By Patty Sulilvan
The Tundra Drums
You need a bath,
you can't flush, the dishes are piling high and the water truck isn't
coming by. Sound familiar? Familiar to some in Bethel, anyway. And that's
what singer and songwriter Michael Faubion puts to melodylife in
In his first album,
"Paris on the Kuskokwim," he sings of lifethreatening predicaments and
odd routines of the people who choose to thrive some 400 miles off the
road system alongside the permafrost with, say, an old truck as transportation.
"It's pretty preposterous
for people to live out here. It's not an environment fit for humans, but
we are here and we make the best of it," said Faubion, who despite being
a Bethel resident for the last eight years still manages to see the town
anew as someone from the Lower 48 might.
"Most places are
able to put water pipes in the ground or even have pipes. We get water
delivered by truck . . . most places you get in a cab and drive off, here
you share a cab."
He agrees that life
here hasn't been preposterous for the longtime Native culture that has
made a living subsistence hunting and fishing for centuries, but is a
bit absurd when it comes to the western culture of industrial technology.
"We expect a level
we're accustomed towe're trying to create Paris on the Kuskokwim
with paved roads. The ground doesn't want to be paved ... we're changing
our environment rather than trying to adjust to it."
All of which supplies
Faubion with ample, laughable material that includes sought-after water
trucks, plugged sewer tanks and rigs that rattle and shake with the ruts
in the roads.
"Because it's hard
to live here, it's good to get distance and laugh at it," Faubion said.
And laugh at it he does.
His songs, though
they speak to insiders, are also a quick lesson on Bush life for those
not in the Bush. He tells of Bethel cab drivers who he says inevitably
take you all over town, dropping off other customers before taking you
where you want to go.
He floods you with
the acronyms that Bethel is built on YKHC, AVCP, LKSD, ONC, KYUKcreating
what he calls an alphabet soup of Bethel businesses.
He tells of the dangers
of remote, rural life in "Ode to the Ice Road." When the Kuskokwim River
freezes it becomes a state highway, connecting this vast region by vehicles
only in winter.
"It's there when
it's cold and it ain't when it's hot ... Sometimes it's risky in a four-wheel
drive. You can come back dead or youcan come back alive on the Ice Road."
The same song tells
of the extreme weather flux. One day a Bethel resident is slipping on
ice, the next slogging through mud. The ground isn't a place of stability
And though he makes
a few jabs that might make some in the chamber of commerce cringe, such
as highlighting the drunks falling on cab floors, he also defends Bethel
against what he sees as its bad reputation.
"All across Alaska,
Bethel is a dirty word. But those of us who live here know the shocking
truth: It's a special case, it's a happenin' place ... No, it ain't exactly
heaven; sometimes it's downright grim. But to me it'll always be Paris
on the Kuskokwim."
Faubion said he got
the Paris phrase from a teacher, Mike Lane, who said it after coming from
a village to enjoy the amenities in Bethel, which seemed by comparison
"He was talking about
eating a steak at Gloria's, seeing a Bethel Actors Guild play, and going
over to Video World afterward and how you don't know how good it is,"
Faubion said. "He said when he came around the bend he could see the lights
across the river and it was like being in Paris on the Kuskokwim."
Despite calling it
the Twilight Zone, Faubion holds a loyalty for Bethel. His first three
years he wanted to leave he said, but then he became fond of a small-town
existence where drivers wave at neighbors in passing vehicles.
"Even though it's
isolated," said Faubion, "it's not like it's out of it things are
happening here. You learn more and do more here than anywhere else. Most
places you can't walk in and be on the radio or be a social worker without
a master's degree."
In a place like Bethel
you can. He's done both. He's also been a reporter, coach and now a computer
graphic designer. With his computer skills he has managed to turn the
local radio tower into the Eiffel Tower of Bethel on his album jacket.
It fits. He's married to the radio station's news director, Rhonda McBride.
Faubion's music is
often remakes and parodies of familiar tunes from the 1940s which he sets
to local Iyrics. You can learn a lot about Bethel geography in "Bethel
Cab Driver." You hear of the Brown Slough bridge, and Louse Town. And
in "Brown Slough Boogie" you learn of the Sewer Lagoon.
And "I Been Everywhere
in Alaska" is sure a tongue-twisting geography-teaching twirl as it takes
the listener from Prudhoe, to Chicken, Chuathbaluk, Nushagak and back.
Not all his songs
are seeking guffaws, however. "The Last Place on Earth" is a serious tune
built for thought.
"It's about finding
yourself here and you can't go any farther. There's a lot of suffering
from isolation and the weather. In spite of the absurdities there's also
things that give us pause to think, tragedies, this is where it all ends.
You can't get much farther and still be in America."
Faubion's album is
available at music stores in Anchorage and locally through his company,
Uncle Mike's Music Works. He produced the album in his attic with the
help of special guests Martha Scott, Archie Barnes, The Tundra Sisters,
Brian Sanders, Bobby Gregory, Mark Jenkins and Tod Nedrow.