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In its 25th year, the Førdefestivalen global music weekender became slightly nostalgic. Usually, a specialized theme is declared for each edition, but for this significant anniversary, a set of return invites were issued to artists who were fondly remembered for their previous appearances. Normally, the festival has a policy of continually booking first-time visitors, but we could forgive them for being a touch misty-eyed on this occasion. The other main thrust was to contrast, and often combine, local Norwegian folk talent from the surrounding fjords with a more international roster of multi-territory acts. This created a particular focus and experience that can't be found elsewhere. The potent musical admixture presented a curious experience to the first-time visitor, alternating between bands that have been heard previously and entirely unfamiliar folk-rooted discoveries. This ensured a vibrant oscillation for our roots-attuned receptors!
For the Oslo, or even Bergen, city dweller, attendance required a committed journey northwards, so the majority of the healthy-sized audiences appeared to be local residents. Given that most of the concerts were pleasingly crowded, this seems to be an adequately self-sufficient setup. Even so, this is a festival that offers an excitingly unique experience for the out-of-towner.
The gigs ranged in size from headliners at the cavernous Førdehuset Sports Hall to intimate sessions in a Rica Sunnfjord Hotel restaurant, from outdoor gigs with virtually unlimited capacity to a tiny acoustic-only room in the School of Culture. The weather was surprisingly warm for much of the weekend, topping thermometers in many middle-European lands. There were a few outbreaks of rain or drizzle, but all conditions are fleeting in this region, just waiting for a turn in the coastal flow. Speaking of other fluids, the Norwegians have been getting into beery microbreweries in recent times, with the adventurous Aegir headquarters situated not too far away, on the journey up north. Another striking aspect of the general situation was that darkness didn't finally descend until well after midnight, with dawn in what seemed like only two or three hours later.
The opening concert in the Sports Hall was impressively slick, its television broadcast status necessitating a very tightly sequenced show, a state that's rarely experienced by global music aficionados. The disadvantage was that most acts were only allocated one or two tunes, but benefits were bestowed via a swiftly parading tour of contrasting roots styles, facilitating a living compilation set, as each band had their equipment speedily wheeled onstage during a series of pre-recorded interview features. The Norwegian comedian compère prompted hearty guffaws on a repeated basis! Artists included the poised Iranian singers Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat, the spunky Benin singer-percussionists Trio Teriba and local folksters MP3 (Mattias Pérez Trio), but the most impressive pranksters arrived at the end, with the Amsterdam Klezmer Band romping through a pair of extroverted numbers, their singer-saxophonist Job Chajes projecting the image of a wily farmer caught up in a late-night city drinking den.
Later that evening, there was a multi-band gig in the setting of the Jølster Museum, a short bus ride outside town. Each act played in one of three well preserved wooden houses, with a central open-air area acting as the food-serving, bar and general hanging-out zone. The Malian n'goni player Bassekou Kouyaté was leading a quieter quartet incarnation of his band, accompanied by family, Mamadou playing the bass variant of this West African lute, Moctar on calabash gourd percussion, and the leader's wife, singer Amy Sacka, sending her nape-hair-bristling voice high into the rafters. It was revelatory to catch Kouyaté in such an intimate situation, his audience sitting so close that they could almost be members of the band. His wah-wah footpedal was utilized to lend a Hendrixian texture, though cannily cut down to a very low volume, maximizing excitement in a teasingly sparse fashion. The only disappointment was that his two sets (each of the artists moved from house-to-house as the evening progressed) were virtually identical in repertoire and even their between-song banter. Each performer only played for a short 30 minute spell, but this continued the refreshing smörgåsbord nature of the night.
The other artists were very impressive in their own regional ways. Denmark's Fromseier Hockings duo, featuring singer/fiddler Ditte Fromseier Mortensen and guitarist Sigurd Hockings, travelled towards a special acoustic sensitivity. Her vocals were enunciated with a measured emotional expression, phrased with diligence, yet openly skirting the room. The division between the pair's original compositions and their traditional tunes is permeable, as stylistic traits commute. Hardanger fiddler Erlend Apneseth was one of this native instrument's most inspiring players over the weekend, as well as being one of the youngest. His completely solo set crept even closer to the ears, conjuring an attentive séance trance from his listeners, playing with the distinctive resonances of his sympathetic strings, as he softly tapped out time with his steadily tramping foot. There was an unpredictability to his phrases, his manipulation of simultaneous tones, that marked Apneseth out as an innovator. Upon close examination of the hardanger, it was observed that its sympathetic strings lie below the main strings rather than beside them, as expected. They already sound divine, but they also look good too, invariably adorned with carved decorations. Yes, the weekend was set to include a great number of these crucial Norwegian folk axes! This was a glut to be welcomed...
