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Back Roads Beat

Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

By Published: October 13, 2005
It's an icy land full of improvisational spirit and language meant more for ear than eye. But if Greenland's soul is ideal for jazz, finding the music is a challenge - to say nothing of requesting standards like "Inequnartumik Inuusamik."



The secret is starting at the right place.



The home of sousaphonist Hans Holmelund is perhaps a block from the Atlantic Music store/studio he designed, which is a few blocks from the downtown Nuuk clubs where weekly performances are heard much of the year. Beyond that are numerous tiny villages, none connected by road, where visitors may randomly encounter jams featuring 10-year- old drummers, choirs doing the "Jalousi" tango and - thanks to the whalers - polkas.



"If you are interested you can do it," said Holmelund, 68, who began playing violin at age 9 and joined the Dixie group Malene's Fodvarmere in 1989.



A flexible mindset is vital for appreciating the world's largest island - about three times the size of Texas - with its 80 percent ice-capped landscape more geologically aligned with nearby Canada than Denmark, which it's officially a part of. But Greenlanders emphasize their independence, noting they were the first to leave the European Union in 1985. Their domestic government is independent, freeing them from Danish political wisdoms such paying prostitutes to sleep with disabled residents, a new program being enacted while I was there.



Flights, businesses, concerts and other happenings may or may not be going sometime near their scheduled hour and/or day due to weather or other factors. Visitors may find modern niceties like Internet access in some communities and cell phones as prevalent here as most of Europe. But everyday life remains dominated by rustic elements such as box toilets lined with plastic bags (drivers do not want to get into a collision with a "chocolate truck") and serious devotion to sled dogs, whose vast dwellings get their own zoning designations on municipal maps. Whale meat is stocked next to the tater tots at grocery stores, although many residents continue getting their own through hunting. English may be spoken by someone at the most remote shop and unknown by a city worker at a major store (beyond "we're closed"). And just about everything is very, very expensive.



The upside is stunning scenery, unrivaled anywhere in the world except Antarctica for fans of ice, and a high ratio of welcoming attitudes from people visitors may not be able to exchange a word with. One can, however, also get trapped for days in rocky communities even locals describe as downright ugly and put off by curt attitudes, which oddly seem to occur most among those dealing regularly with outsiders in the "hospitality" industry.



Traveling here in search of jazz is like hoping to find a spouse during a seven-day Caribbean cruise: success is possible, but one better enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the unexpected discoveries at least as much as any actual results. In my case research proved more bountiful than three weeks of scouring various communities, but the latter obviously offered much richer cultural immersion and insight. What follows is a look at each.



Seeking roots in a land of ice



For those on an audio quest, the Greenlandic language is an intriguing, unwieldy or bizarre starting point, depending on one's point of view.



The Arctic Umiaq ferry serving as a marine highway for the western and southern coasts offers an insightful tidbit by explaining the origins of the word "Ittuk," used as part of the name of all its ships.



"You can almost hear what it means," a passenger guide states. "Try to say the word 'Ittuk' and listen to its melody - I'duk, duk, duk, duk. You see?"



"It is quite clearly the sound of an engine. The name goes back to the days when ships' engines had a different sound than they do today. There was this constant throbbing that was soothing, even during the worst storm. The word is part of the sound, which adds to create a feeling of security at sea."



That's a short word. Imagine the explanation behind "qimminnquaq" (puppy) or "atuagaasivik" (briefcase). Or what the translated lyrics of "Fly Me To The Moon" might sound like. Also, numerous variations of the Inuit-based language exist and it may easier to understand a visiting eskimo from Canada or Alaska than someone from the other side of the homeland. The perception of complexity, especially as a written language, isn't limited to outsiders - Holmelund said natives don't always make full use of their home dialect.



"When Greenlandic people read the news they read it in Danish because it's easier to understand," he said.



Greenland possesses some of the world's oldest musical roots, including drum dancing and throat singing that are part of its Inuit heritage, plus a strong modern Danish influence from the money and people streaming in. Most of Europe got exposed to American jazz during the 1920s, but Greenland's exposure to popular music didn't occur until decades later and the impact on current tastes is inevitable.



