Polar Jazz: Longyearbyen, Svalbard, February 3-7, 2011

John Kelman By

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February 4: Bus Tour

After nearly five hours snowmobiling, and with barely time to grab a bite to eat, Polar Jazz's international guests were quickly whisked into a bus, for an afternoon tour that took them to a coal mine, a satellite installation, a way station where coal used to be transferred from the mines to the sea for transport, and a quick look at a dog yard, home for a pack of sled dogs.

Coal Mine

Coal mining is an essential activity on Svalbard, because it's the only means of reliable energy to keep the town of Longyearbyen alive. Each year, half of the mine's 75,000 tons of coal is exported, with the rest used to fuel the large power station and subsidiary secondary post. Unlike most mines, however, which run three eight-hour shifts around the clock, the mine on Svalbard runs a relatively light seven-hour day, making it a highly desirable job for miners. There have been a series of areas located and mined on the islands, with the current mine in operation for approximately thirty years. It's impossible to emphasize enough just how important this mine is to the existence of a developed area on Svalbard; even in radiator-heated hotel rooms, turning the thermostat off for just a couple hours resulted in a significant drop in temperature. While supplies are, of course, brought to the islands on a regular basis, the fact that Svalbard is self-sufficient when it comes to energy, means that the already high cost of living can, at least, be kept down on that front.

The next stop was the EISCAT Satellite Station, where two parabolic dishes are used, amongst other things, to monitor solar flare activity and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) that are so vivid and common. It's one thing to see these images on film or in a photo, another to stand beside them as their positions are moved; it was strangely majestic, in fact, and somehow belittling, to realize that these dishes are monitoring activity across the vastness of space. But it all becomes somehow real in the wake of these large dishes. Just up the road from EISCAT is an observatory, and between these two installations, significant research is being done on a daily basis, to understand the world around us and the universe beyond.

A quick trip to a dog yard provided some idea of how sled dogs live. Rather than being large animals, these Siberia Huskies were surprisingly small and lean in stature, but powerful in their ability to pull heavy sleds for hours on end. Living outside—each with its own area where, inside a larger fenced area, the dogs are chained with access to a raised wooden dog house to protect the dogs from the wind and cold—it became clear just how much these dogs live to run when the bus approached the yard. People-friendly, it was obvious that the dogs were excited at the prospect of getting out to run. Unfortunately, this particular afternoon, it was not to be, but the guests had a chance to interact with the dogs for a few minutes—and see a hanging set of four dead seals, left there to attract polar bears away from the dogs, should they wander into the area.

EISCAT Svalbard Radar Station

Perhaps most remarkable about life on Svalbard is that, with all the precautions taken to ensure safety from the environment—and from the polar bears who live at the top of the food chain here—there have not been any significant incidents. Still, on a walk in town on Sunday, February 6, some of the guests encountered proof that these grand white bears are never far away, discovering a large footprint in the snow, in the middle of town.

The trip ended at a way station, an indoor venue through which the cable cars that come from the mines, carrying the coal, used to pass through. Decades old, with the station not normally open to the public, it provided further opportunity to appreciate—courtesy of a well-informed and entertaining tour guide—life as a coal miner. With revenue based on production—on how many tons of coal are sent from the mines to the town and beyond—any slowdown, anywhere along the way, means less money in everyone's pockets. The way station had an area for repair of the large metal cars used to transport the coal, and a rather ingenious method of taking them offline and back online again, without slowing down the rest of the process. While this raised area was indoors and, consequently, shielded from the bitter cold of the wind, it was still an example of the extreme conditions under which coal miners work; even today, with better technology and conditions, it's still clearly a tough life.

February 4: Beady Belle and PUST

The second night of Polar Jazz featured three distinctive acts, ranging from Denmark's whacky Klezmofobia to a local vocal group, PUST. But first, Beady Belle, the group led by singer Beate S. Lech, delivered a polished set that, while largely occupying the chill territory that the singer has inhabited since she emerged a decade ago with Home (Jazzzland, 2001), suggested she was capable of more vocal pyrotechnics than heard on her four Jazzland recordings.

From left: Beate S. Lech, Tommy Kristiansen

Beady Belle's music is unequivocally pop, but in its harmonic language and arrangements, there's no denying its jazz cred, especially keyboardist Jørn Øien, who delivered a number of tasty solos throughout the group's 70-minute set. Guitarist Tommy Kristiansen, too, was a subtle but important presence, as much a textural component as a rhythmic one, while bassist Marius Reksjø (who formed the group with Leche while they were studying at the University of Oslo), and drummer Erik Holm kept the groove gentle but visceral throughout.

Clearly a group with a lot of road miles under its belt, Beady Belle's performance was well-rehearsed, and went off without a hitch. Dressed in a dangerously low-cut dress, there may not have been a lot of stage space, but Leche owned it, a charismatic performer who, at least during this performance, kicked in a lot more energy than on record, and displayed more melismatic capability, though she never went too far. The music came largely from her recent release, At Welding Bridge (Jazzland, 2010) and the previous Belvedere (Jazzland, 2008), from which one of the set's highlights, the snakily grooving "Self-Fulfilling," was culled.

After a well deserved encore, the stage was cleared for PUST a local vocal group featuring soprano Anne Hilde Grøv and Jorun Lovise Husan, alto Elsaibeth Anvik, tenor Jostein Hasselgård, baritone Håvard Gravdal and bass Mads Iversen. Three males, and three females, also delivering a very polished set, carefully choreographed as the singers moved around the stage to spotlight individual soloists and various pairings within the sextet, as they married traditional folk music with more contemporary concerns.

PUST, from left: Elisabeth Anvik, Jostein Hasselgård, Mads Iversen
Anne Hilde Grøv, Jorun Lovise Husan, Håvard Gravdal

A capella vocal groups aren't particularly unusual in Norway, ranging from the more classical focus of Trio Mediaeval and Nordic Voices to more forward-looking ensembles like ESE and Smyr; PUST fit somewhere in the middle, neither too heavy on traditionalism or particularly groundbreaking in its modern arrangements. Still, it was an entertaining set, delivered with energy and élan—a set that would have likely been even more so, had it been possible to understand the group's introductions. While English is the language of currency on Svalbard when none else will do, and despite a broad cross-section of locals from other countries, Norwegian remains the primary language and, consequently, Polar Jazz was largely conducted in Norwegian. It may not have been possible to understand everything that was being said, but it was clear, from the audience response, that PUST connected well with its fans—and there were fans, as the crowd swelled for the group's performance.

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