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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: February 5, 2008
There was plenty of energy and creatively considering the trio had just taken a five-segment flight from France—and 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 show—titled Varangerjolk—was 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."


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