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Back Roads Beat

Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007

By Published: February 5, 2008
"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 accommodate—most available lodging is booked well in advance and a number of private homes rent rooms—and 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 problem—I've got no horn.' Chet said his trumpet was stolen in Paris, but most people thought he hawked it."


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