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Northern Expo 2018

Ian Patterson By

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We have to say thank you to all these amazing artists - you have given us an experience…it’s hard to tell what we have actually seen and experienced today —Arne O. Holm, Norwegian journalist
Northern Expo
Various Venues
Svalbard, Norway
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 hotel—the excellent Funken Lodge—there was plenty of opportunity to network and forge business relationships in a very sociable atmosphere. One unusual feature of Longyearbyen—and there are many—is 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 showcases—and the conversations around them—in 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 settlement—research stations apart—in 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.

From the seductive folk-rock of Julietnorth to the sophisticated pop of Petter Carlsen, from the jazz-Sami hybrid of Ánnásuolo to the introspective piano/electronic minimalism of Mørk, and from the infectious pop/rock of Violet Road to the avant-garde dance group Kartellet, the showcases were nothing if not eclectic -an indication of the breadth of contemporary Norwegian artists beyond the better-known metal and jazz/improvised music exports that have been a staple of international festivals for several decades.

The late addition of Sami singer Marja Mortenssen with tuba sensation Daniel Herskedal, who welcomed the arriving delegates with a haunting tune at the dinner/opening ceremony on the first evening, was a welcome bonus.

Day One

Opening Concert

The locals turned out in force for the opening concert of Northern Expo, filling the Longyearbyen Concert Hall to capacity. Few, if any in the audience, could have predicted the evening's format, with all the artists performing back-to-back and uninterrupted in a seventy-five-minute suite-like performance of striking audio-visual contrasts. For the delegates, likely more used to watching one forty-minute showcase after another, Northern Expo's taster concept was refreshing to say the very least, and great credit must go to Artistic Director Brynjar Rasmussen for taking such a conceptual risk. It was a bold concept to bleed one act into the next—and highly diverse acts at that—but one that was brilliantly executed.

The opening to proceedings could not have been more dramatic, as the deep, bass voice of Daniel Herskedal's tuba sounded an ethereal opening fanfare -the tubist positioned in the central aisle. On stage, singer-songwriter Petter Carlsen sculpted dreamy vocal soundscapes over Jakop Janssønn's gently metronomic beat and Kristian Olstad's subtly atmospheric electric guitar. Melancholy yet epic, Carlsen's voice soared as Herskedal, standing centrally below the stage, unleashed a booming pulse. It was a powerful opening, cleverly choreographed, with Carlsen evoking the spirit of Thom Yorke.

Olstad slid in behind a harmonium tucked away at the back of the stage to the left as fiddler Julie Alapnes entered stage-left, her folkloric air buoyed by pillowy drums and hymnal-like harmonium. Her pizzicato fiddle motif was picked up by all as a rock-fuelled, rhythmically driving passage ensued. In time, gentle acoustic guitar held sway, as Alapnes and Carlsen in turn sang a beguiling, folk-tinged song with epic undercurrents.

A burst of electronic noise followed by a New Age pop beat announced a change of direction as the five-piece dance group Kartellet wove their way through and around the audience, bouncing tennis balls with childish glee. In its scripted though loosely choreographed routine, the five men skipped and spun through the audience, tossing the balls back and forth with the crowd. As a piece of theatre it was simple in design though effective in engaging the audience, including those who wondered what the hell was going on.

The transition from the New Age pop beat to minimalist ambient grooves was seamless. Benjamin Mørk, armed with a prepared piano, a set of keyboards/electronics and a microphone, embarked on an ambient journey that drew on minimalist and Ibiza-sundown schools of cool. After the initial, dream-like sequence, drummer Aleksander Kostopoulos injected hefty groove, which he gradually ratcheted up against a psychedelic visual backdrop.

Mørk then swapped electronics for acoustic piano, unfurling a spare melody that was lulling yet cinematic. This was the first time that Mørk had played piano in concert for five years, having been submerged in the interim in making disco music, but if there were any nerves they didn't show in what was a quietly commanding performance.

The lights dropped, and from the darkened stage the sound of softly plucked kalimba arose. From the drum stool, Jakop Janssønn stirred the kalimba as Herskedal joined him with his deep tuba purr. Sami joik singer Marja Mortenssen provided the third piece in the puzzle, her haunting voice, residing in a terrain somewhere between lament and ode to love on this highly affecting number. Mortenssen exited, though Herskedal's low tuba drone provided the bridge between two Sami traditions as northern Sami group Ánnásuolo took over from southern Sami singer Mortenssen.

