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

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(Note: Mark Sabbatini will reporting daily from the world's northernmost jazz festival, PolarJazz, starting Jan. 30 in Longyearbyen, Norway. As preview of the Scandinavian Arctic's jazz scene, this is his feature from last summer's festival in Vadso, on the northern edge of the country's mainland.)

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 easy—and positive—step 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 penny—they're everywhere," he said. "If you have a niche festival it will win."

The Birds And The Beaches

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