Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007
When the U.N. needs a place to send refugees fleeing war-torn Africa, the northern tip of mainland Norway doesn't seem like a natural fit.
But David Akoiwala, a construction worker from Liberia, found himself in the Arctic town of Vadso after family members were killed in attacks and he encountered an equally volatile situation in Sierra Leone. He's not a musician, but organizing a gospel choir with his fellow refugees to promote harmony with each other and their new community was an easyand positivestep after the drastic cultural leap of their relocation.
"The talents we have from Africa we can contribute to this country and, if time will permit us, we can make Africa a better place," he said.
Appreciation of their music and mission was evident among locals and visitors packing into the towering Vadso Kirke church for a goodwill gospel/Dixieland concert featuring musicians from seven countries as part of the 25th annual Varangerfestivalen from Aug. 8-12. The event is northern Norway's biggest jazz festival with more than 30 concerts primarily by musicians from the Barents Sea region. Several well-known and international performers, including Jan Gararbek and Nils Petter Moelvaer at this festival, are also featured.
"We are a small place far from Oslo," said Stein Ovesen, chairman of the festival's board. "I don't think people realize we can put on Norway's best jazz festival here."
Vadso, a fishing village since the 1500s, is part of an Arctic region that's home to Europe's oldest-known music. The community was settled largely by Finland residents fleeing famine after it became a township in 1833. A significant Finnish-speaking population remains and the town 200 miles above the Arctic Circle continues taking in those in precarious situations, with 500 to 600 modern-day refugees among the 6,000 residents.
Akolwala, a refugee from 2004, and his fellow countrymen became part of a 30-member choir at Varangerfestivalen backing the Ytre Suløens Jazz Ensemble, featuring vocalists T.C. Hawkins and Tricia Boutté. It is their third performance with the ensemble, after they and about 1,000 other Liberian refugees from around Norway gained notoriety in Bergen for what became an annual gospel church concert and celebration of Liberia's independence day on July 26.
"We try to come here as Africans because if you go to a strange society where English is not spoken it is difficult to make that first contact," he said.
A capacity crowd of about 450 gave a standing ovation to this year's Vadso concert, with Hawkins, Boutté and longtime Suløens trumpeter Kåre Nymark Jr. dominating the 90-minute collection of familiar Southern tunes. At this and most performances there was a sense of appreciation for the artistic quality, not just the novelty, from an audience with a well-educated communal ear.
"It's intensely developed," Boutté said. "I've worked with some of the best musicians in this country of 4 million because they're intensely interested in it."
Boutté is a refugee of a different sort, relocating from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to a village on Norway's west coast thanks to efforts by those in Suløens' band.
"She was watching her home being destroyed on TV," Nymark said. "We got her an apartment to stay in during gigs and the owner just ended up saying 'take it' (for a near-giveaway price)."
Adjusting wasn't difficult, Boutté said, although she discovered the locals wanted her to bring her lyrics, as well as her clothes, from home.
"I learned to sing a few Norwegian tunes and they're not interested in hearing them," she said. "They want me to sing in English."
Total attendance at the festival was estimated at 10,000, with locals slightly outnumbering outsiders coming almost entirely from other parts of Norway and northern Scandinavia. Among the noteworthy aspects of this year's listeners was how many came for the full slate of shows.
"They've sold 10 times as many (all-access) passes this year as they've ever sold," said Nick Williams, a longtime self-proclaimed dugnad (gopher) whose actual duties far exceed the description. "It's a mixture of a huge international hero (Garbarek) and local good guys."
There some blues and world music concerts, plus rock and techno bands headlining the final night's shows, but Williams said this festival returned to its original roots of emphasizing mostly jazz after trying to appeal to a broader audience in recent years.
"Generic festivals are two to a pennythey're everywhere," he said. "If you have a niche festival it will win."
The Birds And The Beaches
The traditional structure this far north in Alaska is the igloo. In Vadso the round mounds dotting the landscape are hay.
Vadso is at 70°04 degrees north, roughly equal to Alaska's northernmost community of Barrow, 1,300 miles from the North Pole. Barrow is a frozen desert, with five inches of average annual precipitation and below- freezing temperatures year-round. In Vadso locals spent much of the first day of Varangerfestivalen working up a sweat on miles of green farmland and flocking to the beach to cool off in the Arctic Ocean.