"Greenland is definitely a rock country, both musically and literally," wrote Hans Rosenberg, a multigenre drummer who one reviewer calls "the Steve Gadd of Greenland," in an e-mail interview.



Much of Rosenberg's current work is with rock and blues bands, but his immersion into traditional jazz as a youth was about as complete as one could expect. He started playing drums at age 7, was recruited into the now-defunct Nuuk Orleans Jazz Band - possibly the country's only jazz band at the time - at age 15, and played with Malene's Fodvarmere. He credits pianist/composer Jim Milne and conductor John Andersen as early teachers and influences, calling them exceptional talents in a highly limited environment.



"There were no opportunities to study drums or jazz, other than to put on some records and just try to hang on," he wrote. "That was how we all got started in Greenland back then. Every time a person would recommend me a jazz record, I'd usually buy it and play along to it until I could play it. There was no music library in Greenland back then, so I had to buy all the music I wanted to study. In Greenland, there's no way any musician could make a living by playing jazz."



Holmelund said he was in charge of a Nuuk jazz club five years ago that had about 400 members, but he got ill and his replacement failed to keep things going.



"You need to work if you want to be a director...now there is nothing," he said.



About 40 to 50 people usually attend regularly scheduled performances by Malene's Fodvarmere, most of which take place during non-summer months, Homelund said. Most are Danish, not Greenland natives, but he said they also tend to be attentive to the music rather than treating it as a background diversion.



There isn't anything especially Greenlandic about much of the classic jazz played by such groups (as can be heard on MP3s of "Canal Street Blues" and "Bourbon Street Parade" from Malene's Fodvarmere's out-of-print Volume 1, provided here with Homelund's permission). Even Homelund acknowledges there's nothing extraordinary about the recording and notes that, while the band's repertoire is largely the same years later, they've had that time to refine their individual and collective skills.



Still, there are intriguing works, even if some are difficult to find.



Guitarist Pele Moller's 2004 Live album, features a eight-member ensemble playing standards (or their chord schemes) with Greenlandic lyrics, so titles like "Naunnaarneq Pigigaanni" are credited to both Moller and Charlie Chaplin. In fairness, Greenlandic doesn't always come up on the high verbiage end, as "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" translates to "Ersinaq" on the album.



Despite the vast differences in length, there's a reason the lyrics fit so well.



"I think it's Greenlandic history," said Holmelund, who plays with Moller on occasion and works with one of his singers. "I don't know. I don't speak Greenlandic."



What might get overlooked in the novelty of Katsi Kleist's low-pitch and bouncy vocals are arrangements serving as more than obligatory backgrounds. There's enough mixing of instrumentatal emphasis to keep things fresh between songs of similar tempo and the solos, if not particularly long or creative, at least get beyond eight-bar rehashes of choruses.



Among modern players incorporating traditional elements into jazz is composer/pianist Kristian Blak, a longtime resident of the Danish-ruled Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway. He has led or appeared on dozens of albums during a 25-year career, which feature plenty of compositions, players and sounds from some of Greenland's more exotic areas.



Inuit music is "fantastically well for jazz/world (compositions), but as far as I know no one of the Inuit are searching for those inspirations," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "I hope that I am wrong."



His compositions include "Umiaq" from the album Broytingar, based on melodic themes from the northern village of Thule ("it is definitely not a traditional melody, but includes all the feelings of northernmost societies," he notes). The 11-minute song is a series of shorter minimalist and melodic concepts, with clipped notes (mostly flutes and piano) and percussion at relatively slow tempos. Another composition is "Ajukutooq," based on a kayak song recorded in 1906.



Among his albums with is 1989's Addeq, an eight-part suite with players and themes from the relatively sparsely populated east coast of Greenland, with drums from the region, dandelion stems and polar bear calls among the instrumentation credited to players. Those interested in music from the region will find it worth diving beneath the album's surface-level New Age feel, as the vocal/percussion combinations on songs with titles like "Parnaaliraaingaase" have genuine edge. It's conceptually interesting to hear Blak's piano flourishes, but too often the sonic result is a blunting that makes it more suitable as background music.



