SEPTEMBER 7, 2011
Norway Saga 2011: Part Three
Nat Geo Music Returns To Norway's Førde Folk Music Festivalby Evangeline Kim with Tom Pryor
Editor's Note: Since 2009, Nat Geo Music has been reporting on Norway's Førde Folk Music Festival - one of the best folk and world music festivals that Europe has to offer. We're always impressed with the generosity and warmth of our Norwegian hosts - who throw open their small town to the entire world for the weekend of the festival. But this year we feel that the terrible events in Oslo that took place less than two weeks later lend a special urgency to telling the story of the festival organizers' 20+ year commitment to multiculturalism and musical diversity. We want to dedicate this story both to those who lost their lives in the senseless terror attack in Oslo, and also to the grieving Norwegian people, whose grace, generosity and kindness cannot be diminished.
Friday, the second day of the festival, was filled with performances that were enormous crowd-pleasers. One of the surprises was a full concert by the Mayotte women spiritual-singers, Deba (sometimes translated as 'Serenity'). The audience fell under their trance-like spell as the group sang Sufi-inspired music in ancient Arabic written by a 15th century Yemenite writer of mystic poems.
With choreographed slow undulating swaying, often with closed eyes, the women appeared to be in ecstasy. They later told us in interview that there are in Mayotte, four to five groups of this traditional religious style of singing in each village. The songs are absorbed since girlhood and have been passed along over hundreds of years from grandmother to mother to daughter. The practice of getting together and singing is cherished as it affords the women a sense of well-being, comfort, and peace.
Not long after Deba's departure, Peruvian diva Susana Baca took to the stage with her band in another of the Festival Hall's many stages. Baca cut an impressive figure with her close-cropped hair, bare feet and flowing white gown, dancing in tight circles and raising her arms to the sky while her band laid down gently percolating grooves, punctuated by cajon and quijada - a.k.a. donkey jawbone. She led the ensemble through a stirring set of Afro-Peruvian classics, her own hits, and new material from her recently-released album Afrodiaspora.
We caught up with Baca after her performance and asked how she was enjoying the festival so far. "It's really incredible," she told us. "When I see so many people from all over the world come to this small place, and celebrate each other's culture and music in peace and with respect, that's very inspiring to me. And to celebrate women in life and in the world is so important. I always celebrate women in my music and I dedicate my performance here to the women who work with no recognition all over the world. Without the work of women, the world would just shut down".
Houria Aichi, the Chaouia Berber singer from Algeria's Aurès plateau region of the Atlas Mountains, is a tradition-bearer with profound archival knowledge of the centuries-old songs and complex vocal techniques of the Chaouia people. She mesmerized a packed festival concert room with her arrestingly dramatic and melancholy tribute to the famed horsemen of the Aurès, the proud, chivalrous warrior riders symbolic of Chaouia honor and courage, and once forced down in humiliation from horseback by colonialists. Ms. Aichi presented her repertoire with L'Hijâz Car, French Alsatian musicians on tahru, oud, percussion, bass clarinet and contrabass, who added touches of jazz and Mediterranean sonority, to her evocative musical praises of the "Cavaliers de l'Aurès."
Torill Faleide, Festival Communications Manager, wrote in a post-festival press release, "Portuguese Ana Moura sang fado so sensually that our husbands were oblivious to us the rest of the evening!" That sums up in a nutshell the impact Ms. Moura had that night. Accompanied by just three guitarists, the renowned Custodio Castelo, Filipe Rodrigues, and Jose Nunes, Ana Moura's stage presence was electrifying and her capacity to communicate so seductively with an overjoyed audience was sensational. Although fado is a sad music, filled with yearning and longing, and Ms. Moura explored its depths with tremendous soul, she managed to turn her concert into a celebratory and happy moment in time. She coaxed the audience to clap and sing along with touches of leavening humor. The luminous qualities of her voice were unforgettable.
Meanwhile, Scottish folksinger Julie Fowlis and her band wowed the audience at the Festival Hall's Storsalen stage, with a plaintive set of Gaelic-language songs. Fowlis' delicate voice and quiet demeanor set the stage for an intimate, sometimes dreamy set leavened with occasional dance tunes - and even a bit of jaw harp from Ms. Fowlis. But her precise delivery of the rough-hewn Gaelic consonants was a quiet reminder of the ancient bonds between the Gaels and the seafaring Norsemen who helped populate the Outer Hebrides islands where Fowlis was raised.
"I do hear it a bit, yeah." Fowlis told us, when we asked about the cultural connections between Norway and the Western Isles. "Sometimes when I listen to how people speak, in the melody of the language. It's different from Gaelic in many ways, but you can hear some similarities, definitely. Musically, too - especially in the fiddles, there's something kind of mournful in the tone that's very Scottish!"
Later on, the main Fordehuset hall was turned into a large cabaret setting with small tables for seating. The award-winning Danish group, the Jansberg Band, gave us a taste of contemporary Scandinavian folk, led by the charming fiddler Henrik Jansberg, along with some of Denmark's best instrumentalists on guitar and mandolin, piano, contrabass and percussion. Any thoughts of the rain outside were dispelled by their set that ranged from introspective passages to upbeat, rollicking rhythms and melodies. Dancers were soon on the floor whirling around in couples to the band's swinging beats.
Mali's Wassalou diva, Oumou Sangare and her band were one of the most eagerly anticipated groups during the festival. Following the Jansberg Band, the room was filled with the thundering staccato roll of the djembe drum in call-and-response intro with the traps drummer, soon joined by Ms. Sangare's players of bass, guitar, kamal n'goni (hunter's harp) and flute. As soon as Ms. Sangare and her two women dancing chorus hit the stage, the crowds leapt to the floor and a Wassalou party was on.
Born into poverty, selling water in the streets as a child for pennies to help her destitute mother and siblings, Ms. Sangare has risen to become one of Africa's greatest legends. With her deep, riveting contralto voice that can soar to a soprano register, tall and elegant, she possesses a commanding beauty. Her songs ceaselessly advocate causes for women and the impoverished. Yet, conscious of her role as a consummate entertainer, her voice thrilled us, as it entwined with the irresistible circular patterns of Wassalou dance rhythms. She and her group also paid tribute to the late Ali Farka Toure by riffing through the stately northern 'takamba' rhythm, only to return to her joyous southern Wassalou sound.
At midnight we dropped by the Forde Church, where Serbian Divna and her a capella Melodi Choir were filling the perfect acoustic space with the splendor and glory of their sacred Orthodox repertoire with roots in Byzantine and Russian traditional music.