On a rainy Friday afternoon, Esther Hanviriyapunt - known by her stage name, Esther Hana - sat down at the Cultural Center's piano and warmed up for her Bethel debut. A renowned musician with a brisk, warm smile, she's performed in Zurich, Bangkok, and Chicago. And now, she’s played in Bethel too.
The concert was a benefit for the Bethel Family Clinic, and the brainchild of a clinic dentist who just wanted to help out a friend.
Testing out the mic to her left was Juliana Tinker, a dental assistant with waist-length black hair who was still dressed in her clinic scrubs. She and Esther were preparing to sing together. Juliana’s boss, dentist Dr. Michael Merzin, came to watch them practice during his lunch break. He quietly started to cry.
"Everything is perfectly falling into place, knock on wood," said Michael. "I hope we get a lot of people."
Juliana and Michael are the reason that Esther came to Bethel in the first place. Juliana grew up in Kasigluk and loves to sing. She sings to her friends on their birthdays; she sings around the office at work. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, her boyfriend’s sister took her to a local karaoke night, where she sang "Kiss Me" and "These Boots Are Made For Walking". Before she left, a man in the crowd pulled her aside.
"This guy stops me and says, 'Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you've got a beautiful voice. Would you like to come and sing for my band?'" said Juliana. "And that’s when my jaw dropped."
Juliana really wanted to, but was flying back to Bethel the next morning.
"I told him that if I was living here [in LA] and if I didn't have kids, I would definitely do it," she said. "But I can't."
When Juliana told her boss about what happened, Michael was moved by it. "I wish she could’ve stayed in LA for a while and sung with a rock band!" he said.
Michael's from Chicago, and there's quite a music scene there too. He also just happened to know an internationally renowned pianist. Esther Hana lives in Chicago and is a friend of Michael's wife. If Juliana can’t go to Chicago, he thought, then maybe he could bring Chicago to her.
Michael told Esther about the Bethel Family Clinic. She was sold on the idea of performing at their benefit concert, and was particularly looking forward to performing with Juliana.
"I’m going to be singing "Amazing Grace" in Yup'ik," Juliana said. She and Esther had rehearsed together earlier in the day.
That night at the cultural center, about a dozen people filed in to watch the performance. Esther Hana walked on stage wearing a hot pink dress and silver sequins. She was at ease with the crowd and peppered her set with jokes to loosen them up. When it was time for Juliana to sing, she walked on stage looking nervous.
The performance was a little soft and a little slow. Juliana's voice grew louder as she sang through "Amazing Grace's" second verse. After it was over, Esther won a cake at the silent auction and insisted on slicing it up herself and sharing it with the audience. Singing with Juliana was delightful, she said, and she encouraged her and other musicians to keep working on their craft.
"I think they should listen to good performers," she said. "And then develop your ear by playing along with others and singing with them. You can phrase songs or pieces better if you can breathe with them."
After the performance, Juliana walked over to a friend in the back row and picked up her smartphone. “Did you hear it?” she asked. “Did you hear it?” Her mother was listening in from Kasigluk on speakerphone to one of her daughter’s first performances.