The extreme cold and dry climate can cause mischief. Singer Unni Wilhelmsen had trouble with her guitar tuning and other members of the band seemed to have similar problems after arriving that same day, depriving the instruments a chance to recover from outdoor exposure. StuboeÃ'¸ said he's had cracks start to appear on his guitar soundboard in Arctic climates, so he's learned to take precautions. "You keep it in the bathroom, where it's humid," he said.
Most of the musicians stay for the entire festival and, even if they're only playing one show, take advantage of the opportunity to explore the area (snowmobile tours, often going to the east side of Svalbard to look for polar bears, seemed to be the most popular).
While the activities are unfamiliar to visitors, the music they bring with them is a novelty since jazz is essentially nonexistent the rest of the year. There's an active music scene in other genres. Rock bands play regular pub gigs and the annual Dark Season Blues festival at the onset of the polar winter is Longyearbyen's biggest music event. Other student and community groups like brass bands and church choirs are open to experienced musicians and newcomers. The town's mining-oriented history and high number of temporary residents mean there isn't the kind of ethnic presence such as the aboriginal Sumis at the northern tip of Norway's mainland. But Myklevoll, who plays trumpet in the community Storband, a little big band, said the modern population of students, scientists and others provides a cultural boost.
"Talents are good here because people are very well educated," she said. "It is in general a higher educational level and standard of living." Thriving in such a small and isolated town means being welcoming and free of inhibitions. Opportunities, for those seeking them, aren't hard to find. "It is easier to join things because it is not far to go," Myklevoll said.
Can't Get Enough Coal In That Stocking
"The streets in Longyearbyen have no names, they have numbers. Grown men do not build houses in streets that are named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard." -Peter Adams, 2005, quoted as part of the museum's mural
Longyearbyen is named after a U.S. entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1860-1922), who as head of the Arctic Coal Co. founded the town and the first of many mines that became the dominant economic base. Written history of the region dates back to 1194 in Icelandic sagas of "Sval Bard" ("cool" and "edge" in Norwegian), interpreted as "the land with the cold coast." The island of Spitsbergen is 60 percent glaciers, 27 percent rock and 13 percent vegetation with no trees (it does have crowberry and cloudberry bushes).
A Dutch expedition led by Willem Barents rediscovered the archipelago in 1596, triggering a series of human/human and human/nature conflicts that continue to present day, according to an official historical narrative. England, The Netherlands, Norway and Russia established bases during the 17th and 18th centuries, overhunting walruses, Arctic foxes, polar bears, reindeer and nearly driving the rare Bowhead Whales to extinction. The English and Dutch fought land and sea battles over whaling rights, with both sides suffering heavy losses. But by the 19th century many of the hunting colonies left, and scientific exploration and Arctic expeditions became the focus of activity.
Coal mining brought another rush of people at the beginning of the 20th century, with several countries getting into conflicts over territorial rights. These were resolved with the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, designating the area as Norwegian, but demilitarized and granting other nations the right to seek natural resources on a principle of absolute equality. The treaty means unique privileges for foreigners, who can visit, study and work here without a permit or passport (practically speaking, a passport is still needed to make the trip via mainland Norway).
The Svalbard colonies were destroyed by Nazi Germany during World War II, although the 2,000 Soviets and 900 Norwegians living there had already been forced to abandon the islands two years before the attacks began in 1943. The town was rebuilt, but Cold War tensions over Svalbard's potential as a military air site kept Longyearbyen from getting an airport until 1975. The Norwegian government's desire to make Longyearbyen a family community instead of a company town for mining, which was going through a crisis during the 1970s, made the difference.