Eirik Fjelde's shimmering keyboard drone underpinned guitarist John-Kåre Hansen's breathy vocal incantation -the prelude to Marianne Pentha's soothing, though uplifting vocal. Hansen, a jazz guitarist in the Jim Hall tradition, soloed with beautiful precision and clarity before Pentha steered the song to its resting berth. A second number embarked from a circling piano motif and Hansen's deft embellishments, a gentle bed from which Pentha's balladry softly rose. Vocal harmony punctuated Pentha's sustained phrases, in a song defined by simple, though elegant melodic gestures.

Electronic pop once more filled the air as Kartellet spun around the room, mostly in pairs. Their animated waltz, fusing traditional and contemporary influences was short-lived, though acted like a palette cleanser of sorts before the five-piece Violet Road closed the seventy-five minute showcase with its infectious brand of pop-rock. Singer-guitarist Kjetil Holmstad-Solberg's English-sung lyrics dealt with affairs of the heart, the striking melodic contours of the first number and "Keep on Running" boosted by vocal harmonies from brothers guitarist Halvard Rundberg (guitars), Hogne Runberg (bass) and Håkon Rundberg (keyboards) and Espen Høgmo's unrelenting beat.

A grungy, electric mandolin riff announced set closer "Jericho," a thumping rock anthem of searing power chords, reggae-ish rhythms and sing-along refrain. The crowd loved it, though you suspect a standing-only or festival-type venue would have been more suited to Violet Road's booty-shaking aesthetic.

With three drum sets, three banks of keyboards and a piano, pedal boards, electronic gizmos and multiple electric and acoustic instruments on stage from the outset, the sound team of Thor-Ivar Lund and Aleksander Rydland Hansen had no fewer than ninety four inputs to contend with.

That there were no major issues and perhaps only one acoustic instrument a little low in the mix was a considerable achievement. Torbjörn Sandnes and Sigurd Johan Heide also deserve plaudits for the atmospheric lighting and ever-evolving visual choreography that framed the music, contributing greatly to the overall impact of the seventy-five-minute performance. Venue technician Kyrre Fledsburg and production assistant Anders Søvik rounded out the excellent technical team, whose role in the evening's success cannot be overstated.

Day Two

A Boat Trip Through Storied Waters

It was a short bus-ride to the jetty on Friday morning, where the delegates boarded the Langoysund, a boat that has been plying the fjords of Svalbard for sixty years. With the temperature at five below zero everyone was well wrapped up. The all-Philippine crew was testament the multi-national diversity of Longyearbyen, where over a third of the population are non-Norwegian. In the local kindergarten, according to the Svalbard Posten, over sixty per cent of the children have non-Norwegian parents -all seeking a better life in the High North.

As the Langoysund set out up Adventfjorden, Arne O. Holm, a renowned Norwegian journalist and editor with thirty five years' experience in Svalbard—and the delegates' dedicated guide throughout Northern Expo—painted a colorful picture of adventures old and more recent on the island.

He pointed out the remains of Advent City -an early twentieth century coalmine, long-since abandoned. On the mountainsides in Spitsbergen old mining trestles and other detritus from the disappearing coal age are still visible. In fact, anything dating back before 1946 is protected as cultural and historical heritage. Arne also related the legend of a French skiing expedition bound for the North Pole in the 1980s that had to about-turn after three days because the dark months had just set in -a slight oversight in planning. Then there were the identical houses, down to the last detail, of the old company town that Longyearbyen started out as -a cause of many embarrassing cases of mistaken entry after a drunken night.

Out on the deck, Russian guide Nazilya Zemdikhanova explained that the history of Svalbard is one long tale of adventurers seeking their fortune. From the vantage point of the boat, with mist limiting visibility, daunting galciers and snow-covered mountains, and with no sign of life bar the occasional Northern Fulmar gliding close to the water's surface, Svalbard is hardly an inviting environment. What was it, Nazilya asked rhetorically, that brought the first people to these icy waters? The answer, in short was trade.

The search for the North East Passage and open sea brought Willem Barentz here in 1596, though Vikings may have landed here as early as the 12th century. Whale traders, fishermen and hunters followed, with Dutch, English, French, Russian, Danish and Norwegian adventurers vying for position. Four centuries of hunting has largely decimated the whale population.

By the end of the nineteenth century coal deposits had been found, triggering competition between the British, Norwegians, Swedish, Americans and Russians for this valuable energy source. Tourism to this area began at roughly the same time and their numbers are increasing rapidly, along with members of the scientific community for whom the Polar North is the barometer of the planet's health.

