Alaska has long been known for its traditional music and artistic roots. Today’s listeners may associate popular singers like Jewel with the northern-most state of the Union, but Alaskan music stretches across all genres and styles. Today the state boasts intricate jazz, folk, and popular music scenes—there really is something for every type of music lover and performer in Alaska.
Whether you’re a resident or are visiting for fun, one of the most enjoyable ways to experience the music of Alaska is by attending festivals. Take a look at five of the biggest and most popular Alaskan festivals that feature music:
Sitka Jazz Festival – February
This three-day event filled with workshops and performances is tailored to jazz music lovers of all ages. The idea for the Sitka Jazz Festival started in 1995 with “jazz nights” at Sitka High School and was meant to inspire students and provide more performance opportunities. The gatherings became so popular that famous jazz musicians from the region and other parts of the country wanted to get involved and perform.
Some famous names associated with the Sitka Jazz Festival include John Santos, Alon Yavnai, Bill Watrous, Steve Turre, Kristin Korb, John Clayton, Ingrid Jensen, Claudio Roditi, Freddy Cole, and Lembit Saarsalu.
In 2005, the first official Sitka Jazz Festival took place in a venue that accommodated 1,500 people at a time. It continues to grow every year, as more students return to learn and play and more artists ask to get in on the fun. The 2014 Sitka Jazz Festival will take place February 6-8.
Alaska Folk Festival – April
This annual celebration focuses on the folk music of the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and, of course, Alaska. It is held in Juneau and features a wide variety of performances for music lovers. Over the course of one week, there are nine total concerts with a variety of 15-minute acts in each. There are also musical workshops for people who want to learn to play, sing, or write their own folk music.
This festival is truly for the people—there are no auditions, and anyone who wants to perform is allowed to! Admission is free and the entire week is made possible by volunteers and other donations. The 2014 festival will take place April 7-13 with Ketchikan folk artist Ray Troll headlining.
Celebration – June
Also known as the Alaska Festival, this biennial gathering is about more than music. Everything from dance performances to a juried art competition to soapberry contests are part of this celebration of Alaskan culture—the largest of its kind. It began in 1982 and brings thousands of residents and out-of-towners together in the state capital of Juneau. The festival is planned by the Sealaska Heritage Institute with the purpose of bringing families together to celebrate the ancient traditions and languages of Southeast Alaska. There will be a Celebration gathering in 2014 from June 11-14.
Since 1980, this festival has brought in all types of acts, from bluegrass performers to sculptors to healing artists. It began as a jazz festival but soon outgrew that narrow classification. The two-week festival now has over 30 performances that are open to the public, and many of them are free. There is plenty of room for amateurs, but the evening performances tend to feature big names in the arts, particularly in Alaska.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is the festival’s host and so many of the activities are geared toward learning experiences and workshops for the public. Some of the workshops and concerts come with a fee to help fund the event, but at least half of the budget comes from government grants, donations, and business sponsorships. The 2014 Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival will run from July 13-27.
Alaska State Fair – August
Music lovers certainly have a reason to head to the annual state fair held in Palmer, Alaska in late summer. The fair has actually been taking place for longer than Alaska has been a state—the first one was held by farming colony families in 1936. Close to 300,000 people visit the 10-day event that features everything from midway games and rides to farm animals. In 2010, a 46-foot gourd was the main attraction because of its record-breaking size.
There is plenty of local and regional music on several stages throughout the fairgrounds. Big musical draws are usually part of the lineup too. In the past, popular artists like Kenny Rogers, REO Speedwagon, Emerson Drive, Boys II Men, Uncle Kracker, and One Republic have graced the big stage and sung to sold-out crowds. Though there are many mainstream musical attractions, Alaskan music is still a thriving and important part of the fair. The Alaska State Fair will be held August 21-September 1, 2014.
No matter your musical preference, the Alaskan music scene is one to check out. Have you visited any of the music festivals listed here? What would you recommend for first-timers?