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Back Roads Beat

Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

By Published: October 13, 2005
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."

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