October 4-6, 2018
There are music showcases and there is Northern Expo. The idea, if not the logistical operation behind it, was simple enough. Invite a few dozen international music industry movers and shakers to Svalbard, an archipelago half way between Norway and the North Pole. There, present them with some of Northern Norway's finest contemporary musicians and dancers in settings both conventional and, as was the case with the abandoned Russian coalmining town, settings altogether more surreal.
For three days in Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, festival directors/programmers from the likes of Primavera Sound, Silence Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, Improvised Music Company, WOMAD, Arctic Arts Festival, Katowice JazzArt Festival, Northwind Festival, SXSW, Bukta Tromsø Open Air Festival and Jazzfest Berlin, alongside record label managers, booking agents, studio producers, journalists and a number of Norwegian arts development agencies were presented with some of the best contemporary folk, pop, rock, electronic and Sami music, and dance, from Northern Norway.
With artists and delegates lodged in the same hotelthe excellent Funken Lodgethere was plenty of opportunity to network and forge business relationships in a very sociable atmosphere. One unusual feature of Longyearbyenand there are manyis that it is a tax haven, so you don't need to re-mortgage your house to buy a round of drinks, as you do on the Norwegian mainland. It was noticeable each evening, however, that a lot more chatting was going on than dedicated drinking, a fairly reliable indication of the seriousness of the collective intent.
Music and dance were the twin engines driving Northern Expo but the three-day gathering was fundamentally about human connections. The intimacy of the showcase events and the close proximity of artists and delegates promoted exchanges that were notable for their warmth and directness.
Northern Expo could have been staged in Oslo or Bergen, for example, at much reduced cost to the organizers, but the plan from the outset was clearly to present showcases in a special environment -one that would frame the music and dance showcasesand the conversations around themin a unique, unforgettable way.
The setting for Norther Expo was special, to say the least. Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated of the Svalbard islands, with just over two and a half thousand multi-national residents living there in the town of Longyearbyen.
At 78° North, it is the most northerly, permanently populated settlementresearch stations apartin the world. As a result, absolutely everything here is 'the most northerly this' or 'the most northerly that' in the world, though refreshingly, the town's commercial enterprises refrain from constantly advertising the fact. The most northerly hamburger, the most northerly beer, the most northerly souvenir shop -you could see the potential for it to begin to grate.
Surrounded by snow-covered mountains, glaciers and fjords, Longyearbyen rests in truly spectacular landscape. To see the rising sun illuminate such dramatic vistas was an edifying experience. Romanced by nature, music and dance alike, it was impossible not to be completely charmed. Even before the showcases proper had begun, the delegates and musicians were uniformly effusive in their praise of this ambitious and one-of-a-kind event.
The organization behind Northern Expo was the Network for Music Business Development in Northern Norway (RYK), a collaboration between Northern Norway Centre for Music Business, Northern Norwegian Jazz Centre and Northern Norway Centre for Traditional Music and Dance. The geographical sphere of interest attests to the RYK's business strategy -the focus on a reduced area and on a particular identity, one which can be a useful marketing tool, as well as providing leverage for regional funding.
Regional identity, arguably, often comes before national identity for many people, while national borders often fail to recognize the wider dispersion of linguistic and ethnic groups -of shared heritage. The Sami people of Arctic Europe are one example, their terrain extending over northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Norwegian Sami, the largest population of Sami in Arctic Europe, were represented by two of the showcase groups, one from the north and one from the south , although their music, and respective languages couldn't have been more different.
If one characteristic defined Northern Expo it was the contrasts between the showcase groups performing.