Milne's work also falls largely into the contemporary - the only example of his playing I encountered is the out-of-print 1994 Green Ice, White Land; White Ice, Greenland, a mix of substandard New Age and more accomplished fusion that is surprisingly inconsistent. Listening to the syrupy synthesized bells of the opening "Northern Light" might keep serious listeners from probing further and the next song, "The Arctic Revolutionary," is simply awful lightweight pop fusion. It's a shock, therefore, to reach "Full Moon Jazz" and hear a reasonably complex modern swing/fusion arrangement. The rest of the album dips into tango, 19th century folk, the Orient and more, all with similarly mixed results. The constant change-up of instrumental arrangements also means this probably isn't the place to start for those looking for a showcase of Milne's piano skills.



I was unable to track Milne down to get further insight into his work (he helped compose a number of songs on Moller's album, for example), but Rosenberg says he is still active with his own studio in Nuuk. That was disappointing, especially since Rosenberg calls his former mentor "one of the greatest jazz pianists I've ever heard."



"Jim decided to quit his musical career to become a missionary for the Bahai religion in Greenland," Rosenberg wrote. "If he had continued his career, I'm sure he'd been up there with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock."



Milne isn't a Greenland native - he moved there from the U.S. - and allowing for some movement there and away is necessary for compiling a decent-size list of accomplished musicians. Rosenberg, for instance, moved to Denmark after achieving his breakthrough work with rock acts during the 1980s, but tours Greenland and plays with a variety of band from there regularly (samples of his rock, blues and fusion work can be heard at his Web site).

The transient mentality is far more prevalent among younger and more urban dwellers than longtime residents living the traditional life of long-ago ancestors in small villages, hardly a surprise in culturally diverse areas worldwide. But all Greenlanders share more of a connection to the outside world then they might like to admit.



Most of the non top-40 music I saw for sale was by Danish musicians, as was nearly all of the downloadable music I searched for on the Internet with Greenlandic connections. One item of note is a free demo album by Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra (in RealOne format, but the songs can be saved and played without streaming), a burning modernistic freeform romp that happens to have a Greenlandic singer among its credits. Another site with at least loose connections include the Arctic Artists Network And Affiliation.



"Many Greenlanders already think they are independent," said Milne in a Nov. 30, 2000, article in the New York Times. But, interviewed at a Danish-funded cultural center in Uuk, he noted "the thorn is the money from Denmark. Everything you see that rises from the ground has been shipped in from Denmark, and paid by Denmark."



The hunt for jazz in Greenland: Scant opening notes



Jens Ole, 11, is proof musical talent can unexpectedly turn up anywhere.



It took a couple of hours after landing in the tiny East Greenland village of Kulusuk to encounter Ole, the youngest of a group of students doing instrumental jams in a barren room serving as the community center. The discovery was pure chance and little different than walking into someone's garage after hearing people rocking out inside, but rooting out such things proved necessary for profiling the jazz character of a land where many consider it all but nonexistent. Besides, if Lauryn Hill and Lionel Ritchie can headline jazz festivals on my travel itinerary, cutting some slack here seems acceptable.



There was nothing exceptionally good or bad about the kids and their classic rock repertoire compared to any similar American garage act. Ole blended in nicely on guitar and drums (mixing sticks and open-hand techniques on the latter) before making way for older kids. Most of the players didn't solo far from the melodies, but they were mercifully free of over-the-top and incompetent note flailing as well. The ordinary often takes on surreal qualities in remote places, however, unless one expects to finds things like the internet cafe now at Mount Everest base camp. Hearing the kids hash out things learned mostly by ear from radio meant experiencing the first step in the learning process of so many of their fellow natives. None of the students spoke more than a word or two of English, so most of my interaction was limited to seeing if I could steal enough chords from whoever was on guitar to blend in on a keyboard (I failed - badly).