Full disclose: this isn't an everyday thing.
"This is the nicest beach in the world when the weather's nice," Williams said. How often is that? "I've been there maybe 20 times in 17 years."
But the Norwegian community, whose name means "the island with drinking water," is lush for being far north of the Arctic Circle. Green hills strewn liberally with flowers and short rocky peaks run along the coast instead of the glacier-crusted fjords to the south. Eider ducks and other birds dot the shores liberally. The farms are a startling contrast to barren permafrost and ice of Alaska's North Slope, where it often costs more than $5 for a loaf of white bread or a half gallon of milk, forcing locals to live primarily on subsistence hunts of whale and caribou.
"This is basically an area where people have survived," Williams said. "You would have a couple of sheep and cows and a wife on land, and then be at sea. This is the time of gathering."
The Gulf Stream and mountains shielding the town from Arctic winds moderate temperatures. Summers are cooler and damper than the country's interior, keeping gardeners from planting much until June, but winters are more likely to be 10 degrees Fahrenheit than the minus 30 degrees ice fogs of Barrow. Snow and harsh conditions can keep flights from getting in, but Williams said Vadso has never been cut off entirely for a significant period of time during his 17 years here.
"I would say we've definitely noticed global warming," he added. "There's less snow and there's more warm weather."
Modern-day Vadso is an administrative and commercial hub for the surrounding Finnmark region, with farming and fishing relegated to secondary roles. Tourism is also significant, although less so than better- known nearby communities such as Kirkenes, the endpoint for Norway's highly popular Hurtigruten coastal ferry (Vadso is the second-to-last stop, but only on the northbound trip at 6 a.m. and only for the few minutes necessary to load/unload a few transiting passengers).
Among Vadso's claims to fame is serving as the airstrip Umberto Nobile and Roald Amundsen used for their historic flight to the North Pole in 1926. The city center was heavily damaged by World War II bombing attacks in 1944 but, according to a regional government narrative, "many of the buildings remained standing, and today Vadsø has more preserved and renovated buildings than any other place in Finnmark."
Poverty was rampant in the suburbs and surrounding area until the 1950s, when oil and post-war development brought dramatic change, Williams said.
"There's been a huge development of wealth in Norway in the course of one generation," he said.
A fledgling investor at the beginning of the 1990s helped turn Vadso into a "starting point for refugees," Williams said. He said the Norwegian government was desperate for space to use as a hostel for refugees from Kosovo and the man had purchased an abandoned hospital without succeeding in efforts to develop it into something else.
"They were all over the country looking for places these refugees could stay," he said. "This guy basically went into the refugee business...then the wars started in Bosnia."
There's a small amount of debate about the assistance refugees receive indefinitely if they cannot find work, but most Norwegians accept the situation, William said. But he said refugees may acclimate better in places where there are limits such as the United States.
Being a regional hub means other quirks in the population's makeup ("the number of lawyers who work here is unbelievable," Williams said) and also more cultural activity than typical for a town of this size.
"The first year I was here I went to more concerts, theaters and plays than in seven years in Oslo," Williams said.
Yoiks And Away!
Finnmark's ancient music is the yoikshort, rhythmic melodic phrases by individuals or casual groupsperformed by the region's aboriginal Samis for more than 2,000 years (listen to extensive free MP3 collections by traditional and modern artists). It was frequently banned or suppressed, according to an article by Chris Campion in the British newspaper The Observer.
"Yoik became the devil's music," Campion writes. "Wherever Christianity met indigenous culture...it brought not only the Holy Trinity but an unholy one too: the bottle, the cross and the axe (the rule of law)."
"In Norway, from 1850 onwards, a policy of enforced assimilation meant that Sami children as young as six were sent to boarding schools, where they were taught in Norwegian. An estimated 140,000 Sami were also sterilised in eugenics programmes that operated across Scandinavia until the 1970s."
A revival of Sami culture and music has occurred since, including a traditional performance in the attic of an ancient farmhouse-turned-museum during Varangerfestivalen.