Already, on this first night, a large number of groups had been caught in a taster environment. The following days were to feature an opening up into lengthier performances...
The Førdehuset also boasts several smaller theatre alternatives to its Sports Hall. On Friday, at noon, the Iranian Vahdat sisters benefited from the intimate situation of the Idrettsalen, their band expanded from the previous day's core of ney (wooden flute), setar (four-string lute) and daf (frame drum). They were joined by a trio of Norwegian players on hardanger fiddle, organ-piano and upright bass. In their homeland, the Vahdats are not allowed to perform (since 1979, female singing in public has been forbidden), so they are now effectively exiled. Much of their repertoire is around 700 years old, but these poems can still be applied to modern existence. The Vahdats also delivered a few of their original works. A suspended state of introverted calm pervaded, with the sisters alternating between harmonies and solo sections. When the songs did raise their voices, this was still within a controlled landscape, passion contained for heightened quiet power. The Norwegians at once immersed themselves in the Persian flow, but still provided an individual jazz frisson, with Nils Økland giving a particularly empathic solo, close to the end of the set. This was in tune with the ney, setar and daf players, who all received their own opportunities to shine, the songs very much open to instrumental interludes.
Another of the "produced" concerts involved a "dream team" of local folk players. The show was very carefully choreographed, with various permutations of artists shading from one to the next, often with a subtle glide. Fiddlers reigned, of course, but there were singers, accordionists, a saxophonist, and a team of dancers, who climaxed the show with a front-of-stage invasion, their moves an odd mixture of dignified grace, manly knee-cracking or shoe-slapping, and some extreme spinning techniques that made the front row constantly fearful that bodies were going to come flying out of control. Somehow, this didn't actually happen!
On the outside stage, the Amsterdam Klezmer Band found themselves playing in tough conditions, although the rain could have been much worse. Already, two of the major outdoor gigs had been forced to move indoors, but this one went ahead in the open. Even so, this band would have been more suited to an evening club environment, with drinking and close-quarter dancing. They were visibly struggling to create the necessary mood, and succeeded quite well under the circumstances. They swapped around musical roles, changing lead singers, and delivering plenty of horn solos (saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and trombone). If they didn't reach their peak state, it was still easy to imagine this combo's exciting potential under prime circumstances.
Back in the Sports Hall, the Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura represented the glitzier aspects of this form, often sounding more like a mainstream pop artist. Her strength lay in the actual quality of her voice rather than the musical arrangements, with a notable gift for nimble phrasing, made even greater by the potential of Portuguese phonetics. She was spirited and charismatic, transcending some of the set's questionable entertainment tactics and musical flourishes.
Another hot scene that it would have been easy to miss was the Columbi Egg session hosted by club-runner Gabriel Fliflet, hidden away in a small hotel sub-restaurant. He presented three acts for each evening, encouraging impromptu guest appearances. Trio Teriba used just their voices and drums, ending up by parading through the crowd, the atmosphere switching sharply when fiddler Astrid Sulheim played, quietening down into a gentle concentration. Then, MP3 kept the local folk feeling intact, but upped the activity towards a sprightly sprinting motion. The session concluded with Fliflet playing accordion, joined by fiddler Økland for a joyous spurt.
Each time that your scribe witnesses the Romanian gypsy band Taraf De Haïdouks, they've surely been getting faster and faster. The playing is so well greased that they negotiate their tunes at an almost ridiculous rate, making dancing a supreme challenge. Their cimbalom (table zither) spatulas skitter, fiddles scamper, flute zips, and their voices climb a plateau of exhilarating expressivity. One king-of-excess number lasted around 20 minutes, and came on like some monstrous cartoon symphony of compression.
Saturday opened with another close-quarters concert in the Idrettsalen, with the Palestinian oudists Le Trio Joubran, another set of siblings. Now they have added a percussionist, Yousef Hbeisch, who propels their music up to an understandably different level, intensifying the drive of their medium-length pieces. The Joubrans edit their compositions down into a concise attack of equally spread solo features, shying away from any extended sprawl. Hbeisch ranges around an augmented kit, a half-breed of conventional set with Arabic percussion implants. His attacking precision bolstered the rush of Samir, Wissam and Adnan's own lightning curlicues.
Back outdoors, and the String Sisters provided some of the weekend's most showbizzy music. This is a fiddling supergroup, herded together by the Norwegian Annbjørg Lien, also featuring players from the US, the UK and Ireland: Liz Knowles, Catriona MacDonald, Liz Carroll, Liz Doherty and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh. Their collective enthusiasm is to be admired, but their heartily stomping, anthemic brashness became tiresome during the very early stages of their set. It was all bombast and little finesse, shouting when they could have at least occasionally whispered. Ultimately, it sounded like a soundtrack for a bland Broadway heritage show.
