Frontiers 135: Zuill Bailey: A Messenger of Music
This week on Frontiers we take you on a musical adventure to Mekoryuk, a tiny community on an island in the Bering Sea, where the reindeer far outnumber the people.
Mekoryuk has seen its share of celebrities, who come mostly to hunt the musk oxen and bring home big trophies. But on Feb. 7, Zuill Bailey came with his cello in tow, with Piers Lane, a London pianist -- to play classics like Beethoven and Chopin at an evening performance. For many in the audience, it was the first time they ever been to a concert.
Bailey, as artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival, tries to venture out to Rural Alaska during the winter. He says he’s always thought of his cello as a torch – and it’s a good time to bring light to the darkness.
This year, he toured Western Alaska with stops that included Bethel and a drive up the frozen Kuskokwim River to Kwethluk.
In Mekoryuk, I can’t say which was more fun – watching Zuill Bailey play his cello -- or watching the kids, watch Zuill.
Here are some of the highlights of this week’s show:
- Man on a Mission: For two days, Zuill Bailey shares his love of classical music with children at the Nuniwarmuit School, with help from pianist Piers Lane.
- Conversation with Zuill Bailey: A cultural exchange in Kwethluk and why it’s important for musicians to give back.
Will Mader, our main Frontiers photojournalist, and I camped out in the school for this story. It was fun to watch the principal, Walt Betz, run from one thing to the next.
Although the Nuniwarmuit school has only 40 children, I don’t think I’ve seen a busier principal. I love his motto: Make love visible – and throughout the school, you see so many examples of that.
Walt said Bailey’s arrival came at a perfect time. A new teacher had recently bought a bunch of ukuleles with his own money, to give students a chance to learn to play an instrument.
Right after breakfast, the older students have free time to play their instruments or a little basketball. The cacophony of the bouncing balls and ukulele strumming was a little overwhelming, but it was a joyful sound. The riff to Cream’s Sunshine of your Love rolled off of just about every instrument, a sign that the kids had begun to master more than just chords.
There isn’t a lot of opportunity in Mekoryuk to hear live music unless you make it yourself. Betz says he’s sure the school has never had a cello in it before, nor a piano. The last one burned down in a school fire decades ago – and efforts to replace it after the new school was built was rife with too many costs and too many logistical hurdles.
For the evening concert, Piers Lane played on a portable piano, brought in just for these Rural tours –and surprisingly, it sounded very much like the real deal. Lane’s liquid hands flew all over the keyboard – with the faces of elders and children alike lit up in amazement. He told the crowd he normally plays on grand pianos – and this was the first time he had performed on an electric keyboard before. But Lane didn’t appear to lose a beat.
So who picks up the tab for all of this? There were two main sponsors for the Sitka Summer Music Festival’s Western Alaska tour this February -- ConocoPhillips and the Rasmuson Foundation’s Harper Touring Arts Fund, named after Jerry and Sandy Harper, who brought Cyrano’s Theatre to Anchorage.
I hope this story brings you some of the joy experienced in Mekoryuk. We also had footage of the Bethel and Kwethluk tours, courtesy of Mary Totten, an Anchorage ear, nose and throat doctor, who also has a passion for making documentaries. She’s working with Paul Emami, a Los Angeles filmmaker, to do a documentary on Zuill Bailey called “Through the Music.”
What a great title, because as you’ll see in this week’s Frontiers, so much happens “through the music.”