Going to Extremes to find Jazz in Greenland

Mark Sabbatini By

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It's an icy land full of improvisational spirit and language meant more for ear than eye. But if Greenland's soul is ideal for jazz, finding the music is a challenge - to say nothing of requesting standards like "Inequnartumik Inuusamik."

The secret is starting at the right place.

The home of sousaphonist Hans Holmelund is perhaps a block from the Atlantic Music store/studio he designed, which is a few blocks from the downtown Nuuk clubs where weekly performances are heard much of the year. Beyond that are numerous tiny villages, none connected by road, where visitors may randomly encounter jams featuring 10-year- old drummers, choirs doing the "Jalousi" tango and - thanks to the whalers - polkas.

"If you are interested you can do it," said Holmelund, 68, who began playing violin at age 9 and joined the Dixie group Malene's Fodvarmere in 1989.

A flexible mindset is vital for appreciating the world's largest island - about three times the size of Texas - with its 80 percent ice-capped landscape more geologically aligned with nearby Canada than Denmark, which it's officially a part of. But Greenlanders emphasize their independence, noting they were the first to leave the European Union in 1985. Their domestic government is independent, freeing them from Danish political wisdoms such paying prostitutes to sleep with disabled residents, a new program being enacted while I was there.

Flights, businesses, concerts and other happenings may or may not be going sometime near their scheduled hour and/or day due to weather or other factors. Visitors may find modern niceties like Internet access in some communities and cell phones as prevalent here as most of Europe. But everyday life remains dominated by rustic elements such as box toilets lined with plastic bags (drivers do not want to get into a collision with a "chocolate truck") and serious devotion to sled dogs, whose vast dwellings get their own zoning designations on municipal maps. Whale meat is stocked next to the tater tots at grocery stores, although many residents continue getting their own through hunting. English may be spoken by someone at the most remote shop and unknown by a city worker at a major store (beyond "we're closed"). And just about everything is very, very expensive.

The upside is stunning scenery, unrivaled anywhere in the world except Antarctica for fans of ice, and a high ratio of welcoming attitudes from people visitors may not be able to exchange a word with. One can, however, also get trapped for days in rocky communities even locals describe as downright ugly and put off by curt attitudes, which oddly seem to occur most among those dealing regularly with outsiders in the "hospitality" industry.

Traveling here in search of jazz is like hoping to find a spouse during a seven-day Caribbean cruise: success is possible, but one better enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the unexpected discoveries at least as much as any actual results. In my case research proved more bountiful than three weeks of scouring various communities, but the latter obviously offered much richer cultural immersion and insight. What follows is a look at each.

Seeking roots in a land of ice

For those on an audio quest, the Greenlandic language is an intriguing, unwieldy or bizarre starting point, depending on one's point of view.

The Arctic Umiaq ferry serving as a marine highway for the western and southern coasts offers an insightful tidbit by explaining the origins of the word "Ittuk," used as part of the name of all its ships.

"You can almost hear what it means," a passenger guide states. "Try to say the word 'Ittuk' and listen to its melody - I'duk, duk, duk, duk. You see?"

"It is quite clearly the sound of an engine. The name goes back to the days when ships' engines had a different sound than they do today. There was this constant throbbing that was soothing, even during the worst storm. The word is part of the sound, which adds to create a feeling of security at sea."

That's a short word. Imagine the explanation behind "qimminnquaq" (puppy) or "atuagaasivik" (briefcase). Or what the translated lyrics of "Fly Me To The Moon" might sound like. Also, numerous variations of the Inuit-based language exist and it may easier to understand a visiting eskimo from Canada or Alaska than someone from the other side of the homeland. The perception of complexity, especially as a written language, isn't limited to outsiders - Holmelund said natives don't always make full use of their home dialect.

"When Greenlandic people read the news they read it in Danish because it's easier to understand," he said.

Greenland possesses some of the world's oldest musical roots, including drum dancing and throat singing that are part of its Inuit heritage, plus a strong modern Danish influence from the money and people streaming in. Most of Europe got exposed to American jazz during the 1920s, but Greenland's exposure to popular music didn't occur until decades later and the impact on current tastes is inevitable.

"Greenland is definitely a rock country, both musically and literally," wrote Hans Rosenberg, a multigenre drummer who one reviewer calls "the Steve Gadd of Greenland," in an e-mail interview.

Much of Rosenberg's current work is with rock and blues bands, but his immersion into traditional jazz as a youth was about as complete as one could expect. He started playing drums at age 7, was recruited into the now-defunct Nuuk Orleans Jazz Band - possibly the country's only jazz band at the time - at age 15, and played with Malene's Fodvarmere. He credits pianist/composer Jim Milne and conductor John Andersen as early teachers and influences, calling them exceptional talents in a highly limited environment.

