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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.


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