With 300 artists from 30 countries, Førde is the biggest festival of folk and world music in Scandinavia. Simon Broughton was at the latest edition, which finished on Sunday, July 10 (Photos courtesy of Førde Festival)
Førde, a small town of 14,000 people in the west of Norway, is surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and fjords. So it’s a spectacular location for a festival and some of the Førde Festival’s concerts are in farmyards, wooden cottages and on mountain tops. As a broad theme, the festival took the idea of ‘Flight’, reflecting the unprecedented movement of refugees in the world, and that is something I will look at in the next issue of Songlines, out August 26. But, from Førde itself, here are some personal highlights of the 27th edition of the festival.
One of the most atmospheric locations is the Jølster Museum, a collection of traditional wooden houses, not far from Førde. The small rooms only fit 30 or 40 people, so the concerts were acoustic and intimate. At different locations between 11pm and 2am – when the summer night is more or less dark – you could find music from Norway, Finland, Spain, Tuva, Kenya and Malawi. I just dived in at random and struck lucky. In one of the smallest cottages a couple of old gents in trilbies were playing Hardanger fiddle and the guitar-like mandola. The room was packed and pretty dark, but I found a place on the floor and could make out the neat white beard of the fiddler and catch the light glinting on the mother-of-pearl on the fingerboard. The musicians’ smiles suggested they knew each other well.
I only discovered afterwards that this was one of the most-loved duos in Scandinavian folk music: Gunnar Stubseid, from Norway, on Hardanger fiddle and Ale Möller, from Sweden, on mandola (pictured right). They first met in 1986 and started playing in this novel combination. Stubseid comes from Setesdal region where the most rugged Hardanger fiddle music is found, but here the sound was softened by the plucked strings of the mandola. The acoustic of the wooden room was perfect for this music and the tapping of the two gents’ feet on the wooden floor was the ideal accompaniment. The cyclical, trance-like tunes draw you in and you hardly know whether five or 25 minutes have passed. You can imagine long evenings enjoying music like this a couple of centuries ago.
The contrast between the rustic simplicity of the Jølster houses and the main venue at the Førdehuset cultural centre is striking. Here the large hall has dramatic lighting, screens, graphics and a slick live video cut of the concerts. The big crowd-pleasers were Sephardic singer Mor Karbasi, who brings drama and theatricality to her songs in Ladino, Moroccan Berber and Hebrew, and the magnificent French Canadian band La Bottine Souriante (pictured right), who have been active, with different line-ups, since 1976. They’re a force of nature with their trademark foot-percussion, fiddles, accordion and a powerful horn section.
In a get-up-and-have-a-Balkan-party way, the double-bill of Romanian and Hungarian Gypsy music from Mahala Rai Banda and Romengo was stunning. This was music that comes from very deep Romani roots – and tied perfectly into the migration theme of the festival. With the singing of Romengo’s petite but powerful Mónika Lakatos, it drove the audience into a dancing frenzy.
The Scandinavian band to look out for are Denmark’s Dreamers Circus – three young guys on fiddle, mandolin and accordion. There is charisma, talent and a powerful performance onstage.
The most memorable performance was the premiere of Arctic Ice Music, by the world’s only ‘ice musician,’ Terje Isungset. He literally plays trumpets, xylophone, chimes and drums made out of ice. But however extraordinary and beautiful that is, there are limitations to what ice can do. So here he was working with Sami and Inuit singers from the Arctic plus Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyulyush, which brought in an awesome sonic landscape, created in just three days.
To play his instruments, Isungset wore a furry hood, thick sweater and gloves. I don’t know whether he’s sponsored by a Norwegian sweater company, but he’s missing a trick if not. During the show, Isungset had an ice helper (his daughter) bring instruments on, unpack bars of ice so they were ready to be played and remove them before they melt. It was a logistical choreography. “The concert is about human beings relation to nature and how to live with it,” he said to me before the show. “The Inuits really know how to live in the ice and this generated the idea for the concert.”
Isungset’s contribution was largely percussive, with incredibly delicate sounds from tapping ice rods while stepping in crushed ice, to more melodic sounds from his ice xylophone. The latter is essentially like a balafon, but while the balafon evokes the dryness of the desert, Isungset’s iceophone sounds fluid.
The singers added layers of texture and melody. The Inuit singers brought the breathy, rhythmic sound of katajjaq; the Sami singers add more ethereal joiks; and Radik Tyulyush produces a deep pulsing growl. One of the Sami singers, Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska told me she was performing joiks about nature, animals, the wind and “one from Finland about the Russians colonising Sami land and your feelings knowing it will be destroyed.” The various layers, textures and otherworldly sounds seemed like listening to an aural equivalent of the Northern Lights. Glorious, beautiful, but elusive. It is something that deserves to be seen around the world because it’s not only inspirational music, but there’s a powerful message in there as well.