"A yoik is not a song but a resonant melodic phrase, sung unaccompanied and repeated through various iterations with no fixed beginning or end," Campion writes, noting groups are more "in cheery discord" than perfect harmony. "Traditionally utilised to induce a trance state in Sami shamans, it is a music essentially animist in nature. Yoiks are not sung about something but considered a rhythmic signifier of the actual thing itself, be it a place, an event, a family member, associate or an animal, especially reindeer. According to Sami practice, a yoik is not composed but received through adjagas. After a yoik is first invoked, it shimmers into eternity, hanging in the air like a memory, waiting to be recalled."
Numerous modern musicians incorporate elements of yolk, most commonly in rock, techno and rap. A relatively well-known jazz example is Garbarek's "Aichuri, The Song Man" from Legend Of The Seven Dreams (it's also part of his ECM Selected Recordings compilation. Vocalist Marie Boine, a Varangerfestivalen regular who's promoted as "Finnmark's county's greatest international artist," also features it heavily as part of her world music sextet (free MP3 performance).
Varangerfestivalen, now Vadso's biggest annual event, was launched as part of an effort to make the town a cultural as well as economic hub. It's generally been well attended since the beginning, although various tweaks to boost attendance such as featuring a greater ratio of non-jazz performers have been attempted over the years. Williams said attendance is now about what the town can accommodatemost available lodging is booked well in advance and a number of private homes rent roomsand returning to an emphasis on jazz should keep that level of interest strong.
Perhaps the biggest change for this year's festival was headliner concerts for the first time weren't performed in a large tent set up in the city square, said Stein Ovesen, the festival's director. Unlike some festivals where social merriment is encouraged among crowds, organizers wanted audiences focused on the stage.
"We realized many people were drinking and talking and disturbing the concerts," he said. "You make a lot of money, but people write the newspapers saying 'Is it good or is it bad?'"
This year's main stage was the industrial-looking Vadsøhallen sports complex, where a cavernous main room and bleaches resembles a high school gymnasium. Workers spent days before the festival installing temporary lights, soundproofing and other equipment to make it suitable for professional performances.
"When you don't have a good stage you make one," Ovesen said.
He said they also tried to add more mid-day events this year for those not going crab fishing or on other expeditions
The festival's longevity means a broader musical portrait of the community, expanding both the genres and potential listenership within the jazz realm, Ovensen said.
"We can show artists who have been here since their youth," he said. "We are also looking ahead to the future."
The festival now has an annual budget of about 4.5 million Norwegian krones (roughly $820,000), about half from ticket sales and private sponsors, the rest from local and Norwegian government agencies. There are two paid employees who work year-round, if only part-time much of that, on tasks such as bookings and promotions. Most of the work is by 200 to 300 volunteers on a work-one-show-see-one-free basis. Williams said they get far more inquiries from musicians they can book, allowing them to assemble a strong roster of regional talent in addition to a couple of larger-budget headliners.
"The Russians are very interested in coming here because they get lots and lots and lots of money," he said. "They get paid in Norwegian money, which (goes far) in Russia."
Visiting musicians have gone through frustrating moments due to the remoteness, although communal and sometimes self-sacrificing solutions occur. Williams said one local trumpeter gave up his festival debut in 1983 to help Chet Baker, who arrived without a vital piece of gear.
"He came with a mouthpiece," Williams said. "They met him at the airport and he said 'I've got a problemI've got no horn.' Chet said his trumpet was stolen in Paris, but most people thought he hawked it."
Besides the festival there are usually eight jazz concerts featuring local and imported talent, but no clubs or other places where jazz is played on a continuous basis, Williams said. Audience interest is generally strong, but occasionally turnout is disappointing.
"One New York band was pissed because there were more people on stage than in the audience," he said. But, he notes, "That's how Sting started."
Leading Off With The Main Event
After waiting nearly 20 years for Garbarek to make up for a cancelled appearance, Varangerfestivalen officials didn't hesitate to put him on stage right away.
Many small festivals starting mid-week open with a light schedule of lesser-known musicians, since most listeners don't arrive until the weekend. But Garbarek lauched things before a packed audience Wednesday night and proved the most popular jazz performer of the festival, especially for locals waiting to hear him since he was unable to make it when he was booked in 1988.
"They always have a big concert on opening night with big-name artists and it's almost always sold out," Williams said.
The long trip can be hard on any musician and for Garbarek, working something like his 70th day on a summer tour, was "a little more uptight than most" other players, Williams said. The band opted out of a sound check the night before and went to a crab feed on the beachwhich the saxophonist "raved" about.
