Refugees find harmony on Norway's northern edge at Varangerfestivalen 2007

Mark Sabbatini By

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(Note: Mark Sabbatini will reporting daily from the world's northernmost jazz festival, PolarJazz, starting Jan. 30 in Longyearbyen, Norway. As preview of the Scandinavian Arctic's jazz scene, this is his feature from last summer's festival in Vadso, on the northern edge of the country's mainland.)

When the U.N. needs a place to send refugees fleeing war-torn Africa, the northern tip of mainland Norway doesn't seem like a natural fit.

But David Akoiwala, a construction worker from Liberia, found himself in the Arctic town of Vadso after family members were killed in attacks and he encountered an equally volatile situation in Sierra Leone. He's not a musician, but organizing a gospel choir with his fellow refugees to promote harmony with each other and their new community was an easy—and positive—step after the drastic cultural leap of their relocation.

"The talents we have from Africa we can contribute to this country and, if time will permit us, we can make Africa a better place," he said.

Appreciation of their music and mission was evident among locals and visitors packing into the towering Vadso Kirke church for a goodwill gospel/Dixieland concert featuring musicians from seven countries as part of the 25th annual Varangerfestivalen from Aug. 8-12. The event is northern Norway's biggest jazz festival with more than 30 concerts primarily by musicians from the Barents Sea region. Several well-known and international performers, including Jan Gararbek and Nils Petter Moelvaer at this festival, are also featured.

"We are a small place far from Oslo," said Stein Ovesen, chairman of the festival's board. "I don't think people realize we can put on Norway's best jazz festival here."

Vadso, a fishing village since the 1500s, is part of an Arctic region that's home to Europe's oldest-known music. The community was settled largely by Finland residents fleeing famine after it became a township in 1833. A significant Finnish-speaking population remains and the town 200 miles above the Arctic Circle continues taking in those in precarious situations, with 500 to 600 modern-day refugees among the 6,000 residents.

Akolwala, a refugee from 2004, and his fellow countrymen became part of a 30-member choir at Varangerfestivalen backing the Ytre Suløens Jazz Ensemble, featuring vocalists T.C. Hawkins and Tricia Boutté. It is their third performance with the ensemble, after they and about 1,000 other Liberian refugees from around Norway gained notoriety in Bergen for what became an annual gospel church concert and celebration of Liberia's independence day on July 26.

"We try to come here as Africans because if you go to a strange society where English is not spoken it is difficult to make that first contact," he said.

A capacity crowd of about 450 gave a standing ovation to this year's Vadso concert, with Hawkins, Boutté and longtime Suløens trumpeter Kåre Nymark Jr. dominating the 90-minute collection of familiar Southern tunes. At this and most performances there was a sense of appreciation for the artistic quality, not just the novelty, from an audience with a well-educated communal ear.

"It's intensely developed," Boutté said. "I've worked with some of the best musicians in this country of 4 million because they're intensely interested in it."

Boutté is a refugee of a different sort, relocating from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to a village on Norway's west coast thanks to efforts by those in Suløens' band.

"She was watching her home being destroyed on TV," Nymark said. "We got her an apartment to stay in during gigs and the owner just ended up saying 'take it' (for a near-giveaway price)."

Adjusting wasn't difficult, Boutté said, although she discovered the locals wanted her to bring her lyrics, as well as her clothes, from home.

"I learned to sing a few Norwegian tunes and they're not interested in hearing them," she said. "They want me to sing in English."

Total attendance at the festival was estimated at 10,000, with locals slightly outnumbering outsiders coming almost entirely from other parts of Norway and northern Scandinavia. Among the noteworthy aspects of this year's listeners was how many came for the full slate of shows.

"They've sold 10 times as many (all-access) passes this year as they've ever sold," said Nick Williams, a longtime self-proclaimed dugnad (gopher) whose actual duties far exceed the description. "It's a mixture of a huge international hero (Garbarek) and local good guys."

There some blues and world music concerts, plus rock and techno bands headlining the final night's shows, but Williams said this festival returned to its original roots of emphasizing mostly jazz after trying to appeal to a broader audience in recent years.

"Generic festivals are two to a penny—they're everywhere," he said. "If you have a niche festival it will win."

The Birds And The Beaches

The traditional structure this far north in Alaska is the igloo. In Vadso the round mounds dotting the landscape are hay.

Vadso is at 70°04 degrees north, roughly equal to Alaska's northernmost community of Barrow, 1,300 miles from the North Pole. Barrow is a frozen desert, with five inches of average annual precipitation and below- freezing temperatures year-round. In Vadso locals spent much of the first day of Varangerfestivalen working up a sweat on miles of green farmland and flocking to the beach to cool off in the Arctic Ocean.

Full disclose: this isn't an everyday thing.

"This is the nicest beach in the world when the weather's nice," Williams said. How often is that? "I've been there maybe 20 times in 17 years."

