Athabascan Fiddle Festival shows no sign of slowing down

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) 11-08

 Louise Britton, left, David Chanar Sr., center, and Gabe Evan
practice in the kitchen of the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall,  in 2007 before taking the stage at last years' Fiddle Festival.

AP/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Photo

No one has to coax dancers onto the dance floor at the Athabascan Fiddlers Festival.

Shortly after the opening strains of fiddle and guitar music starting bouncing off the pole ceiling during November at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall, dancers took to the floor two-stepping in time to Western ballads and blues.

The four-day fiddling festival is in its 26th year and shows no signs of slowing down.

Hundreds of locals turn out to visit with hundreds of friends and relatives pouring in from Interior communities and elsewhere to join in the fun, some taking their place playing music on stage and many others whirling around the dance floor.

Lorraine David, raised in Hughes, and a Fairbanks resident since the 1970s, said she attends each year to dance, listen to music and visit with people.

David pointed out her parents, Joe and Celia Beetus, who were sitting at one of the banks of tables on two sides of the dance floor set up specifically for elders to give them a good view of the action.

Joe, 92, and Celia, 86, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last June, their daughter said. “My mom can’t see, and dad can’t hear, so they help each other,” she said.

TCC Security guard Jonas Poncho was door sentinel, with an ear to the music.

“Energetic” is how Poncho described the crowd.

“It’s so cold outside, but you couldn’t believe the energy they have in here,” he said.

There was plenty of toe tapping going on in the hall’s spacious kitchen where dozens of guitar and violin cases were strewn across stainless steel counters and leaning up against cabinets. In various corners, small pods of musicians hunkered together while warming up for their half-hour gigs.


Robert Wonhola of New Stuyahok was tuning up his electric guitar with a small electronic meter, while Virgil Neketa of the same Yup’ik village was fiddling nearby with two senior musicians from Nulato Victor George Sr., 80, and William Ambrose Sr., 66.

Age makes no difference when you’re jammin’ and the music is flowing.

“We’re just like one big family, this whole crew,” Ambrose said. “This is the time for gathering. People live for this jamboree once a year.”

Ambrose started playing the guitar when he was 18 or 19.

“I learned to play by watching the elders,” he said. “I used to sit and watch the elders, and then I dreamt about it and dreamt about it and then I tried it.”

And he’s been playing music ever since and teaching young people along the Yukon River to play, too.

Bill McCarty Jr. of Ruby is proficient on guitar, violin and mandolin and has attended and played at 23 of the 26 Fiddlers Festivals throughout the years.

McCarty started twanging on a guitar as a teenager during the 1950s, learning from older men at gatherings in Tanana and Galena. Soon, he was playing backup and memorizing the tunes and songs.

“One day about 15 years ago, I just picked up a violin and started playing that,” the retired carpenter said. “I like the fiddle music.”

Some of McCarty’s favorites are country music, especially Hank Williams tunes.

McCarty has taught his son, William III, who was tutored by Herbie Vent, Bergman Esmailka and the late Jimmy Malemute. His grandson, Gerald McCarty, also learned from his grandpa.

The newest member of the family musicians is his wife of 45 years, DeeDee, who plays backup.

McCarty said he has kept the music going in his family and elsewhere to encourage healthy lifestyles.

“I try to teach my kids so they could have fun without alcohol,” he said.