There was a boat trip after Wednesday's concerts as well for all the participants, who caught 12 more crabs, Ovensen said.
"I think we're having boats out every day," he said.
Whether the crabs helped Garbarek's playing as well as his mood is unknown, as his show received mostly positivebut mixedreviews. My overall impression is he played it safe, offering a constant variety of soundscape densities in long and well-thought arrangements. But I didn't hear the stretching that made me feelin the words of MilesI was getting the meal that expands on the menu of his recorded material. Maybe two or three of the roughly 10 people I talked to afterward shared my opinion, the rest called it a first-rate effort.
I know enough of Garbarek's work to vaguely recognize most of it, but not provide song names without help, and the saxophonist played old and new material straight without talking to the audience. His bright and edgy contemporary tone changed surprisingly little as he alternated about evenly between tenor and sopronino saxophones, playing mostly loose, sparse and harmonious phrases that fit unchangingly into the textures from his colleagues.
Pianist Rainer Bruninghaus was more assertive, with long stretches of thick chordings and punctuating rolls that darted at least occasionally into off-color moments of individuality, finishing the evening with a wide- ranging pounding that last 15 to 20 minutes and earning a standing ovation that was the most enthusiastic of the evening. Bassist Yuri Daniel didn't get a lot of extended action, although a five-minute solo transition between pieces mid-concert offered a deceptively mellow tour de force of high-fret harmonics and multitonal counterrhythms.
Drummer/percussionist Trilok Gurtu was the most consistent highlight with wildly shifting jungle/ethnic backdrops heavy on hand beats and screw-twisting to adjust the tone of his kit. Tongue clicks and other vocals accompanied a wood block solo that got the audience into a clave-like 3-2 accompanying clap, and he kept them involved with stagecraft such as dunking shakers and other hand percussion in a bucket of water (which I can only guess serves some mute or echoing function).
Two late-night concerts brought a more communal feel in both setting and musicians who came from the extreme ends of the country.
Hallgeir Pedersen, a 30something guitarist billed as "Norway's King Of Bebop," played the first show with his trio at 9:30 p.m. in the Varbrudd hall, a simple rectangular building I can best equate with a Moose or Elks lodge. Maybe 200 people comfortably filled the picnic bench seating at the beginning, although a few more could and did wedge their way in later. There were plenty of talkers, none distracting enough to mar the on- stage happenings nearly everyone else focused on.
Pedersen's biography says his influences include Wes Montgomery, Thorgeir Stubø, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass and Jimmy Raney. But as a self-taught player Pedersen had to overcome less than ideal circumstances.
"(He) comes from the small village of Øksfjord (population 800), located on Norway's utmost northwestern shores and very far from any urban jazz environment," the biography notes. "Despite this isolation he has become a musician of world-class calibre. Hallgeir's truly singing guitarplaying is characterised by a particular powerful and warm sound. His rhythmic clarity, flawless technique and harmonic creativity conveys contagious joy for music."
Pedersen's gig of standards and originals with a modest modern slant was more prose than narrative, a sequence of ideas progressing naturally without an overall sense of storyline. He was comfortable, smooth and generally free of empty notes while pontificating, although with a tendency to linger too long on repeating phrases to fill transitions.
Bassist Bjørn Alterhaug, who's played with numerous international legends and released a few albums between the late 1970s and early 1990s, had nice moments working the extreme ends of his fretboard, with a few wide-ranging solo note runs and, on "My Shining Hour," a high-low buildup of contrasting yet harmonic plucks. Drummer Trond Sverre Hansen kept the pace aggressive and broad, but didn't get many opportunities to develop beyond a minute or so of frenzied full-kit pounding.
It would have been easy for an outsider to miss the subsequent gig, around 11 p.m., when a guy brought his bicycle on the empty stage and starting tinkering with it using some tools. Especially since nothing subsequent was listed.