But the Norwegian community, whose name means "the island with drinking water," is lush for being far north of the Arctic Circle. Green hills strewn liberally with flowers and short rocky peaks run along the coast instead of the glacier-crusted fjords to the south. Eider ducks and other birds dot the shores liberally. The farms are a startling contrast to barren permafrost and ice of Alaska's North Slope, where it often costs more than $5 for a loaf of white bread or a half gallon of milk, forcing locals to live primarily on subsistence hunts of whale and caribou.

"This is basically an area where people have survived," Williams said. "You would have a couple of sheep and cows and a wife on land, and then be at sea. This is the time of gathering."

The Gulf Stream and mountains shielding the town from Arctic winds moderate temperatures. Summers are cooler and damper than the country's interior, keeping gardeners from planting much until June, but winters are more likely to be 10 degrees Fahrenheit than the minus 30 degrees ice fogs of Barrow. Snow and harsh conditions can keep flights from getting in, but Williams said Vadso has never been cut off entirely for a significant period of time during his 17 years here.

"I would say we've definitely noticed global warming," he added. "There's less snow and there's more warm weather."

Modern-day Vadso is an administrative and commercial hub for the surrounding Finnmark region, with farming and fishing relegated to secondary roles. Tourism is also significant, although less so than better- known nearby communities such as Kirkenes, the endpoint for Norway's highly popular Hurtigruten coastal ferry (Vadso is the second-to-last stop, but only on the northbound trip at 6 a.m. and only for the few minutes necessary to load/unload a few transiting passengers).

Among Vadso's claims to fame is serving as the airstrip Umberto Nobile and Roald Amundsen used for their historic flight to the North Pole in 1926. The city center was heavily damaged by World War II bombing attacks in 1944 but, according to a regional government narrative, "many of the buildings remained standing, and today Vadsø has more preserved and renovated buildings than any other place in Finnmark."

Poverty was rampant in the suburbs and surrounding area until the 1950s, when oil and post-war development brought dramatic change, Williams said.

"There's been a huge development of wealth in Norway in the course of one generation," he said.

A fledgling investor at the beginning of the 1990s helped turn Vadso into a "starting point for refugees," Williams said. He said the Norwegian government was desperate for space to use as a hostel for refugees from Kosovo and the man had purchased an abandoned hospital without succeeding in efforts to develop it into something else.

"They were all over the country looking for places these refugees could stay," he said. "This guy basically went into the refugee business...then the wars started in Bosnia."

There's a small amount of debate about the assistance refugees receive indefinitely if they cannot find work, but most Norwegians accept the situation, William said. But he said refugees may acclimate better in places where there are limits such as the United States.

Being a regional hub means other quirks in the population's makeup ("the number of lawyers who work here is unbelievable," Williams said) and also more cultural activity than typical for a town of this size.

"The first year I was here I went to more concerts, theaters and plays than in seven years in Oslo," Williams said.

Yoiks And Away!

Finnmark's ancient music is the yoik—short, rhythmic melodic phrases by individuals or casual groups—performed by the region's aboriginal Samis for more than 2,000 years (listen to extensive free MP3 collections by traditional and modern artists). It was frequently banned or suppressed, according to an article by Chris Campion in the British newspaper The Observer.

"Yoik became the devil's music," Campion writes. "Wherever Christianity met indigenous culture...it brought not only the Holy Trinity but an unholy one too: the bottle, the cross and the axe (the rule of law)."

"In Norway, from 1850 onwards, a policy of enforced assimilation meant that Sami children as young as six were sent to boarding schools, where they were taught in Norwegian. An estimated 140,000 Sami were also sterilised in eugenics programmes that operated across Scandinavia until the 1970s."

A revival of Sami culture and music has occurred since, including a traditional performance in the attic of an ancient farmhouse-turned-museum during Varangerfestivalen.

"A yoik is not a song but a resonant melodic phrase, sung unaccompanied and repeated through various iterations with no fixed beginning or end," Campion writes, noting groups are more "in cheery discord" than perfect harmony. "Traditionally utilised to induce a trance state in Sami shamans, it is a music essentially animist in nature. Yoiks are not sung about something but considered a rhythmic signifier of the actual thing itself, be it a place, an event, a family member, associate or an animal, especially reindeer. According to Sami practice, a yoik is not composed but received through adjagas. After a yoik is first invoked, it shimmers into eternity, hanging in the air like a memory, waiting to be recalled."

Numerous modern musicians incorporate elements of yolk, most commonly in rock, techno and rap. A relatively well-known jazz example is Garbarek's "Aichuri, The Song Man" from Legend Of The Seven Dreams (it's also part of his ECM Selected Recordings compilation. Vocalist Marie Boine, a Varangerfestivalen regular who's promoted as "Finnmark's county's greatest international artist," also features it heavily as part of her world music sextet (free MP3 performance).


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