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The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

Mark Sabbatini By

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Longyearbyen is named after a U.S. entrepreneur John Munro Longyear (1860-1922), who as head of the Arctic Coal Co. founded the town and the first of many mines that became the dominant economic base. Written history of the region dates back to 1194 in Icelandic sagas of "Sval Bard" ("cool" and "edge" in Norwegian), interpreted as "the land with the cold coast." The island of Spitsbergen is 60 percent glaciers, 27 percent rock and 13 percent vegetation with no trees (it does have crowberry and cloudberry bushes).

A Dutch expedition led by Willem Barents rediscovered the archipelago in 1596, triggering a series of human/human and human/nature conflicts that continue to present day, according to an official historical narrative. England, The Netherlands, Norway and Russia established bases during the 17th and 18th centuries, overhunting walruses, Arctic foxes, polar bears, reindeer and nearly driving the rare Bowhead Whales to extinction. The English and Dutch fought land and sea battles over whaling rights, with both sides suffering heavy losses. But by the 19th century many of the hunting colonies left, and scientific exploration and Arctic expeditions became the focus of activity.

Coal mining brought another rush of people at the beginning of the 20th century, with several countries getting into conflicts over territorial rights. These were resolved with the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, designating the area as Norwegian, but demilitarized and granting other nations the right to seek natural resources on a principle of absolute equality. The treaty means unique privileges for foreigners, who can visit, study and work here without a permit or passport (practically speaking, a passport is still needed to make the trip via mainland Norway).

The Svalbard colonies were destroyed by Nazi Germany during World War II, although the 2,000 Soviets and 900 Norwegians living there had already been forced to abandon the islands two years before the attacks began in 1943. The town was rebuilt, but Cold War tensions over Svalbard's potential as a military air site kept Longyearbyen from getting an airport until 1975. The Norwegian government's desire to make Longyearbyen a family community instead of a company town for mining, which was going through a crisis during the 1970s, made the difference.

About 60 percent of Svalbard's Norwegian population is employed today by what's now a state-owned coal company, according to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, but tourism has emerged as a strong secondary industry. National Geographic Adventure lists Svalbard as one of its six recommended trips for 2008, saying it "has lately earned fame as ground zero in the climate debate. Perhaps that's because visitors get a firsthand view of what's at stake—a panoply of calving glaciers, rich wildlife and yawning fjords." There's a relative abundance of restaurants and quality hotel space in Longyearbyen (although rooms fill quickly during peak season) for visitors arriving by air and cruise ship. It's a dramatic transformation from 1990 when the only beds for tourists were in bunk houses. The region's other cornerstone, The University Centre in Svalbard, opened in 1993 and offers Arctic science and technology classes from undergraduate to postgraduate levels.

A new scientific landmark is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault about 400 feet inside a sandstone mountain. Designed to replace species destroyed by global or regional catastrophes, it can store up to 4.5 million distinct seed species. The permafrost and lack of earthquake activity were seen as vital for protecting vital food crop seeds for hundreds or even thousands of years, and there isn't the political and environmental turmoil where many of the world's 1,400 crop diversity collections exist. (By the way, since man doesn't live by bread alone and the post-Armageddon bash will need a mood booster, the Huset restaurant and nightclub has the world's northernmost wine cellar with 25,000-bottles wine cellar.)

There may not be the cultural atmosphere of an Inuit or Sami village in the Arctic, but Svalbard still has its quirks and claims to fame. Shoes are removed before entering almost every building, a longtime tradition to keep coal dust out of homes. In 1998, the Norwegian Championship in badminton was held in the Svalbard Sportshall. The Spitsbergen Marathon, whose motto is "you won't get it tougher" due to the wind and weather, is in June, with a time of 3:21.22 by a man in the 50-54 age category winning the 14th annual race in 2007 among the 23 men and four women participating. Much of the 2007 children's fantasy movie "The Golden Compass" was filmed in Svalbard and tourism officials say it "gives you good impressions of the impressive unspoiled and untouched landscapes here" (it gets a dismal score of 43 out of 100 from the compilation of critics nationwide at the Rotten Tomatoes web site, with one calling it "a movie with characters constantly explaining arcane concepts and only rarely doing anything about them").

Prices for U.S. travelers are astronomical thanks to the crippled dollar, the cost of remote shipping and what's already the second most expensive country in the world on the Economist's Big Mac Index (about $6.50, vs. a low of $1.40 in China). A can of Diet Coke costs $6 at the hotel (but "only" at $1.50 at the Svalbardbutikken supermarket), a bowl of Thai chicken soup (very tasty) $14 at the coffee house, a loaf of bread $6 and a new CD $30. Frozen whale meat was on sale for $14 a pound at the grocery store (steak-like, so try a red wine) and parents who scoured eBay for Nintendo's elusive Wii at Christmas might be chagrined to know two were on the shelves of a store in the Lompensenteret mini-mall for $500 each. I spent my nine-day stay in one of the Radisson's apartments and, given the price of dining out, spending slightly more than $100 for a microwave oven to cook many of my own meals (reindeer burritos and sour-cream porridge—anyone...anyone?) proved a significant money saver.