But it turned out to be one of the various noisemakers used by world/pop vocalist Hanne Hukkelberg's quintet, originally listed as playing at the same time as Pedersen in another location. Hukkelberg, a native of Kongsberg who won a Norwegian grammy for her 2006 album Rykestrasse 68, draws comparisons to Icelandic singer Bjork, but with a more global and experimental brush. I stuck around for a bit and got an engaging dose of world pop progressing through ensemble-like stages of pace and intensity, but left after a few songs made it clear there wasn't much of a jazz element in the set (thus missing the chance the appreciate the musical nuances of those bicycle spokes).
Schoolhouse Rock and String Theories
After the opening sprint, it was time for a breather.
Only a couple of evening events were scheduled for the second day of Varangerfestivalen, the main one being a student rock/pop performance on the main stage that was predictably popular among the mostly peers and family members attending. But only about half as many chairs were set out as the previous night and even then there was ample empty seating.
The 14 students, including a male/female vocalist duo and a six-member horn section, mostly performed straight arrangements of classic rock/pop like "Mustang Sally" and "Too Many Fish In The Sea." It was no better or worse than a typical concert by youths in their mid teens but, as is often the case, at least one noteworthy talent stood out.
Korren said he's a self-taught singerhis father tells him he was humming the national anthem as a totwho's been performing in concerts since the first grade. He hopes to pursue a music career, but expects it will be away from Vadso.
"I need to go the city if you want to go there," he said.
Jazz isn't a big thing for Korren and his friends, festival or not, and while he said he enjoyed what he heard during the school ensemble's rehearsals, it's not a direction he intends for his career.
But giving audiences something of an education was the goal of a few Varangerfestivalen performers, including violinist Ola Kvemberg, during his late-night Day 2 gig at the filled-to-capacity Kolibri pub. He talked the audience through the themes and storylines of songs that blended elements of Grapelli, folk, modern straight-ahead and fusion, playing them with a dense, aggressive tone full of pitch shifts, quavers and other tonal colorings.
"I never know what to expect of a festival in the countryside," said the Tronheim resident, adding both he and audiences have changed during the three festivals he's played here. When trying to relate to audiences "half of it is trying to explain it to them. I'm just sort of trying to help them on the way. I realize it helps people get something out of it they wouln't normally get out of it."
Kvemberg grew up in a family that played folk music, although interest in jazz was whetted when he heard Grapelli at age 17. Among the pieces he performed at the festival was the lengthy folk-to-funk-to- meditative "Adoption Suite," which Kvemberg said he wrote for his grandfather in the hopes of convincing him of the artistry of improvised music (his grandfather passed away before hearing it). He's been playing in more tradition jazz ensembles the past six or seven years, and his gig featured some standards like "Nambia" and "What Is This Thing Called Love," but said his current trio is striking out in a different direction (videos and downloadable MP3s of old and new songs are at his Web site).
"i was missing the violin to be a flexible solo instrument, and just kind of me and another instrument and percussion," he said.
There was plenty of energy and creatively considering the trio had just taken a five-segment flight from Franceand would be repeating the process on a return flight within a day. Drummer Erik Nylander kept up a lively, though never quite overwhelming, backing. Bassist Steinar Raknes shared Kvemberg's tendency toward lingering notes with off-color textures, with a somewhat lower-key approach, and better characterized as individual snippets of verse than a full narrative.
Tales Of Elephants And Fjords
Of course, a tale told in full means little to those who don't speak the language.
Day 3 of Varangerfestivalen, a Friday, was the busiest and featured several groups spinning ancient Norwegian folk tales into children's ditties, traditional sami chants in a rustic attic and avant world music on the big stage, all making little sense until I got rough translations afterward. Other shows ranged from Jellybean Morton ragtime to trend-setting electronica, probably the strongest day of performances overall.
It was a good day for appreciating music, since rain and wind caused a street parade to be cancelled and there were noticeable fewer street vendors.
A noontime children's concert by the Indre Bøkfjord Jazzensemble of Kirkenes tried to appeal to and/or educate an elementary school-age audience. The seven instrumentalists played pieces like "Caravan" and "All Blues" with playful touches like preludes straight from cheesy mystery TV theatre and abrupt interjections of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," all while vocalist Dagfinn Gjerdeabout narrated and acted out a popular Norwegian folk tale. Apparently the plot was something by Rudyard Kipling about an elephant seeking dinner nearly gets eaten by a crocodile, escaping with the aid of a snake, ended up with a long nose and somehow got all the other elephants to fall victim to the same misfortune. About half of the 100 people in the audience were young kids sitting on the floor who seemed to be mostly paying attention to Gjerdeabout, the balloons handed out before the show, and the crayons and large sheets of paper put on the floor near the end.
