Frostbite refocuses

String virtuosos come in threes. So it seems, anyhow, with this weekend's Frostbite Music Festival. Ukulele master James Hill is just the start. There's also George Gau, who's adept with the erhu - a Chinese two-string fiddle.

String virtuosos come in threes.

So it seems, anyhow, with this weekend’s Frostbite Music Festival.

Ukulele master James Hill is just the start.

There’s also George Gau, who’s adept with the erhu – a Chinese two-string fiddle.

And there’s the entire Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Band, which draws inspiration from a legendary 1930s blues group, fronted by Juno-award winners Steve Dawson and Jim Byrnes.

That’s just a small taste of the wide range of styles on show during this year’s festival, which kicks off tonight and continues until Sunday.

It’s a smaller festival than usual. This year, performances are concentrated at Yukon College. The Yukon Arts Centre is only booked on Sunday night, to feature an evening with the aforementioned string groups, rather than the whole weekend.

Declining attendance and creeping debt prompted festival organizers to design a leaner, meaner festival this year.

“We just tried to keep it a nice, tight festival,” said Eric Epstein, one of the festival’s co-artistic directors.

It’s Frostbite’s 33rd year, and Epstein has helped with it, intermediately, since nearly the beginning. He credits Whitehorse’s burgeoning arts scene as one of the festival’s big challenges: it now faces far more competition than it once did.

“Frostbite used to be this real oasis in the midst of a cultural desert. Now, Whitehorse is very far from that,” he said.

Still, he contends there’s a market for providing a music festival in the dead of winter, and better-than-usual ticket sales this year seem to prove him out.

The lineup is, as usual, eclectic. Consider two of the more peculiar performances.

One is Bonjay, a critically-acclaimed Toronto dancehall duo. The New York Times praised how their music “merges the brittle thuds and electro hoots of the producer Ian Swain’s tracks with the multifarious voice of the singer Alanna Stuart.”

The other is Joaquin Diaz, a Montreal resident who began playing accordion on the streets of Santo Domingo at age nine. A group of merengue dancers in Whitehorse are eagerly awaiting his arrival, said Epstein.

“He’s a true Latin dance master,” he said. “He rocks the hell out of the place. He has energy to spare.”

There’s also Eekwol, a Cree hip-hop singer, and Nathan Rogers, whose now-departed father, Stan, needs no introduction to Canadian folk enthusiasts.

And there is a whole swath of local musicians, performing everything from hillbilly to heavy metal: Sasquatch Prom Date, Jonas Smith, Electric Cheese, Nicole Edwards and the Joy Seekers, Death in Venice, Manfred Janssen, the Second Cousins and more.

The festival’s efforts to curb costs have set off grumbling among some local artists, who complain rates are a pittance compared to the Dawson City Music Festival. But that’s an unfair comparison, said producer Andrea Burgoyne.

Dawson may pay its few local artists handsomely, but Frostbite showcases Yukon musicians in far greater numbers: no fewer than 10, this year.

“We try to offer more opportunities to more artists, for a lesser rate, because they’re performing less,” she said.

Local performers are paid rates on par with local bars, said Burgoyne.

The festival would like to pay local performers more, she said. But it also has to stick to its five-year plan to pay off nearly $40,000 in debt.

Weekend passes cost $90 for adults, $75 for students and $60 for youth. Day passes cost $30 for adults and $20 for youth. Afternoon tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for youth.

Tickets may be bought at Arts Underground or the Yukon Arts Centre.

For a full schedule, visit www.frostbitefest.ca.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com