Locals are quick to accept newcomers, some joking I'd already become a resident by staying longer than the average tourist. But thinking a year or two in Svalbard will satisfy their curiosity about the area, some stay longer.

"People move on before they're finished with Spitzbergen," said Guind Jacobsen, who left a chef job near Oslo to become a dog sled guide when his girlfriend was accepted to the university two years ago. "After a few years they come back." A handful end up joining the miners and others who make up a second part of the community with decades-old roots. "What they say is if you haven't left after a couple of years then you'll stay 10," Myklevoll said.

Amateur Night

"Is this Svalbard karaoke?"

That question by Joe a few songs into the opening night of Polar Jazz wasn't overly diplomatic, but was eerily close to my written notes at that moment ("sounds like local talent night"). Much like any evening-long procession of a small town's musicians, the Jazzvorspiel (the latter part means "preamble" or "prelude" in German) ranged from the good to the tolerable to the brave.

Nothing was painful, and Kristan and Joe agreed talent exceeded the annual Icestock festival at the 1,200-person McMurdro Station in Antarctica. The Svalbard crowd—while bigger and louder on subsequent nights—was unmatched in individuals and subgroup fervor.

"it's like going to see a play in Juneau," Kristan said. "Half the drama is in the audience."

The jazziest portion of the evening featured the Storband (16-17 members, by my count) playing standards, the first an instrumental followed by five songs with different lead singers. The band was par for casual players who gather once a week to practice, with straightforward arrangements and no solos beyond brief embellishments. There were a few moments of confusion about the timing of parts, none throwing things seriously out of whack.

Most of the singers sounded fuzzy, making me think it was a soundboard problem until Susanne Hansen (introduced in paragraph two) showed a superiority in skill and clarity leading the finale, "Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?" The band stepped it up a notch with the well-timed hit-and-pause arrangement, although they weren't always on-key with Hansen. She mostly kept her vocals in a safe mid-range register, faltering only when some of her clarity was lost when she tried to stretch into higher pitches and volumes.

Hansen also performed a couple of songs with an instrumental quartet at the evening's midpoint, getting more acclaim for an aggressively bluesy "Feeling Good" and Arctic-themed ballad "The Other Side Of The World." Joe compared her to former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant. Hansen, who works as a clerk at an all-purpose store in the Lompensenteret that is one of the few places to buy CDs, said she's never heard of Merchant.

Her evaluation of her mini-set? "Not bad for rehearsing only three times," she said. The band also had to work around a guitarist who was supposed to join having his flight held up because of bad weather.

Hansen said she grew up singing in choirs, furthered her music skills while living on the mainland for a few years, and now performs in concerts every other month. She said she became a fan of jazz only three years ago, citing Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as influences, but rock and pop remains her dominant interest. She doesn't have any specific long-term musical goals and, while she thinks she might return to the mainland at least temporarily in a few years, her young child and other family ties are keeping her rooted in Longyerbyen for now.

"It's a very special place," she said.

Among the evening's other noteworthies was a six-man a cappella group that Kristan thought might be the local ski team. They did a few peppy, apparently hokey, numbers in decent harmony, concluding with a female pianist joining to punctuate what seemed to be a parody of a dark death march. "if tonight is a traditional smorgasbord, that was the ham," Kristan said.

The worst of the evening was almost certainly a dragging, melancholy "Born To Be Wild," lacking any apparent satirical intent by a foursome (female singer, two men with guitars and a drummer) in their 20s. Another questionable arrangement came from the final group which, after opening with "Rocky Top," delved into something where Joe's condensed factual summary says more than analysis possibly can: "This is a Norwegian band playing AC/DC and they're doing it bluegrass style."

They saved face by getting back to conventional shitkicking, including a whirlwind fiddle-and-clapping number at the end, earning loud applause on merit and setting the stage for a final song at 11:30 p.m. with all of the evening's performers doing a sing-and-clap thing in a line through the audience to the stage.

Intermission

In Jack London's Call Of The Wild, I'd be the cheechako who drives his dogsled into the lake and drowns.

Comfy as the Radisson is, one might as well vacation in Cleveland if going outside isn't in the plan. So Day 2 of Polarjazz got off to an early and chilly start with a half-day tour through a valley outside Longyearbyen. It's little more than a sampler for novices wondering if a longer trip is something they can endure, the sort of thing I felt offered little insight of the "real" experience when leading hiking and skiing primers of similar intent.

It does sort out the truly inept.

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