Kulusuk is touted as Greenland's most visited tourist destination, but that's only because it's where day tours from Iceland land for a brief look at the landscape. The community is seemingly unaffected by the influx. There's no locals selling crafts and trinkets. Everyone offers friendly greetings in their native tongue, but there's nothing resembling a visitors' center or museum. Located a mile down a dirt road from the airport and an adjacent hotel, the only businesses is a single building with a post office and a grocery store selling a few extras like functional clothing and CDs (mostly top 40).



The slightly bigger community of Tasiilaq, which serves as the area's commerce hub, is a 10-minute ride by helicopter, a pricey but common option since the only practical alternative is arranging a ride from a fisherman with a boat, not always a sure thing. An overnight stop there was interesting from a tourist standpoint, but didn't advance the jazz quest much aside from lots of posters advertising a rare concert of Greenlandic music by a trio from the west coast. During a very brief interview with them at the airport when I got on the plane they were departing they said they're popular enough to play small villages, something of a rarity, but it's too expensive for anyone to do it more than occasionally.



A sizable store with groceries on one floor and general goods on another didn't seem to have any Greenlandic jazz CDs, nor did an ice cream and book store that was the only other obvious place with music. The dominant arts presence was crafts; there were several schools - a seemingly disproportionately high number given the population - with various student-made items hanging from windows.



A note for those considering a visit: Starting a tour of Greenland on the east coast may seem the obvious choice for tourists coming from Iceland, the closest and only entry point other than Copenhagen. But while offering some of the most sensational scenic and cultural possibilities, it is also financially and logistically . I consider my stop there a happy accident maintaining a deliberate ignorance about the final bill - had I known the cost in advance I'd almost certainly have bypassed it for the more traveled west coast.



Meanwhile, my quest for Greenlandic jazz was still awaiting its first real note.



Grounded at the airport; ascending in a cab



It's possible Greenland's ugliest town also gets the most visitors.



Fault lies with the U.S. military, which used the southcentral town of Kangerlussuaq as a military base from World War II and the Cold War era. The leftover industrial-strength runway makes this Greenland's main flight hub, although getting off the plane may mean spending a few days here since flights to many towns are scheduled only once or twice a week. There are several recreation facilities and bars of unusually high quality in strictly functional squarish buildings. A subtle indicator of the military's dominant presence is the electrical outlets still in many of those facilities are U.S. standard 110 volt plugs instead of the nearly universal European 220 volt ones.



One of main attractions are musk ox, both viewing and dining, although they aren't native to the area. The government brought 27 from the north during 1960s and supplemented the population for a few years, which is now big enough they can be hunted for food, horns and furs. One of initial herd affectionately took to the locals and refused to head into the hills, causing residents to worry it might wander onto a runway. Eventually it mauled someone and was shot, after which a country singer composed a song for him.



There's a music scene at the bars with maybe 10 musicians playing various material, although the closest thing to jazz apparently is a keyboardist named Peter who plays polkas. Getting insight from the town's most active bar player, a thrice-weekly vocal-and- keys act, proved elusive as he was indisposed when the bar's owner drove me to his apartment one afternoon and he called in sick that night.



Instead, much of my insight came from Andu, a taxi driver who shuttled me between the local youth hostel and the no-show bar encounter that night. I've gotten into the habit of polling taxi drivers about music preferences, since to date only one out of about the roughly 30 I've talked to during the past year expressed any interest in jazz.



This is not where I expected to encounter number two.



Andu said he's a fan of swing-era stuff that plays occasionally on the radio and he started playing guitar recently on a whim, although his jams with other musicians lean more toward popular music since that's what nearly everyone knows. Like almost everyone, he said Nuuk is the only place a person is likely to find jazz on a regular basis.