Although coal is declining as a sustainable industry in Svalbard, as in other parts of the world, there are still a couple of functioning mines. There's a small, Russian mining town in Barentsberg, and a Norwegian-owned mine several kilometres outside Longyearbyen, which powers the entire town. There's a certain irony in the fact that Longyearbyen, resting in a pristine landscape that scientists study as a gauge of global climate change, should be powered by the dirtiest of fossil fuels. This early morning boat trip, however, was to an abandoned coal mine, three hours and thirty eight nautical miles through the mist up Billefjord, where the second day of Northern Expo's showcases were held.

Pyramiden Showcases

Five Russians, three men and two woman, rifles slung casually over their shoulders, greeted the delegates as they disembark in Pyramiden. "Welcome to Pyramiden, the most northerly abandoned town in the world," said host Ivan. There was nobody to greet the Swedish when they began operations in 1910—Svalbard doesn't have an indigenous population—and only Swedish miners were there to greet the Russian company when it took over in 1927.

As guide Galina related, for nearly seventy years a Russian mining company, supported by the government of the Soviet Union, extracted coal from the hill's seams, with Russians and Ukrainians working side by side. A small town grew in the process, with the empty shells of the living quarters, the canteen, the hospital, school, swimming pool, library and a refrigerated warehouse now standing ghostly quiet -the paint peeling form their coal-slack walls. A children's playground, the swings frozen in time, attested to the authentic, familial nature of Pyramiden.

The guide's narration provided a revealing historical soundtrack as the delegates wound their way around the settlement to Pyrmiden's former Culture Hall, where back in the Communist day arts, entertainment and communal festivities provided diversion from the hard grind of daily Arctic life. A couple of Arctic fox cubs sat serenely close by, unperturbed by the newcomers. Their mother, a blue fox, is more wary and skulked away. In front of the edifice a bust of Vladimir Lenin rested defiantly on a raised plinth, while on the Culture Hall's façade a small spiralling neon sign lent a surreal touch from a long-gone decade.

The delegates were greeted by members of dance group Kartellet, who ushered the group up the icy steps of the Culture Hall. Inside, the large entrance hall was largely devoid of furniture -the only trappings being a number of Communist posters from the Cold War era depicting proud, working women and men, and soldiers, and a few children's drawings. In an empty side room a number of color photos, faded by time, captured scenes from celebrations on the Culture Hall stage -plays and the like. A black and white photo showed a football match in the snow.

Led up the long, winding staircase, footsteps echoing, the group, hushed by the sense of expectancy, lent on the railing and looked down, whereupon the members of Violet Road eased into an a soothing cappella song, their close, almost hymnal harmonies resonating around the walls. Applause followed, before Kjetil Holmstad-Solberg, acoustic guitar in hand, led the group in another song whose simple rhythmic pulse carried vocal harmonies that Crosby, Stills and Nash would have been proud of.

From the bottom of a long corridor the gentle strains of electric guitar beckoned. The ushers guided the group into a small room where Marianne Pentha and John-Kåre Hansen played a graceful, Sami-sung tune, with the guitarist adding vocal harmony. Although their group Ánnásuolo has been together for several years this was the first time Pentha and Hansen had performed as duo. It can't have been easy in this small, chilly room, hemmed in on three sides by music industry professionals, to perform as per normal but the duo gave no indication of nerves in a faultless showcase of their Sami-jazz music. The duo signed off with a ballad that married Pentha's powerful yearning with Hansen's deft accompaniment.

In another room, not quite big enough for everyone to squeeze into, Mørk presented his minimalist acoustic-electric soundscapes. Sat before a small bank of keys and electronics and bathed in shifting lights, Mørk's dreamily sculpted melodic line was punctuated by intermittent electronic pulses. Reaching behind him, Mørk dabbed the keys of an old, upright piano that had seen better days. This was a short showcase, perhaps a little too short, for time is needed to immerse yourself in Mørk's subtle musical layers.

Fiddle music called the delegates, who filed out of the room and fell into step behind Julie Alapnes, who led everyone with a melodious folk tune, Pied Piper-like, down the corridor and into the Culture Hall's main auditorium. Any thoughts of taking a seat and simply being entertained were soon dispelled as the ushers guided everyone up the steps and onto the stage where they were spread out. In one corner, harmonium player Mariann Torset provided understated accompaniment as Kartellet wove slowly around the delegates. An accomplished composer in her own right, Torset is the author of "Marja-Lisa Orgelsuite" -a fascinating suite for six harmoniums that would be worth a showcase in itself.

