Ross River musician Dennis Shorty grew up in a musical family that spoke Kaska and performed at social events.
Now he is sharing his love of the language through the musical duo he formed with his wife, Jennifer Froehling, is called Dena Zagi, meaning “people’s voice”. In August, they toured in Germany with their first CD, Gucho Hin (meaning Our Grandparents’ Song).
“The elders are all for us recording traditional songs in the Kaska language,” says Shorty.
They created their own chanting to incorporate into their performances. Whitehorse musician and sound artist Jody Walker worked with them on the recording at his Stackwall Sound studio.
Shorty and Froehling get their inspiration from the land. “Our music comes to us, just playing guitar and drumming out in the bush,” says Shorty.
“I might be sitting there looking at the mountains and find a chord while I’m thinking about my ancestors… my grandfather and grandmother and their stories.”
Froehling finds other inspiration from nature.
“We have a squirrel we call Benny and watching him one day just having a blast, enjoying being on earth, I hummed a little tune and put it into my flute. As soon as it came out I knew: that’s ‘The Benny Song’,” she says.
Another song came from Froehling’s Aunt Marlies. “The melody came to me and I knew it was my auntie speaking to me through my flute.”
Thinking and speaking Kaska is crucial to the duo’s songwriting. “I have to think in Dena to write the songs,” says Shorty.
It isn’t easy to come up with phrases that make sense and fit what he wants to express.
“One word by itself in Kaska might have one meaning, but in a sentence have many meanings.”
Shorty gives the example of translating his grandfather’s stories of “grandmother going around and around, setting snares,” which became “grandmother going around and around travelling” in the song.
Shorty’s younger sister, Linda, who teaches the Kaska language at the Ross River School, helps with the writing. “Another teacher in Ross River bought a CD to play at recess so kids can learn and hear their language come alive through music,” Dennis says.
“Because Kaska is not a written language, it continues to evolve as words are more clearly defined,” he adds.
Shorty is grateful for the help, which bridges the separation from his language he experienced during the 1960s and ’70s in mission school. Only when the class was in the bush could he speak, secretly, with the other kids from his area.
With financial support for the CD from the Yukon Film and Sound Commission, Dena Zagi is helping make the Kaska language accessible again, and to a broader audience.
The CD liners include English and German translations of the Kaska songs to accompany their music.
While in Germany, they were interviewed on Radio Corax in Halle. Here at home, Yukoners can hear Dena Zagi on CKRW The Rush.
Copies of Gucho Hin are available at Bearpaw Music and Gifts, which has a store in the Carcross Commons and in Whitehorse at 106 Main Street. The CDs can also be found at the Selkirk Gas Bar in Pelly Crossing, the Ross River Dena Store, the Faro Information Centre, “and in my purse,” says Froehling.