My closest exposure to it in Kangerlussuaq came, naturally, at the airport. In the cafeteria, one of only places I saw in Greenland with public wifi access, a group of about 10 people plotting strategy around several laptops turned out to be a blues band led by Denmark vocalist Hanne Boel. Her two-town tour was her second visit to Greenland - the first coming nine years ago - and by coincidence her next stop in the west coast town of Sisimiut also happened to be mine. She described playing here as a "happy go lucky experience."



"When it's a smaller city everybody knows you're coming," she said. "Before you can even take your coffee they know why you're there."



West Coast Cool



When on a nearly hopeless musical quest, going to a place called Diskko Bay inspires irrational hope.



The small towns, islands and inlets scattered in this iceberg-heavy mountainous coast offer what many consider Greenland's most spectacular scenery, and tourist traffic reflects this during the summer. The hub town of Sisimiut is full of tour guides, souvenir shops and lodging ranging from humble to lavish. One can walk to a hilltop 30 minutes from town observe the spectacular glaciers and ice floes, and keep going on foot or by dogsled for weeks if so inclined to other parts of the territory.



Looking at sealskin corsets costing hundreds of dollars is amusing, but a considerably more practical souvenir was the sealskin coat my wife found at a garage sale for $60. Similarly, a swanky hotel's weekly Greenlandic buffet sounded interesting, but I was happier sampling seal ribs fellow hostelers bought from a bloody table at a primitive market shop (better than whale, not as good as caribou). The hostel also has one of the more amiable hosts encountered and he shed light on the relative popularity of polkas, noting they're favored by transplanted Scottish whalers and one of the more amusing moments at clubs is watching "longhairs on guitar" who get so-so responses to rock liven things up with a Bohemian folk tune.



"Everybody young and old gets on the dance floor," he said. "You wouldn't see that in Denmark."



The nightlife scene is relatively promising, especially knowing about Boel's concert the final night of my three-day stopover. But none of the other one or two listed performances each night were remotely jazz related, and teens at the video store and older residents at bingo room outnumbered those during at least the opening sets of the mediocre bar gigs.



Boel's Saturday-night concert started an hour past its 10 p.m. advertised time, no big deal since other signs at the town's cultural/sports center like "no smoking" didn't mean much either. Several hundred people showed up, more of them standing than sitting - always a good sign at such shows. The band played a middle-intensity mix of originals and covers, with the most interesting touches being some Indian and other ethnic accents mostly performed by vocalist/bassist Moussa Diallo. Her group featured more diverse instrumentation and occasionally more sophisticated arranging than the average guitar- oriented R&B band, but also lacked the top-tier grit and firepower necessary for a standout show.



The rest of my time on the west coast was spent on a ferry to the south tip of Greenland, with the scenery and stops in various villages proving outstanding, but virtually no results furthering my search for jazz. The lone exception was an electronics store that had Moller's live album from last year.



Nuuk: A successful finale



Nuuk is Greenland's largest town with a population of 15,000 and, everyone agrees, ugly and not worth visiting. But this is relative, since it's hard to dislike a coastal town that also happens to have Greenland's only ski area of "international standard."



It's also where I managed my first and only encounter with a bona fide jazz musician, thanks to an elderly lady living under the Atlantic Music store that closed 10 minutes before I arrived. She spoke no English, but cheerfully tracked down the store owner at his home after I did some pantomiming and sketching on my notepad. He gave me Holmelund's number and the sousaphonist agreed minutes later to crash unannounced into his home for an interview that evening - my last in Greenland before an early morning flight out.



We listened to his album, one of the few copies left he has from the 2,000 tapes and CDs originally made, which he presented as a gift when I departed. At least as appreciated was his insight into venues, festivals and players he's been involved with over the years, giving me many of the leads I used to track down additional information.



Although the band is resuming their Dixie concerts this fall, Holmelund's stint on the Greenlandic scene is nearing its end as he intends to retire and move back to Denmark with his wife this year. He said he intends to keep playing music, but isn't sure where Greenland fits in those plans. In the meantime, he said he enjoys playing for audiences who are almost always appreciative no matter what might be on stage.



"There's only two types of music - good and bad performance," Holmelund said. "I like all types of music if it's in a good way."



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