Alapnes upped the tune's tempo, which was the signal for Kartellet to burst into dance. They skipped and waltzed, slapped raised heels and stomped feet in a curious blend of traditional Norwegian folk dance and contemporary innovation. In pairs, and singly, they wheeled and spun around the stage, navigating the maze of delegates, whooping now and again. A jaunty tune accompanied the most curious spectacle of a pair of dancers engaging in full-blown wrestling, so intense, so physical, that you could see the onlookers flinching as the grunting dancers, locked in close embrace, fought to lift each other off the ground and hurl each other.

Then, ever so gently, two other dancers would separate the wrestling pair, each then embracing one of the wrestlers in a show of almost paternal tenderness. A change of fiddle tune, jig-like, signalled further animated dancing, with Ådne Kolbjørnshus in particular catching the eye with spectacular cartwheels, crouching spins, crab-flips and high kicks. Not for nothing has Kolbjørnshus twice been crowned Norwegian halling champion -one of the most acrobatic dance traditions in the world.

With fiddle dropping out and a sombre harmonium taking over, the dancers entered into another bout of wrestling. Short-lived this time, the wrestling subsided and the subdued dancers took the delegates by the hands and gradually lead them off the stage in small human chains.

Kartellet's highly original proposal left absolutely no-one indifferent. Of all the showcase performances, Kartellet's aroused the most animated conversations, with people still digesting and analysing its content and undoubted emotional impact for the remainder of the stay on Svalbard -and likely beyond.

Once outside again, the Russian guide continued the tour of Pyramiden, leading the group to the Russian owned hotel where a Russian lunch of hot soup, meatballs and rice, salad and pickles provided welcome sustenance. The Tulip Hotel opened in 2013, although Pyramiden has been a tourist destination since 2007. The renovated hotel, complete with well-stocked bar, permits longer stays in Pyramiden and deeper exploration of the mining town's empty buildings.

It's unlikely that tourism to this remote location is a huge money spinner for the Russian economy. Coal, in fact, was only ever profitable here between 1916 and 1920 -coinciding with World War I. The importance, rather, of a constant Russian presence in Svalbard lies in the geo-political importance of the Arctic region as a whole. The Cold War never went away, it merely took on a new form.

On the return boat journey Arne O. Holm explained why Pyramiden closed its activities in 1998 and became a kind of ghost town. In 1996 a Russia plane carrying one hundred and forty one Russian and Ukrainians, mostly families living and working in Pyramiden, crashed into a mountain outside Longyearbyen. There were no survivors. The catastrophe, on which Arne reported most movingly at the time, effectively tore the heart out of Pyramiden.

Day Three

Showcases

The sun came up on Saturday morning, crowning the glaciers and mountains surrounding Longyearbyen with a brilliant orange glow and accentuating the deep blue of the ice. It was a splendid panorama that made it easy to understand the joy expressed by locals when the sun returns for the first time after the dark months.

After breakfast, a bus took the delegates on a tour of the Arctic tundra. The first stop was at the old port where the dramatic architecture of the cable station got camera shutters whizzing. A lone cargo ship was berthed nearby. To the left, on Plateau Mountain, the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault jutted out.

The brainchild of conservationist Cary Fowler, the vault at the end of a 130-metre tunnel is the repository for the largest and most diverse seed collection ever assembled. It's humankind's safeguard against environmental disaster or self-induced apocalypse. Since its inauguration in 2008 the vault has gathered and safeguarded more than half a billion seeds.

From day one the world's media has trotted out Doomsday Vault-type stories, but if there was ever any doubt about the need for a vault that preserves humankind's agricultural biodiversity in the here and now, then it came in September 2015. Then, the formely Syrian-based International Centre Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDIA) requested the return of seeds, which had been deposited, just as a precaution, when the Arab Spring erupted.

The seeds, 58 million of them, comprising 116,000 varieties, arrived in Svalbard just before the outbreak of war in Syria. The prolonged, savage conflict in Syria made it necessary to withdraw the seeds samples in 2015, samples that serve plant breeders and researchers in that troubled region.

Every so often the bus would pass kennels where dozens of huskies sat atop their little houses basking in the sunlight. A couple of huskie-powered, wheeled sleds pulled tourists along the snow-packed road. Climbing upwards, the bus stopped by the island's functioning coal mine, abreast of which stood two sizeable satellite dishes. The present satellite station, Arne explained, was built on Spitsbergen in 1997, widely considered the best place in the world to download data from satellites in space. It's a highly commercial venture, selling information to all-comers. The views from the mountain top were breath-taking.

