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- Posted on Jul 13th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Odd, not because she's the queen of, you know, Norway. And most in the audience were her Norwegian subjects. It was because in the course of the weekend event, English may well have been the least important language in the international array of artists and fans. It was barely there in the opening night concert featuring short sets by eight of the acts from the weekend's lineup, or in the musical parade of nations through the town's center on Saturday morning (led by Serbia's brass band kings the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar and brought up by the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan, complete with a fire-eater spouting fountains of flame) or the closing roundup with another sampler-plate offering from other acts who had played. And that's not to mention in the dozens of full shows held at 30 sites in and around the lovely town of of Førde , nestled in the hills at the eastern end of the Førdefjorden fjord in western Norway. (Tip to other promoters: The opening/closing sampler concerts and a parade of artists should be pretty much no-brainer elements for any kind of festival, so get with it.)
Don't get the wrong idea. That was not any political statement, no anti-American (or anti-English) point, linguistically nor culturally. It was merely the way it played out with the vibrant roster of acts and mix of something in the neighborhood of 20,000 locals and foreigners mixing along the way.
In fact, there was not a lot of explicit politics at all in the course of the weekend, also perhaps odd given that the theme of the festival this year was "Freedom and Oppression." Many of the acts brought form outside Norway prominently represent oppressed peoples and cultures – the Kurdish Iranian family ensemble the Kamkars, Israel-based Palestinian singer Amal Murkus (pictured), Honduran Garifuna dynamo Aurelio Martinez, Gypsy/Roma acts from along the "Gypsy Caravan" (the Dhoad Gypsies and Markovic Orkestar, plus Hungary's Parno Graszt and the Morocco/Spain trans-Atlas project Orquestra Chekara Flamenca) and the London Uyghur Ensemble, made largely of exiles from China's Xinjiang province, among them.
Perhaps it's trite, but most of the artists were clear that they wanted to let the music do the talking and leave politics out of it.
After the opening concert, some of the artists and fans headed to nearby Jolster, a small cluster of buildings re-creating an old village in a folkloric manner. Among those performing in the extremely intimate setting, under the never-quite-dark northern summer sky, were the Uyghurs, Sweden's Vasen, a small Indian troupe and young local folk-art song trio Tindra, while visitors samples warm soup and fresh dessert waffles in a courtyard linking the buildings where the music happened.
On a bus back to town afterward, Yalckun Abdurehim – the graceful, accomplished dancer who performs with the Uyghur group – spoke of the great opportunities for musical and cultural exchange at the festival. He has lived in London for 19 years since being allowed to leave China on a scholarship – though he was not allowed to go to the US for his original scholarship to Julliard. He has family in China and knows well the second-class status of his people there. But it's not words that he believes can change the world. It's music.
"Getting together with music to share cultures helps, don't you think?" he said. "It's not necessary screaming in people's faces. Music stays with people for generations. Hopefully, a music festival like this can have an impact, especially on young people."
Assessing the roster of acts, the setting and the support (both corporate and governmental) that the Festival, now in its 21st year, garners, he marveled, "It's just remarkable that they have the resources to put something like this together."
The Kamkars' set in one of several concert spaces in the Førdehuset civic center complex was a highlight of rich, creative arrangements of Kurdish traditional music, just one of the artistic facets that have made this family a global force.
At breakfast on Saturday, vocalist Hooshang Kamkar enthused about sharing the opening night bill with the Uyghurs, Palestinian singer Murkus and Polish neo-Klezmer trio Kroke. The Uyghurs in particular caught him a bit by surprise due to some musical similarities to his group, certainly the result of centuries of exchange along the Silk Road.
"There was the same sense of melody and rhythm," he said. "Very near to our music. I had not heard them before. I heard Chinese music before, but it was different in mood and instruments and rhythm. Most Chinese music is pentatonic, but this was like us, based on modes. It is interesting for our group to see the different musicians. Music is the way to make communication and know each other."
Trumpeter Marko Markovic, who took over the full reins of his group with his father, Boban, remaining in Belgrade after a bout of food poisoning elsewhere in Europe, spoke in the hotel lounge between an outdoor afternoon performance and an indoor late-night club set – both getting even the most reserved attendees shaking their rears to the spiky brass blasts. He's too young, he said, to have experienced the real oppression that happened in the Balkans. But he is very appreciative of the opportunities he has that some in the past may have not – not just political oppression but the wish some have had for "tradition" to be frozen, unchanging – and embodies it fully in his art.
"The freedom is what we express in our music," he said. "The music is as free as possible. It is structured, but free. It comes from tradition, but it's personal."
A few, though, were quite ready to address the festival's theme, if in conversation rather than the music. Honduras' Martinez and his group onstage startled listeners with the complexities of the sounds – there were six musicians in the group, but it sounded as if they were collectively making 16 rhythms at once without ever losing their respective places in the floor-shaking mix. In the lobby of the Rica Sunnfjord Hotell, where many of the musicians were staying and mingled, he revealed some personal polyrhythms. Besides being a musician, he said, he's a politician – the first African-rooted person to serve as a congressman from his region in many generations. Representing his Garifuna culture is a mission both in music and politics, he said.
"I bring that to my music," he said.
And after an absolutely spine-tingling set at a church social hall nearby, Amal Murkus said she felt very connected to the theme topic.
"When they invited me they didn't have the theme," she said in the hotel lobby not long after her performance with her acoustic oud-ney-percussion trio. "They invited me for my music. But I was happy when they came with that. We have oppression – and we want freedom."
She dreams of the day when it will not be a topic she has to address, of course. "We all hope for that."
Keeping the politics almost as background ambiance was a smart move for the organizers, allowing people to interact with the music and culture. Only a few parts of the program addressed it explicitly, though effectively. Ole Reitov, of the Copenhagen-based organization Freemuse, gave a talk on Saturday, outlining the organization's campaigns to bring attention and aid to artists silenced or exiled by governments and cultural prejudices.
Examples ranged from the peril of artists who cross the Taliban or Chinese governments to the more local cases of the (not-so-distant) past where Norway saw the emotive joik singing and drumming of the northern Sami people condemned as being from the devil by various ministers and missionaries, the latter represented in an excerpt of a film about Sami star Marie Boine. Oh, and there was also a clip from another film – 'Shut Up & Sing,' the documentary about the bannings, CD burnings and outright death threats aimed at country band the Dixie Chicks after comments criticizing President George W. Bush in the post-9/11 months. So there's your American presence. Of course, that raised the issue of the differences between market forces and official policies of governmental censorship.
If sharing and mixing is the ultimate goal and answer, two particular shows in the festival took that on by well-crafted design. A Norway-Poland collaboration between Tindra (with its echoes of Kurt Weill reverberating it its Norwegian folk interpretations) and Kroke (with its acoustic avant-Klezmer) yielded moments of transcendent beauty. And a youth project billed as Talent 2010 brought together musicians from Norway, Brazil and Cape Verde with some quite enticing results, both in the melodic and rhythmic cross-work. And these two teamings came to fruition with just one week each from start to rewarding finish.
That's better than screaming politics in people's faces any day.