In April, Musack ventured to the coldest tip of the Cold War – literally and figuratively…. We took guitars to the site of a former US army base in the wilds of Alaska that has been converted into a public boarding school for Native kids.
En route we spent a few days in Fairbanks dog sledding, snowmobiling, and enjoying the aurora borealis.
We fly from Fairbanks to Galena on Ravyn air. It’s so Ravyn. The town of Galena is OUT there. There are no roads in or out. Snow everywhere. This makes The Shining seem like a spa retreat. If you are bundled up enough to survive the subzero temps, you can dogsled or snowmobile on the frozen river “ice highway” and make the 3-4 day journey to the next tiny village.
We’ve landed on the former army base’s airstrip. The base was built during World War II as the first line of defense to a Soviet invasion. The hangers used to house four nuclear armed air to air fighter jets. The former hangers, officers’ quarters, barracks, etc. now house Gila – Galena Interior Learning Academy-- which serves as a public boarding school for over 75 villages of native Alaskans from all over the state. While Galena seems completely isolated and super tiny (only 400 or so residents – down from 700 after a devastating flood 4 years ago), it is the “big city” for these kids. Or at least a chance to experience a bigger world. Many of the isolated native villages they come from have less than a hundred tribe members and home schooling is the only option and sometimes not even an option. Gila is a huge opportunity for the 250 or so high school kids who attend. They are taught everything from math and science to electrical engineering and small craft pilot operation.
It is a public school and as such faces the same tough budget choices all American public schools face when it comes to funding the arts. Which is why we have come armed with four guitars to give to school music teacher Natalie and program director Ben. They give us the full tour and rundown on the musical arts program – essential in a town with almost no other businesses or places to go (there is one café with excellent home cooking. Thank you for the amazing fried chicken and hot coffee Shirley!!). Natalie and Ben have converted a former officers’ lounge into two musical spaces -- loud rock and soft rock… basically.
The kids here can rock out fully electric -- The Beatles are popular since there is a Beatles cover band that visits Galena once a year… and also since they are the Beatles. OR soft rock it with cellos, violins, ukuleles, etc. Natalie is an accomplished cellist and lover of musical theater. She explains that they are a couple weeks away from performing their fall production. You can see clips of some of the kids performing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROARBj2Ip-4 Note: some pretty mean Cream about 20 minutes in.
The new show is all original out of necessity… since licensing anything from Broadway is cost prohibitive. I mention that Musack has funded some school play licensing through our MARA fund – Musical Arts Riting and Arts fund -- and they should reach out next year if we can help with anything. (PS. If anyone knows a way around paying these licensing fees for small town school productions let us know. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but surely the owners of Broadway shows can waive the fees so that kids in remote places who are not profiting can still do the productions.) Can’t wait to see the show! Break a leg!
They are thrilled to get the guitars as well as packets of extra guitar strings and pics. We also leave some Musack T-shirts and are thrilled to accept some home brewed Galena T’s in exchange. Love the sentiment – “Make music, not war” -- which resonates even more here on the grounds of a former cold war outpost. Instead of fighter jets it is now harboring kids… We are happy to be arming them with guitars. We hope that they will take them back to their villages or onto the bigger villages they encounter and that they continue to share their songs with us.
Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible: Godwana Travel, Andy at MooseCabs, Daniel Lum, A Taste of Alaska Lodge, all the nice people we met at UAF!