Esbjørn Hazelius and Johan Hedin – the pragmatically named duo Hazelius Hedin – are soundchecking on the summit of Hafstadfjellet, 700 meters above the small town of Førde (rhymes with “murda,” approximately) on Norway’s west coast. To attend the show, you must hike up a steep switchback – an hour-long trek, if you’re in good shape – or a far steeper staired trail, so perilous even experienced climbers foreswear it; the descent must be taken in large part backwards. There’s one alternative, if you have a special permit, as the musicians and their sound team do: driving up the switchback, which narrows terrifyingly near the top.
Above the treeline, the 360-degree view is breathtaking, and concertgoers – about 100, including members of a Nordic hiking club – enjoy complementary fruit salad and a performance by two master musicians. Arranged for nyckelharpa (a traditional keyed fiddle), guitar and other instruments, the material includes baroque instrumentals and singer-songwriter folk – Hazelius’ voice recalls English folk-rock king Richard Thompson’s, albeit singing in Swedish. One number involves a tale of emigrants leaving home towards better prospects in America; if the music is at all dated, it’s only that, in 2018, the opposite immigration route might seem more appealing.
The show was a highlight of Førdefestivalen, a “traditional music and world music festival” held in Førde every summer since 1990, this year over five days from July 4th through 8th. The brainchild of a local folk musician and dancer, Hilde Bjørkum, it’s one of the planet’s most unique festivals, in part for its setting – at the mouth of the azure Førde fjord, beneath towering cliffs, shadowed by the vaulted peaks around the Jostedal glacier, which is shrinking with climate change but is still the largest on continental Europe.
The festival’s staging concepts are similarly unique, a draw even if you don’t know the artists performing. In addition to a mountain peak, concerts were held at a farm miles from town, at a historic home, in tiny turf-covered huts of a 19th-century village, in churches and parks, nightclubs and amphitheaters, in dancehalls, and on the rooftop of a modern-art museum. By design, many performances, especially those in unusual locations, accommodated a limited number of fans – you had to be motivated. For the less intrepid, there were two elaborately staged, live-streamed multi-act galas at the sports hall of the Førdehuset, the elaborate community center at the edge of town – a tasting menu for audiences who might not know Tarantella from Rumba Catalana. The glitzy production, complete with swooping crane shots and video interstitials, was on par with any televised American music awards show; the second night was hosted by Norwegian celebrity journalist-novelist–TV host–comedian-lesbian hero, Linda Eide.
The musical lineup, however, with roughly 300 artists, is light on market-share–defined star power – the average pop fan might be forgiven for knowing none of the acts. The most established and best known was possibly the 20-year-old Romani Balkan brass band and party machine Fanfare Ciocârlia, who had people circle-dancing horas in the city’s main park. Timbila Muzimba have been around almost as long, a kinetic Mozambican band with intense choreography driven by large wooden marimbas (timbilas). Elida Almeida is a Cape Verdean singer who updated the mornas of her country’s late cultural ambassador Cesária Évora alongside other styles from her Santiago homeland. Both of the latter acts showcased African music far different from the South and West African traditions perhaps familiar to Paul Simon and Drake fans.
Another standout was Aynur Doğan, the Kurdish singer who performs as Aynur, and whose piercing tones open and close The Music of Strangers, the documentary on Yo-Yo Ma’s international music collective, the Silk Road Ensemble. Aynur grew up in eastern Turkey, and moved to Istanbul in the Seventies. But as a Kurd, an Alevi Muslim and a woman, she struggled in a tremendously repressive culture. Few Turkish musicians would work with a singer determined to perform Kurdish songs, and with the escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in 2015, she fled Istanbul to live in the Netherlands, where she found kindred players. In Førde she performed potent, plaintive, sometimes searing traditional songs and originals with jazzy arrangements for clarinet, piano, drums and tambur, a three-string longneck lute, singing about loss and of being a “nomadic soul,” not by choice but by geopolitical fate.
The regional acts were a revelation too, especially for those who associate Norwegian music mainly with black metal, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and Eighties synth-pop heartthrobs A-ha. The most memorable set was by Marja Mortensson, who took the mesmeric, chattering vocal tradition of the indigenous Sami people of Northern Europe – yoiking, as it’s known – and arranged it impressionistically for drums, bass trumpet, tuba and electronics. Performing on the roof of the city’s art museum, she sang strange, atmospheric and often heartbreaking songs in a language few understood (less than 500 people speak the dialect, she noted) but everyone seemed to vibe deeply with – even the gulls swooping overhead, who added impromptu harmonies.
Much of the Norwegian music was based around the voice-like, slightly nasal sound of the Hardanger fiddle, the national instrument, a violin with sympathetic strings doubling the bowed ones. It’s an intoxicating sound, one that California rock journeyman and fiddler David Lindley and guitar experimentalist Henry Kaiser explored in the Nineties on their collaborative field recording The Sweet Sunny North. In Førde, fiddler-composer Anne Hytta played hypnotic, meditative pieces, while Bjarte Eike’s ensemble Barokksolistene connected sources ranging from Henry Purcell to New World hillbilly music in their theatrical “Alehouse Sessions,” which involved frequent onstage beer-swigging and ended in a slow-motion pub brawl that qualified as top-shelf modern dance.
That group offered the fest’s most explicit demonstration of the relationship between Scandanavian, English and Irish folk, and American country and bluegrass, an immigration-fueled connection you don’t need to be a musicologist to hear. The Hardanger itself is likely related to sympathetic-string Indian instruments like the sarangi encountered by Norwegians traveling East Indian trade routes, which further adds to the web of interconnection between the musics on offer, and gives lie to notions of musical/cultural purity that wall-building nationalists like to promote.
Which is why at this moment, this festival felt particularly essential, and instructive. In a wealthy country that has tended towards the isolationist (Norway has never been part of the EU) and which recently voted in a right-wing government, a small town continues in the quaint belief that a world music festival might help make them better people. “We have had artists from countries that are quite poor, or maybe there’s war, and we don’t know so much about them,” says fest founder Bjørkum, “and with some people there is skepticism of foreign people, but we have this wonderful meeting place. … Art is very strong in changing minds.”
This attitude persists in Europe, where it’s estimated a staggering 4,000 music festivals are devoted in some way to “world music,” and where generous national support for the arts is still considered an essential part of what governments do for the people they represent. By this measure, America is far behind. There are a handful of like-minded events in the United States, some more populist, some more esoteric. The Beloved Festival, which bills itself as a “sacred art, music and movement” festival, will be held this year from August 10th through 13th in the boreal rainforest of Tidewater, Oregon; ¡Globalquerque! convenes in Albuquerque on September 21st and 22nd; the formidable World Music Festival Chicago is slated for September 7th through 23rd. New York has a number of largely free festivals – including the sprawling seasonal SummerStage, Celebrate Brooklyn, and Lincoln Center Out of Doors – with significant multicultural traditional music programming, as well as the mid-winter GlobalFest, a showcase which doubles as a world-music cheat sheet for the international concert programmers in town for the annual APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) conference.
But the U.S. can do far better, and should, especially now. As Førdefestivalen proved, the best way to combat the delusional need to build walls is to offer profound and positive examples of what happens when we don’t.