On the return journey Arne told the tale of the Spanish expeditioners who, with much fanfare and accompanied by a publicity-seeking Madrid politician, set off on a polar expedition on motorbikes. Unfortunately, they had to abandon the mission after seventy metres -their machines unable to cope with the terrain. Back in Longyearbyen, the bus stopped at a house, which, with Spock-esque logic, is known as The House. Here, Julietnorth gave a showcase performance with the full band.

Julietnorth

On the first two days Julie Alapnes had offered all too-fleeting glimpses of her artistry, but with this thirty-minute showcase performance she was able to present her music from the album Julietnorth (Talik Records, 2018) in all its glory. With spectral light providing an atmospheric backdrop, Alapnes and harmonium player Halvard Rundberg combined in a gently lilting, self-penned folk tune by way of introduction. Drummer Aleksander Kotsopoulos and baritone guitarist Petter Carlsen's bouncing rhythms buoyed Alapnes' melodious fiddle playing on the next number, a pizzicato interlude providing pause before the quartet returned to the infectious motif.

A short pizzicato intro paved the way for "Sevatslatten," with Alapnes tracing a slow waltz over a vaguely Early Music rhythm. Whatever the provenance of her inspiration, a timeless quality went hand in hand with Julietnorth's more contemporary language, notably on "Naustet," a perfect slice of haunting folk-pop featuring vocals from Alpanes and Carlsen. Melodies, uplifting and caressing in turn, dovetailed with infectious rhythms and melodious hooks, epitomized by the thumping set closer "Tampen brenner" -a folk-rocker once heard never forgotten. A standing ovation greeted Julietnorth -recognition of an outstanding performance by a unique band.

Artists Talk

After lunch in The House, the artists assembled in a line to face a Q&A session steered by Arne O. Holm, which sought to address the influence of Northern identity in the artists' music and dance. Julie Alapnes talked about her rootedness in folk music, with her mother a fiddle maker and both of her parents fiddlers in the folk tradition. She spoke of the differences between music and dance in the North and South of Norway, with the signature dance of the North, halling, typified by Kartellet, while the music in the North she described as being more playful and energetic than elsewhere.

In response to a question about the impulses behind Kartellet's dancing in the Pyramiden Culture Hall, Sigurd Johan Heide described the influence of party culture in the North where dancing is the norm and where everybody is close to the live, acoustic music. Sports and games have also filtered into Kartellet's concept. The dance group's concept has paid dividends, for what was initially conceived as a five-gig project has snowballed into over 250 performances over eight years and counting.

On the immersive, inclusive nature of Kartellet's performances, Heide said: "We are trying to base the performance on trust so that the audience can experience what we are doing." The dance of Northern Norway, Heide explained, dates back over three hundred years and was faster and more staccato than in other parts of the country and indeed, Europe in general.

In response to a similar question about intent and expression, Benjamin Mørk elicited laughter when he joked: "It's not easy to dance to depressing piano music." He spoke of the influence of the North's beautiful landscapes, not as something concrete, but as a realm of the imagination. Arne recognized the sentiment, saying that most trips in the wild North ae but fantasies that are rarely realized but often talked about.

Turning to Marianne Pentha, the Northern Sami singer of Ánnásuolo, Arne asked what inspired her songwriting -in a language unintelligible to the average Norwegian. For Pentha, nature provides all her inspiration -the mountains, the sea and the snow. All the lyrics from Annasulo's album come from Sami poet/musician Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001). Annasulo's guitarist-singer John-Kåre Hansen described his connection to the musical rhythms of the poetry and to the content, which, he said, addresses "winter ice, midnight sun and all the elements we have up north."

Hogne Rundberg from Violet Road also spoke of the significance of environment, growing up in Lyngen, Troms, where the Alps and the Norwegian Sea meet: "It's impossible not to get influenced by that," he said. Absent from the discussion was Marja Mortenssen, whose music on a songs like "The Reindeer Calves," "My Reindeer Cow" and "From The Snow Storm" are surely influenced by the Northern culture. When not on the road two hundred days a year, she helps her family herd reindeer.