"There were no opportunities to study drums or jazz, other than to put on some records and just try to hang on," he wrote. "That was how we all got started in Greenland back then. Every time a person would recommend me a jazz record, I'd usually buy it and play along to it until I could play it. There was no music library in Greenland back then, so I had to buy all the music I wanted to study. In Greenland, there's no way any musician could make a living by playing jazz."

Holmelund said he was in charge of a Nuuk jazz club five years ago that had about 400 members, but he got ill and his replacement failed to keep things going.

"You need to work if you want to be a director...now there is nothing," he said.

About 40 to 50 people usually attend regularly scheduled performances by Malene's Fodvarmere, most of which take place during non-summer months, Homelund said. Most are Danish, not Greenland natives, but he said they also tend to be attentive to the music rather than treating it as a background diversion.

There isn't anything especially Greenlandic about much of the classic jazz played by such groups (as can be heard on MP3s of "Canal Street Blues" and "Bourbon Street Parade" from Malene's Fodvarmere's out-of-print Volume 1, provided here with Homelund's permission). Even Homelund acknowledges there's nothing extraordinary about the recording and notes that, while the band's repertoire is largely the same years later, they've had that time to refine their individual and collective skills.

Still, there are intriguing works, even if some are difficult to find.

Guitarist Pele Moller's 2004 Live album, features a eight-member ensemble playing standards (or their chord schemes) with Greenlandic lyrics, so titles like "Naunnaarneq Pigigaanni" are credited to both Moller and Charlie Chaplin. In fairness, Greenlandic doesn't always come up on the high verbiage end, as "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" translates to "Ersinaq" on the album.

Despite the vast differences in length, there's a reason the lyrics fit so well.

"I think it's Greenlandic history," said Holmelund, who plays with Moller on occasion and works with one of his singers. "I don't know. I don't speak Greenlandic."

What might get overlooked in the novelty of Katsi Kleist's low-pitch and bouncy vocals are arrangements serving as more than obligatory backgrounds. There's enough mixing of instrumentatal emphasis to keep things fresh between songs of similar tempo and the solos, if not particularly long or creative, at least get beyond eight-bar rehashes of choruses.

Among modern players incorporating traditional elements into jazz is composer/pianist Kristian Blak, a longtime resident of the Danish-ruled Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway. He has led or appeared on dozens of albums during a 25-year career, which feature plenty of compositions, players and sounds from some of Greenland's more exotic areas.

Inuit music is "fantastically well for jazz/world (compositions), but as far as I know no one of the Inuit are searching for those inspirations," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "I hope that I am wrong."

His compositions include "Umiaq" from the album Broytingar, based on melodic themes from the northern village of Thule ("it is definitely not a traditional melody, but includes all the feelings of northernmost societies," he notes). The 11-minute song is a series of shorter minimalist and melodic concepts, with clipped notes (mostly flutes and piano) and percussion at relatively slow tempos. Another composition is "Ajukutooq," based on a kayak song recorded in 1906.

Among his albums with is 1989's Addeq, an eight-part suite with players and themes from the relatively sparsely populated east coast of Greenland, with drums from the region, dandelion stems and polar bear calls among the instrumentation credited to players. Those interested in music from the region will find it worth diving beneath the album's surface-level New Age feel, as the vocal/percussion combinations on songs with titles like "Parnaaliraaingaase" have genuine edge. It's conceptually interesting to hear Blak's piano flourishes, but too often the sonic result is a blunting that makes it more suitable as background music.

Milne's work also falls largely into the contemporary - the only example of his playing I encountered is the out-of-print 1994 Green Ice, White Land; White Ice, Greenland, a mix of substandard New Age and more accomplished fusion that is surprisingly inconsistent. Listening to the syrupy synthesized bells of the opening "Northern Light" might keep serious listeners from probing further and the next song, "The Arctic Revolutionary," is simply awful lightweight pop fusion. It's a shock, therefore, to reach "Full Moon Jazz" and hear a reasonably complex modern swing/fusion arrangement. The rest of the album dips into tango, 19th century folk, the Orient and more, all with similarly mixed results. The constant change-up of instrumental arrangements also means this probably isn't the place to start for those looking for a showcase of Milne's piano skills.

I was unable to track Milne down to get further insight into his work (he helped compose a number of songs on Moller's album, for example), but Rosenberg says he is still active with his own studio in Nuuk. That was disappointing, especially since Rosenberg calls his former mentor "one of the greatest jazz pianists I've ever heard."

"Jim decided to quit his musical career to become a missionary for the Bahai religion in Greenland," Rosenberg wrote. "If he had continued his career, I'm sure he'd been up there with Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock."


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