Taking things beyond primary education at an adult level was ragtime pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen, whose 1 p.m. concert in the Rica hotel conference room ventured into other genres like blues and tango. He gave the audience detailed explanations of the compositions and even those by early masters, like Scott Joplin's "Magnetic," were lavishly flushed out with extensive dynamics and expression. Afterward the show Larsen, who released his first solo album in 1975 and has plenty with several well-known Norwegian jazz bands, said he was trying to go beyond a basic repertoire, building on what he's previously played at festivals in Vadso.
"I've played here for many years, so people know me," he said.
Also well-known was a small group of Finnmark musicians meshing fragments of jazz with yoik chants in Kjeldsenbruket dialect. Their showtitled Varangerjolkwas the hardest of the festival to get to, taking place about 10 miles away in Ekkeroy's defunct fish factory, but the estimated 100 people filled every seat in the attic and then some (latecomers had little or no chance to actually see the musicians in their intimate circle at the far end of the room). To the novice ear (mine), the concert was folk music accompanied by a progression of chants and other verbal sounds similar to what I've heard in other Arctic regions, meshed with simple string instruments and clipped saxophonist phrases.
Johan A. Andersen, a local singer with an older album of solo yoiks, explained the basics of some of the tales afterward, but even then the plots were somewhat mysterious. The finale, he said, was a very old piece that has something to do with "a lady and two horses."
"It's a story about the people and the landscape," he said. "It's a very good fjord, the most beautiful fjord in the world."
A description of the show in a festival writeup offers intriguing insight into the songs' history, if not their narratives.
"Nearly 100 years ago, Eliel Lagerkrantz started collecting joiks in Nesseby," the writeup states. "They were written down in a complicated system that nobody has previously managed to translate into music. Joikers in Nesseby have cooperated with Harald Devold to break the code and have found 44 unknown joiks...Eliel Lagerkrantz visited the Varanger district in 1920 and 1925. He wrote down sami sagas, fairy tales and joiks. He took photographs of the people, their buildings and the countryside...Lagerkrantz' material is a cultural treasure from early 20th century Nesseby, which until now has been pretty much inaccessible. The sami texts are written in a kind of phonetic language developed by Lagerkrantz, based on the informants' dialect. The texts are otherwise written in German. The joiks are written down partly in notes and together with an exact notation of measurements in hertz."
Showing up for a jam without understanding all that history or the plot? No sweat, said Andersen, since the music itself is based on simple and interactive concepts.
"It's very easy to take a sami song to jazz or blues," he said.
A Finnmark singer incorporating a blend of modern elements into yoiks more successfully than anyone in the region was the featured performer at Friday night's main concert.
Mari Boine proved a strong example of Scandinavia's proclivity for cultivating artists who excel at deceptively understated, intelligent and progressive music. Hers is a blend of traditional chants and folk narratives to a frequently shifting backdrop of rock and world instrumentation ("not jazz as much as light electronica or aggressive New Age," is how my first-impression notes describe the latter). Long throaty cries, spoken transitional poetry and doubling up on sampled loops were among the many nuggets in the bag of tricks for Boine's wide-ranging but mostly alto vocals. The mostly lengthy instrumental arrangements remained consistent enough to absorb, but seldom stayed that way for long.
These descriptions probably don't do justice to her yoik interpretations, many accompanied by simple rhythmic dance steps which received frequent and enthusiastic responses from an audience close in size to Garbarek's top-drawing concert.
Boine opened with a folk ballad (in Norwegian) accompanied by Georg Buljo's light electronic guitar riff, joined later by breathy whispers by trumpeter Ole J?rn Myklebust so flute-like in character I scanned the stage twice, sure I was missing a player among the six I saw. She ended the song with some unaccompanied lyrics for a couple of minutes before percussionist Gunnar Augland and Myklebust, working some electronics, stepped in with a low-volume rumbling transition. Buljo rejoined the mix with a strum on a tiny guitar-like instrument of obvious ancient origin and the ensemble spent the next couple of minutes building to full-volume with Myklebust and Augland tossing hand-percussion rhythms between them while Buljo and Boine's wordless vocals blended into an amazingly well-harmonized lead tone resembling a synthesized calliope.
