Byron Nicholai is finding new audiences for an old-school art
About 600 people live in Byron Nicholai's hometown of Toksook
Bay, a Yup'ik Eskimo fishing village in Western Alaska. Five
times that many people listen when he sings.
A 16-year-old high school junior whose first language is Central
Yup'ik, Nicholai is quickly gathering an online following for
videos performing an old-school Alaskan art. Beginning in 2013,
Nicholai began recording clips of his singing and drumming on an
iPhone and posting the videos to a Facebook page he created called
"I Sing. You Dance."
The title for the page comes from something he noticed while
performing at Alaska Native dance festivals. Elders in the crowd
would inevitably start nodding their heads to the beat. He sang,
As of this week, the page had gathered more than 3,700 followers
and a loyal, growing fan base for songs that Nicholai said he often
makes up on the spot.
"Yesterday I just posted a video, it said that, 'In Alaska,
there are many different cultures, but me, I am Yup'ik,"
Nicholai said in an after-school phone interview.
'Let me take this drum and sing to all of you'
In another clip, the teen said he is singing a simple verse
about how people get around the village. "I said that, 'A
long time ago, they used to dog mush around here. A long time ago,
they used to travel with kayaks."
'Long ago when they used to use dog sleds'
Nicholai launched the page after posting a video of his singing
on his personal Facebook account and finding friends and family
loved the clip. "It turns out that my video got around 200
likes, and that wasn't normal," he said.
The I Sing You Dance page now has about two dozen videos. Some
are serious, some are silly, like the one where he performs Nicki
Minaj's "Anaconda" in high-pitched auto-tune.
All share a look that's instantly familiar to anyone who has
seen legions of singing and dancingteens serenading their webcams
on YouTube: Wearing a backward ballcap and T-shirt, Nicholai mugs
for the camera and introduces each song. The only-in-Alaska moment
comes next as Nicholai places a drum he made at a Goodnews Bay dance
festival to his face -- to give his voice an otherwordly echo --
and sings or chants in Yup'ik.
Linguists say that of the 19 remaining Alaska languages, Central
Yup'ik is the most commonly spoken and has the best chance
of enduring because children are learning to speak it in some Western
"My parents always talk with their kids in Yup'ik,
practically everybody in Toksook speaks Yup'ik, even the young
ones," said Nicholai, who is also a member of the Nelson Island
high school dance group.
Nicholai said he is thinking of recording his songs on a CD
and plans to pursue a computer science degree in college. For now,
the friendly comments he receives on his Facebook page have inspired
him to keep making videos.
"There's all these feedbacks, these nice feedbacks,
those are the ones that motivate me the most," he said.
Find KTUU digital director Kyle Hopkins at twitter.com/kylehopkinsak