s and they still need to be tuned like a regular instrument, the Edmonton-based band said.
Zimmerman mentions a man they know who used to make synthesizers and how he used to call himself a “tool maker.”
“I think that’s a really cool way to think of it,” he said. “Cause if you have a tool that does a job, the creation is in your hands. You can do what you want with it. It’s amazing.”
While the audience may have glazed over for some parts of the workshop, one thing stood out: the love these guys have for the music they make and their ability to manipulate sound.
They wrapped up the hour by encouraging those still sitting to come behind the wall of machines, to try it out for themselves.
The band of self-identified nerds stepped back, watching people push buttons and keyboard keys with apparent glee. They started out the same way seven years ago, when they left their various punk bands to form this new Canadian reference point for electronic music.
But the group is hesitant to identify with any genre.
Instead, they offer suggestions of what genres they should be labeled.
“Fun, exclamation point,” said Bell, laughing. “Or financial sodomy.”
“Bummer,” said Kozub, noting that they strive for the juxtaposition between “happy” melody and “sad” lyrics. “Lyrically it’s 100 per cent bummer. There’s not one single positive sentiment in any album.”
But few people notice the lyrics, the group admits.
They’re too busy dancing.
Outside of the tent and across town a much simpler sound could be heard.
The melodic beat of hide-stretched hand drums pounded from the lawn of the Danoja Zho cultural centre. Soon, traditional cries and songs joined the beat from the mouths of the Kaska Drummers. But what began to happen next was not necessarily traditional.
After two short rounds, another drum sound began to harmonize. It was lighter and more hollow sounding. It was coming from a calebash, or a drum made from a gourd. Soon a water drum, metal percussions and another clay drum with a hide-stretched-top joined in.
Then there was a high-pitched cry from a man wearing a traditional Wodaabe headdress.
He is the frontman of the West-African group, Etran Finatawa, which means “the stars of tradition.”
Heralding from Niger, the group has done something unthinkable. They have joined members from the Wodaabe and Tuareg; two different nomadic tribes in the desert country that is home to at least 11 tribes.
But, in Dawson City, jamming with the traditional songs of the Kaska, the group saw similarities between their own music and that of yet another traditional people.
“He can feel it in the music,” said manager Sandra Van Edig, translating for guitarist Alhousseini Mohammed Anivolla. “The rhythm and the noises they make and the movements. He felt they are nomads in their hearts, as he is. It’s very similar to his style.
“They have played with many groups but never traditional groups. He says whenever traditions come together from whatever place, they will join each other easily.”
While the instruments come from opposite sides of the world, they sound as if they were meant to be played together.
Unexpectedly, Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder Maria Sawrenko stood up and began dancing, in the traditional way, in front of the two groups.
While her 82-year-old frame moved slowly and subtly, her hands were upturned at her waist, her head bobbed to the music and she began moving around the stage.
Three women got up and started to follow her lead.
“She’s our elder,” said Freda Roberts who was MCing the event. “When she gets up we have to follow.
“She couldn’t help it, she told me. She heard the drums and she got lifted up.”
Soon more people joined in.
And then, to the roar of cheers from those still sitting, one of the members of Etran Finatawa joined in as well, dancing as he was traditionally taught.
While the annual festival always has some groups from local First Nations, it has been 12 years since a group from Africa came to play, said festival organizer Tim Jones.
The collaboration between Etran Finatawa and the Kaska Drummers was the festival highlight for him this year.
“It was just spine-tingling,” he said. “I got chills up my back and down my neck. There were tears all over the place. Three different First Nations representing and jigging together. It’s a sharing of cultures. It’s beautiful.”
Jones has been running the whole show for three years, making diversity and variety a top priority.
“We want to be as eclectic and inclusive as possible,” he said. “In a community this small there is no point in excluding anyone because you need every single person’s support in this town to make the festival work.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone will be pleased.
“If someone doesn’t have a band they dislike at the festival, I’ve done my job wrong because it means I haven’t been challenging,” he said mentioning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq who played the Palace Grand on Saturday.
After her first song, half of the audience left, he said. “And the other half, literally 20 of them told me or the house tech, or the people at the front door that it was the best thing they’d ever seen at the music festival or their personal favourite live-music experience ever.
“So if you push the limits, you wont please everyone but you’ll get people seeing what kind of stuff they like, what’s at the end of that rabbit hole. And the people who leave are going to one of our two other venues to find something that works for them.”
And while it may have been risky, Jones was confident in calling up the first electro band in the festival’s 33-year history.
“We had First Nations elders in the tent getting down to Shout Out Out Out Out,” he said. “We had a festival founder getting down, blue collar folks from our security crew, who put the tent up, and tons of 18-year-old screaming maniacs from Whitehorse all loving it. It’s something everyone can enjoy. They’re just so energetic and all those synchronized, cheesy high kicks they do on stage. It’s a spectacle.”
This was Jones’ final year running the Dawson City Music Festival.
Next year, Jenna Roebuck will take over.
But Roebuck is not new.
After quitting her job from a Front Street pay phone during a vacation eight summers ago, she eventually joined the festival’s board of directors and was in charge of getting the main tent up this year.
Which is why she hasn’t put much thought into what she is going to do when she’s in charge next year.
“I made a conscious effort to focus on this festival,” she said, motioning to the tent and grounds around her. “But honouring our legacy is really important to me. A lot of the people that founded this festival are still involved and I’d be really upset if I didn’t do my best to keep on what they started.”
There is one genre, unfamiliar to the festival, which Roebuck is hoping to tap, however.
“I’d like to get Rihanna,” she said laughing.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at