Closing Showcase Concert

Petter Carlsen Longyearbyen's Culture Hall once more hosted the Northern Expo showcases. Opening the final evening was Petter Carlsen, who presented tunes from GLIMT (Friskt Pust Records, 2017), backed by Kristian Olstad on guitars, Jakop Janssønn on drums and Hogne Rundberg on bass. The music ranged from electric pop anthems to contemplative soundscapes built on acoustic arpeggios, with Carlsen's distinctive vocals, full of longing and quiet yearning. A melancholy vein ran through music and lyrics alike, though Carlsen also belted out a rocker with a chiming guitar riff that could almost have come from U2's songbook.

The spare arrangement of "The Enterprise," featuring just Carlsen's plaintive vocals and guitar highlighted the intimacy of his confessional lyrics. "Spirits in Need," an uplifting pop-rock anthem of driving rhythms and soaring vocals rounded out an engaging set on a high.

Ánnásuolo

After a couple of brief cameos, Ánnásuolo finally got a meatier showcase slot, in which it presented songs from its eponymous debut album (2017). The crystalline Sami vocals of Marianne Pentha—backup singer to many of Norway's major pop stars—and the beautifully clean jazz guitar lines of John-Kåre Hansen dovetailed on the slow-grooving opener. Drummer Jakop Janssønn, bassist Svein Schultz and keyboardist Eirik Fjelde lent steady impetus, with Hansen adding Sami chanting. The tempos were invariably unhurried, which framed the lyricism in vocals and guitar, notably on the striking "Málttas."

Janssønn's quiet invention also colored the music to a significant degree. With a bell-pad strapped to his left thigh, the drummer switched between brushes, birch-tree sticks as thin as needles and, on the ruminative "Násteálbmi" (Starry Nights), electronic drum pads. On this latter tune Pentha's piercing, and largely vibrato-less vocal took centre stage. "Night Tundra" began with Hansen's Sami chanting, undulating keyboard drone and subtle percussive stirrings. Pentha's haunting vocal preceded another delightfully measured solo from Hansen, which was the highlight of this very pretty song.

A drum feature introduced the set closer "Lunatic," with Pentha' vocals at their most powerful and seductive. The crowd responded enthusiastically to Ánnásuolo, whose subtle dynamics and seductive melodies cast a lasting spell.

Violet Road

With a sense of occasion, Tromsø band Violet Road put the seal on Northern Expo with an upbeat set that was as much a rock 'n' roll show as it was a showcase for its catchy, melodious songs sung in English by the charismatic Kjetil Holmstad-Solberg.

"Home for Mercy," and "Monument" from the band's sixth CD,Light Across Light (2018) felt like primers, but it was the anthemic "A Whole Lot Better," featuring a tenor saxophone solo from Håkon Rundberg that ignited the crowd. With a couple of hundred voices joining in on this singalong number Violet Road made a connection with the audience that carried over onto "Can You Hear the Morning Singing" -another singalong vehicle that saw Hogne Rundberg enjoy a brief but funky bass solo.

The Waterboys-esque "Face of the Moon" wrapped up a vibrant set on a high note. The band took its bows and left the stage to cheers and calls for an encore. In a party atmosphere the band obliged with the grungy rocker "Jericho," its punchy riffs and reggae-ish groove finishing the set off on a high. Of all the bands to feature in Northern Expo Violet Road's broad stylistic palette seemed best suited for a general audience outside Norway -particularly on the international festival circuit.

Wrap-up

Considerable thought, planning, organization and hard work went into realizing Northern Expo, so it will likely be a great satisfaction to the organizers and sponsors to know that the event delivered on every level. For those fortunate enough to be present, Northern Expo will go down as a very special experience to be treasured.

The three days in Svalbard demonstrated that Northern Norway possesses a special identity, one bound up by language, landscape and customs. All these elements filtered through, to greater or lesser degree, in the music and dance experienced in Longyearbyen and Pyramiden. Interestingly, for the artists themselves the idea of North seemed to encapsulate the greater Arctic region, reaffirming the notion that identity is rarely confined by national borders.

The music and dance so imaginatively curated over the three days was also a reminder of the multiple identities that exist within Norway and of the diversity of artistic voices that arise thereof.

It will be interesting to see how Northern Expo impacts on the international profiles of the participating artists but it is to be hoped that this ambitious showcase event will act as a spur to greater international engagement. Whether Northern Expo was a one-off event, or whether it evolves into an annual or biannual showcase remains to be seen. It would, however, be difficult to replicate the Svalbard experience. If Northern Expo does return, it might instead make more sense to look to other Northern locations with their own culture and their own unique stories, for as Northern Expo demonstrated so vitally, it's out of such circumstances that great art finds so much of its inspiration.

Photos: Courtesy of Knut Åserud

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