Other songs progressed similarly, ranging from operatic rock to something sounding like a hybrid Afro/Inuit beat. Probably the least complimentary assessment of the concert I heard afterward was "unique," and that from a Norwegian music journalist acknowledging her talent, even if it wasn't his cup of tea.
For listeners finding Boine too sedate, or needing a jolt afterward, the billing on one of the later concerts down the street said it all: JazzKamikaze.
The Danish free jazz quintet, winner of the 2005 Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition and two audience-choice awards at Spain's 2006 Getxo Festival, played to a sparse audience of maybe 30 people at the Rica Hotel. Having the first half of their concert overlap with Boine's didn't help, nor did having a number of other mostly Norwegian bands playing blues and other non- jazz music in nearby venues.
"Speedball" blistered the walls from opening notes with a hard-rock beat and lightening-fingered guitar and sax bursts by Daniel H. Davidsen and Marius Neset, respectively, with a few longer-note stomps to vary the rhythm. Neset kept a similar pace with varying approaches on other songs, from Coletrane-like post-bop to crowd-pleasing low-note/high-note alternating phrases to extreme upper-register screams. Another audience winner was mouthing a tenor and alto simultaneously for something that begin as a funeral dirge but quickly resurrected as hard fusion.
JazzKamikaze proved adept at more than hard and loud on "Everest," opening with Davidsen's moody but harmonious musings and a simple piano riff by Morten Schantz (who spent the "kamikaze" tunes pounding intervals with both hands that seldom sought refuge in easy repetition). The rest joined in with a series of rising notes possessing the character, if more sophistication, of a mountain film soundtrack. Less successful was their take on something by The Bad Plus (name escapes me, my bad), with everyone opting for solos that were straight fusion or near straighthead instead of the original's infamously twisted notes.
Next in the Rica's room was a chance to mellow out between high-energy gigsor for early crashers to wind down for the nightwith pianist Per Husby's quintet and guest vocalist Anne Lande. The set was mostly mellow standards or originals influenced by them, at least as best I could understand from the Norwegian introductions to each song.
The wind-down feeling was more scholarly than sedate. Lande's altos whispered rather than cut through the room, capturing attention with a sense of storytelling rather than just reciting lyrics. Husby, a composer for TV and big band in Oslo since 1980, dominated the instrumentals with wide-ranging runs and leaps played densely with both hands. Bassist Konrad Kaspersen, who's played with many of northern Norway's notables since the "golden era" '70s, took a similar heavy handed path. Guitarist Hans Mathisen, who leads his own band and is an arranger for major Norwegian classical orchestras, allowed listerens' minds a bit of breather with engaging, accessible Charlie Christian-like timbres. Similarly, tenor saxophonist Odd Andre Elveland soothed with lyrical thoughts while avoiding trivialities, his smooth-tone more characteristic of an alto in range.
An already packed day reached a crescendoin theorywith the final 11 p.m. concert by the second of two Norwegian jazz giants at the festival, trumpeter Nils Potter Moelvaer. But there were apparent delays getting the longtime ambient/techno master and/or his gear to town and the main stage, and they were still performing sound checks well past the scheduled start of the show. Workers at the door said they hoped for a midnight start, which seemed way too optimistic. I had seen Moelvaer a few weeks earlier at the North Sea Jazz Festival and, since he wasn't a vital part of the local jazz scene, did a late-night bailout so I wouldn't be fried going into the final day. A couple of people I spoke to the next day, including a journalist for one of the regional newspapers, described it as fine but unremarkablea lot like the gig I was at.
Mass Demand For Volunteers And Refugees
The welcome-to-all mentality of Vadso peaked on the festival's final day.
The late-morning to past-midnight concert schedule stretched the genre boundaries to the point of making jazz a definite minority. The headliner show was a Genesis-type rock band that outdrew everything else at the festival. Tellingly, while throngs of youths were navigating roadblocks and exchanging tickets for admission wristbands (both a first), most of the festival's core people were eating dinner a few blocks away.
