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Back Roads Beat

Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

By Published: October 13, 2005
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.



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