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Blue Feather Music Festival inspires the heart

Micki Free, a Comanche blues guitarist who has played with Santana and Prince, and Amanda Rheaume, is playing at the Blue Feather Music Festival November 8-10 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

By Amy Kenny

A blue feather is a symbol of hope. That’s why, when Gary Bailie established a music festival in Whitehorse in 2000, he named it the Blue Feather Music Festival. He did so to honour his late partner, Jolie Angelina McNabb, who died by suicide.

“Most people know how it started, but it’s where it’s gone and how it’s become a positive event in the community,” Bailie says over the phone during a quick coffee break between picking up posters for the 2019 event and knocking off the dozens of other to-dos on his list. While he speaks, his phone rings and buzzes with calls and texts. He’s two weeks out from the festival, which takes place at the Yukon Arts Centre from Nov. 8 to 10.

“Music and arts are healing and they’re a good choice for anyone,” he says. “This year’s theme for the festival is Light of Life, about the creative energy that comes from our hearts. Mojo. Everybody has it, whether they acknowledge it or not, or whether they do anything with it or not.”

This year, the festival consists of three days of substance-free shows featuring Indigenous musicians from the Yukon and beyond. Bailie says he met a number of this year’s performers at the Folk Alliance’s first-ever International Indigenous Music Summit, held in Montreal last February.

Digging Roots, who won the Juno for Aboriginal album of the year in 2010, will perform one night. So will Micki Free, a Comanche blues guitarist who has played with Santana and Prince, and Amanda Rheaume. He has won and been nominated for a number of Juno and Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Bailie says performers are attracted by the positivity of the event, but also by the hospitality they’re shown.

“They get treated to Yukon hospitality,” he says. “We take them out on the land and we take them dog-sledding and whatnot, so they have good experiences … they really like what the event is about and they love the Yukon too.”

Stevie Salas, an Apache guitarist who has played with everyone from George Clinton and Justin Timberlake, to Buddy Miles and Mick Jagger performed one year. Bailie says Salas was blown away by the experience.  

“He said he has been around the world a hundred times and never been anywhere quite like this. And that makes me proud because that’s the Yukon. Because that’s our home.”

Fiddle prodigy Sierra Noble, who is playing the Saturday and Sunday nights of this year’s festival, started singing for the first time on the Blue Feather stage years ago.   

“She says Blue Feather is the place where she found her voice.”

The festival has also had a huge impact on the behind-the-scenes players, says Bailie, who has worked in show lighting and tech for decades. There’s a real drive within festival organizers to engage youth, get them involved, hear their ideas and teach them how to bring those ideas to life.

Bailie once mentored an 11-year-old girl who wanted to know more about lighting. By the time she was 19, she was running the show.  

“And Buffy Sainte-Marie and Sass Jordan are coming up to me and saying it’s amazing and, to me, that’s my paycheque. That (that girl) has these skills now and she can take them anywhere.”

In that way, he says Blue Feather supports people in accessing their light, their mojo, their whatever you want to call it, in a way that works for them. You don’t have to be standing onstage and singing to be expressing yourself.

“We are here to not only show them the path, but to walk that path with them and support them … when you create something that’s beautiful and it’s something that comes from you and allows you to express how you feel? People need to get their emotions out. It’s ok to feel all those things, but it’s a question of where we direct those things to.”

Tickets and a full lineup for the festival are available at