The absolute towering performance of the entire festival was given by the Kurdish singer Sivan Perwer, who also played the tembûr, a three-stringed lute-like instrument. His whole hour-long journey was an exemplary exercise in pacing, beginning with a moodier minimalism, then graduating to a hard-strumming aggression that sounded like a Middle Eastern incarnation of rock'n'roll. Perwer, dressed in a beige military-style suit, disseminated messages relating to the travails of his people, but was not averse to making the odd, dryly humorous aside, or to sometimes having his songs inhabit a more personal romance zone. Unfortunately, Ertan Tekin's blown instruments, the zurna and duduk, were mostly very low in the mix, at least over at the other side of the stage to where he was seated. The significant final point of escalation was the moment when Hakan Vreskala switched from frame drum to his large dahol, which swung from his hip as he moved around, setting up an irresistibly booming beat. In essence, Perwer's formula was straightforward and uncomplicated, but he was the master of focused expression, commanding the entire situation with a vaulting authority. He knew restraint, but in his unleashed state, he was the most intense showman of the weekend.
Another one of the festival's quieter acoustic sets took place at the Kulturskule, completely unamplified in a classroom, with Einar Mjølsnes and Håkon Høgemo playing their hardanger fiddles together and separately. Given that the pair were joined, they chose a few too many solo tunes, but that aside, this was a sonic delicacy, these mischievous oldsters purveying their Western-coast folk craft with a wonderful sensitivity to the ringing embellishments of their strings, whether on hardanger or regular fiddle. The space rang with natural tones, completely unsullied by electricity. This was organic food for the ears.
In keeping with the festival's 25th anniversary celebrations, another showcase arrived on Saturday evening, presenting artists who had previously visited over the years. This was another production involving swift changeovers on stage, quite a feat given the wheeling on and wheeling off of each band's equipment. This live real-time presentation is rarely used as a structure, but this was largely for television broadcast purposes. We'd already seen most of these acts in action, but this was an opportunity to catch them in a condensed one- or two-tune mode. The String Sisters, Trio Joubran, Taraf De Haïdouks and Bassekou Kouyaté returned, the latter in full electrified form, with his Ngoni Ba fellows. The leading Finnish folk combo JPP also appeared, previewing their gig of the closing Sunday night. Then it was back to the hotel for a riled-up dance double bill of Soneros De Verdad (Cubans with a big NYC influence) and Ferro Gaita (Cape Verdean high-octane funaná accelerators). The Cubans were at their best when playing faster salsa-styled material, but even this was sometimes too slickly smooth. They also had a tendency to slow down the pace with a more romantic glide, or interrupt the flow with what they assumed would be dance floor variations. The Cape Verdeans offered a more hardcore approach, testing the fleet footwork capabilities of their audience, although a slower interpretation was possible, depending upon which part of the beat was followed.
The final day had a winding-down character, with fewer concerts following the Saturday peak. In the afternoon, a show by Fargespill, a large group of young refugees and/or immigrants, could have sprinkled liberal saccharine, but the musical direction avoided this possibility, maintaining a quality distillation of various global ethnic styles into a successfully homogenized show that flowed with logic, non-compromise and general good taste. The styles were shuffled to an excessive degree, but the music still cohered, retaining its core sensibilities throughout the fusion process. The kids were cute, but they were also cool, grasping the essence of their widely varied heritages, and processing them wisely, singing and dancing with equal grace. Each cultural focus was picked up confidently by the youths from different lands, understood, filtered and reborn into this particular world panoply.
Next, a short bus journey winged a ready-made audience to another well preserved gathering of wooden farm huts, where they could experience Norwegian bluegrass, courtesy of the Earlybird Stringband, surely one of the only chances to catch a hardanger fiddle in this kind of lineup. Their approach had a smoother sheen than some of the music's more rugged American exponents, but their harmonies were pleasing and their good-time extroversion caught the small gathering in the clutches of its spell.
The festival's final gig was somewhat low-key, with JPP playing in the hotel to a modest crowd of admirers who had to deal with the rabble holding court on one or two tables to the rear. Perhaps it was easier to ignore these persistent shouters if seated in the rows of chairs down in front of the stage. The nature of JPP's set demanded a keen concentration on their subtle flourishes, and rapt attention to their between-tune explanations. They gave a strong performance, but this was a curious choice for the festival's climactic show.
Ultimately, this is a festival that possesses a highly individual character, offering the opportunity to explore the local Norwegian folk music, shuffled with some of the hottest acts on the international scene, all set within the imposing landscape of the western fjord coastline. There were also more than the usual number of imaginative and unusual venue choices, with the chance to explore some of the nearby countryside locations.