Preservation project nears completion
From a young age, Josie Jones was instilled with a passion for traditional Dena’ina songs. She hopes that her efforts to preserve those songs in written form will inspire the same passion in others.
“I hope and pray that the people who end up with the songbooks continue to use them, so our music and culture are preserved forever,” said Jones.
Jones has been putting the finishing touches on what she describes as a seven-year passion project: a written collection of the words and music to the songs she learned in her youth as a member of the Jabila’ina Dance Group and participant in the Tribe’s Yaghanen youth programs.
Jones’ mother, Maggie Jones, was involved with the Yaghanen program and a longtime leader of the Jabila’ina Dance Group. Jones said that she and her twin sister, Alison, inherited their mother’s love of music.
“My mother was very passionate about the music, and made sure that the kids all knew what the songs were, and were excited to do that,” Jones said.
Jones started her song preservation work when she was a junior in college, studying for her Vocal Performance degree. Previous versions of the songbook, including the one from 2006 that she was using, had words to the songs, but not the melodies.
“Our songs come from an oral tradition, so they don’t have specific writing, and they’re taught person-to-person,” Jones said. “What was written down didn’t necessarily have a melody line to show what the song sounds like. That was something, while I was in college, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe the Tribe could use this.’”
Two other events gave an urgency to Jones’ work. Her mother passed away in 2017, and the pandemic in 2020 made Jones realize how easy it would be to lose traditional knowledge and culture if people aren’t actively sharing it.
“When my mother passed away in 2017, it left a huge hole in the Tribal community, especially when it came to the dance group and the music. I wanted to make sure that my mother’s legacy continued with the most accurate, up-to-date form of the music that could be preserved,” Jones said.
Jones worked from her old song sheets and a CD recording of the songs that was made in 2006, listening to the songs and putting the notes into a music transcription program.
“I would just go note for note, making sure that, ‘Is this what it sounds like? Is this what it is on the recording?’” Jones said. “And then what I would do is use the 2006 book, and put the words and description into the music.”
Jones spent about two years working through the songs on the CD, but hit a sticking point in 2019 with a song in the 2006 songbook that she couldn’t remember. It wasn’t on the CD, so she started reaching out to others to figure out the tune. During that process, she learned that before she passed away, a recording had been made of her mother singing and dancing all of the songs.
It was initially thought that the recording had been lost due to a technical issue, but when she approached the Tribe looking for resources to complete the project a year and a half later, she learned that the recording had been recovered.
“So, I was able to finish up the songbook. I always thank my mother for helping me with this last part of the project, especially since this video is so fantastic for making sure that the music is always preserved,” Jones said.
Jones said she is grateful to all who helped her with the project, including past and present Yaghanen teachers, Jabila’ina Dance Group members and their parents, and others who have helped fill in the gaps along the way.
All told, the new songbook includes the words and music to 29 songs. Jones said her sister contributed artwork, making it a family project.
“Each song is either traditional, so thousands of years old, up to songs that are current, so songs that my mother wrote for the Tribe back in the 2000’s that the Jabila’ina Dance Group still uses today,” Jones said. “Another bit of the songs were gifted to the Tribe from other tribes. It’s really awesome to see this collection of tons of history, and awesome melodies, all put together in one place.”
Jones said her favorite song in the book is one that her mother wrote called Heyi K’elik’a, which means Winter Song.
“It’s like a country Dena’ina song about playing in the wintertime,” Jones said.
Jones said her favorite traditional song is Mosquito Song, which starts with the line, “A man had a misfortune.”
“It’s just too fun,” Jones said.
Jones said the songbook project has helped her grow as a musician. She is learning Dena’ina, and hopes to eventually write a song in Dena’ina for her band.
Another part of the project was to develop some new music to help teach Dena’ina.
“Teachers now have access to a ton of songs to help them learn the language and share it with children. They have new songs they can use to further their understanding of the language, and have fun doing it,” Jones said.
As she has developed her music preservation skills, she also sees the potential to recover additional music through archival recordings.
“The big thing is, when it comes to this project as a whole, why I really did it, what it boils down to is my mom,” Jones said. “A lot of things have changed since she passed. I’m really grateful that I did this to help the Tribe, and to make my mother proud