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Back Roads Beat

Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

By Published: October 13, 2005
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.

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