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Back Roads Beat

The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

By Published: March 19, 2008
About 60 percent of Svalbard's Norwegian population is employed today by what's now a state-owned coal company, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, but tourism has emerged as a strong secondary industry. National Geographic Adventure lists Svalbard as one of its six recommended trips for 2008, saying it "has lately earned fame as ground zero in the climate debate. Perhaps that's because visitors get a firsthand view of what's at stake—a panoply of calving glaciers, rich wildlife and yawning fjords." There's a relative abundance of restaurants and quality hotel space in Longyearbyen (although rooms fill quickly during peak season) for visitors arriving by air and cruise ship. It's a dramatic transformation from 1990 when the only beds for tourists were in bunk houses. The region's other cornerstone, The University Centre in Svalbard, opened in 1993 and offers Arctic science and technology classes from undergraduate to postgraduate levels.

A new scientific landmark is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault about 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain. Designed to replace species destroyed by global or regional catastrophes, it can store up to 4.5 million distinct seed species. The permafrost and lack of earthquake activity were seen as vital for protecting vital food crop seeds for hundreds or even thousands of years, and there isn't the political and environmental turmoil where many of the world's 1,400 crop diversity collections exist. (By the way, since man doesn't live by bread alone and the post-Armageddon bash will need a mood booster, the Huset restaurant and nightclub has the world's northernmost wine cellar with 25,000-bottles wine cellar.)

There may not be the cultural atmosphere of an Inuit or Sami village in the Arctic, but Svalbard still has its quirks and claims to fame. Shoes are removed before entering almost every building, a longtime tradition to keep coal dust out of homes. In 1998, the Norwegian Championship in badminton was held in the Svalbard Sportshall. The Spitsbergen Marathon, whose motto is "you won't get it tougher" due to the wind and weather, is in June, with a time of 3:21.22 by a man in the 50-54 age category winning the 14th annual race in 2007 among the 23 men and four women participating. Much of the 2007 children's fantasy movie "The Golden Compass" was filmed in Svalbard and tourism officials say it "gives you good impressions of the impressive unspoiled and untouched landscapes here" (it gets a dismal score of 43 out of 100 from the compilation of critics nationwide at the Rotten Tomatoes web site, with one calling it "a movie with characters constantly explaining arcane concepts and only rarely doing anything about them").

Prices for U.S. travelers are astronomical thanks to the crippled dollar, the cost of remote shipping and what's already the second most expensive country in the world on the Economist's Big Mac Index (about $6.50, vs. a low of $1.40 in China). A can of Diet Coke costs $6 at the hotel (but "only" at $1.50 at the Svalbardbutikken supermarket), a bowl of Thai chicken soup (very tasty) $14 at the coffee house, a loaf of bread $6 and a new CD $30. Frozen whale meat was on sale for $14 a pound at the grocery store (steak-like, so try a red wine) and parents who scoured eBay for Nintendo's elusive Wii at Christmas might be chagrined to know two were on the shelves of a store in the Lompensenteret mini-mall for $500 each. I spent my nine-day stay in one of the Radisson's apartments and, given the price of dining out, spending slightly more than $100 for a microwave oven to cook many of my own meals (reindeer burritos and sour-cream porridge—anyone...anyone?) proved a significant money saver.

Locals are quick to accept newcomers, some joking I'd already become a resident by staying longer than the average tourist. But thinking a year or two in Svalbard will satisfy their curiosity about the area, some stay longer.

"People move on before they're finished with Spitzbergen," said Guind Jacobsen, who left a chef job near Oslo to become a dog sled guide when his girlfriend was accepted to the university two years ago. "After a few years they come back." A handful end up joining the miners and others who make up a second part of the community with decades- old roots. "What they say is if you haven't left after a couple of years then you'll stay 10," Myklevoll said.

Amateur Night

"Is this Svalbard karaoke?"

That question by Joe a few songs into the opening night of Polar Jazz wasn't overly diplomatic, but was eerily close to my written notes at that moment ("sounds like local talent night"). Much like any evening-long procession of a small town's musicians, the Jazzvorspiel (the latter part means "preamble" or "prelude" in German) ranged from the good to the tolerable to the brave.


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