The eccentric mood was set with an early afternoon concert by the Finnish quartet Kvalda. The group, winner of the 2004 Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition, saturated the Rica hotel meeting room with originals whose extremes consisted of pounding punk and classical sophistication. Far from being grating or sedate, the group's creative impulses were consistently smart and engaging, making for for one of the best low- profile sets of the festival.
Vocalist Aili Ikonen fronted most of the songs in either Finnish or English, maintaining a clean presence from alto lyrics to an aggressive and varied range of high-pitch scats. "Basically the best vocalist we've had by a fair amount," is how my notes read, no small thing given the much-promoted appearances of Boine and Hukkelberg. Pianist Antti Kujanpää was mostly dense and harmonic during the opening songs, then branched out with harp-like strums directly on the strings, satirically dramatic operatic sweeps and other sound/texture explorations. Bassist Jori Huhtala was the quietest presence, but hardly short on accomplishment with full-board, rapid-finger plucking of non-standard progressions and pronounced cadences from shuffling to stuttering. Drummer Hanne Pulli supplied a foundation for of full-kit workouts, but generally in subsets allowing heightened focus of her techniques on each.
The final element elevating the performance to exceptional was all this occurred in conversations throughout the body of the songs as well as extended solos. Combined with the wide variety of moods in the compositions, virtually every offering seemed to expose a new element of the band's abilities. Still, the most audience-pleasing moment was probably one of the least challenging, a melodic temper-tantrum Ikonen introduced as "You know when you have a really, really bad day? This is it."
What followed was several minutes of chaotic discordance, controlled-volume screams and pounding instrumental exchanges, all at a speed and turbulence suggesting someone was trying to jump-start a bad day by mixing instant coffee, Jolt cola and Alka Seltzer.
"I've never heard a bad day better than this," one listener told the band afterward.
The players said afterward they weren't bothered coming so far to play one gig in a partially filled room with about 60 people.
"It's not about the amount of people," Ikonen said. "I think it's enough if you look at the audience and see them appreciating it."
Lack of people wasn't an issue on the main stage, where Sivert Høyem & The Volunteers were rocking the house. Their playing was expectedly wall-shaking loud, but decent with intelligible vocals and guitars that actually sounded like instruments instead of effects-driven noise (I'm not anti-rock, just anti-noise). A similar setting late-night techno concert by Ralph Myerz and The Jack Herren Band ensured the festival closed on an energetic note.
Listeners looking for a more jazz-worthy, sedate and communal ending were down the street at the Varbrudd hall, where the Vadso Storband performed the festival's lone big band concert. The mostly local ensemble of musicians performed standards that were well-arranged, if not complexly so, spending much of the time focusing on subsets instead of a consistent group blare. The best of the solos tended toward brisk swing with modest range and intelligent line-at-a-time structure.
But the most soulful event of the day was the gospel concert with Hawkins, Boutté and the refugees.
The church, a minor hilltop landmark, was packed to standing-room capacity when I arrived at the scheduled start. My camera and press pass got me close to the stage for a few minutes early on. The rest of the time I watched from the entryway, not a terrible thing since there was no problem hearing and see the action on stage while observing the totality of devotion some in the pews had to the musicians, worship or both.
Hawkins and Boutté took plenty of liberties with a long list of favorites like "I'll Fly Away" and "I Love The Lord." Many featured progressive or fusion-oriented arrangements, although a respectful number of traditional gospel and Dixie were in the mix. Chorus-heavy hymns were followed by a lone singer and an instrument or two. Unlike Britney or Madonna (pick your generation), Hawkins and Boutté could move spontaneously and sing at the same time.
Critiquing it strictly on musical quality, it was a good rather than mind-blowing. The choir, intriguing as their makeup was, were skillful but limited in the ability to expand beyond basic backings because of their short time together. The genuine spirit of unity, however, meant an atmosphere where even stragglers could feel the sort of rooting interest a parent has at their kid's recital.
Most of the participants gathered a few hours later for the farewell dinner at the Rica, a casual meal interrupted throughout with spontaneous speeches and toasts.
"Seven countries got together and made beautiful music," said Akoiwala, the Liberian who helped form the choir. "We showed the world how we can all work together."
With that he led to room in a final song. Rather than an ancient classic or tribute from his homeland, he opted for something in English so simple everyone, despite the wide variety of nationalities, responded to his call to join the chorus:
"The more we are together, the happier we'll be."