Fjord fiesta

Who needs WOMAD?, asks Martin Longley, when there’s Norway’s Førdefestivalen, a weekender of global music on the west coast.

July 3rd-6th, 2014

In its 25th year, the Førdefestivalen global music weekender became slightly nostalgic. Usually, a specialised theme is declared for each edition, but for this significant anniversary, a set of return invites were issued to artists who were fondly remembered for their previous appearances.

Normally, the festival has a policy of continually booking first-time visitors, but we could forgive them for being a touch misty-eyed on this occasion. The other main thrust was to contrast, and often combine, local Norwegian folk talent from the surrounding fjords with a more international roster of multi-territory acts. This created a particular focus and experience that can’t be found elsewhere. The potent musical admixture presented a curious experience to the first-time visitor, alternating between bands that have been experienced previously and entirely unfamiliar folk-rooted discoveries. This ensured a vibrant oscillation for our roots-attuned receptors!

For the Oslo, or even Bergen, city-dweller, attendance required a committed journey northwards, so the majority of the healthily-sized audiences appeared to be local residents. Given that most of the concerts were pleasingly crowded, this seems to be an adequately self-sufficient set-up. Even so, this is a festival that offers an excitingly unique experience for the out-of-towner.

The gigs ranged in size from headliners at the cavernous Førdehuset Sports Hall to intimate sessions in a Rica Sunnfjord Hotel restaurant, from outdoor gigs with virtually unlimited capacity to a tiny acoustic-only room in the School Of Culture. The weather was surprisingly warm for much of the weekend, topping thermometers in many middle-European lands. There were a few outbreaks of rain or drizzle, but all conditions are fleeting in this region, just waiting for a turn in the coastal flow.

Speaking of other fluids, the Norwegians have been getting into beery microbreweries in recent times, with the adventurous Aegir headquarters situated not too far away, on the journey up north. Another striking aspect of the general situation was that the darkness didn’t finally descend until well after midnight, with dawn waking in what seemed like only two or three hours later.

The opening concert in the Sports Hall was impressively slick, its television broadcast status necessitating a very tightly sequenced show, a state that’s rarely experienced by global music aficionados. The disadvantage was that most acts were only allocated one or two tunes, but benefits were bestowed via a swiftly-parading tour of contrasting roots styles, facilitating a living compilation set, as each band had their equipment speedily wheeled onstage during a series of pre-recorded interview features.

The Norwegian comedian compère prompted hearty guffaws on a repeated basis! Artists included the poised Iranian singers Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat, the spunky Benin singer-percussionists Trio Teriba and local folksters MP3 (Mattias Pérez Trio), but the most impressive pranksters arrived at the end, with the Amsterdam Klezmer Band romping through a pair of extroverted numbers, their singer-saxophonist Job Chajes projecting the image of a wily farmer caught up in a late night city drinking den.

Later that evening, there was a multi-band gig in the setting of the Jølster Museum, a short bus ride outside town. Each act played in one of three well-preserved wooden houses, with a central open-air area acting as the food-serving, bar and general hanging-out zone. The Malian n’goni player Bassekou Kouyaté was leading a quieter quartet incarnation of his band, accompanied by family, Mamadou playing the bass variant of this West African lute, Moctar on calabash gourd percussion, and the leader’s wife, singer Amy Sacka, sending her nape-hair-bristling voice high into the rafters.

It was revelatory to catch Kouyaté in such an intimate situation, his audience sitting so close that they could almost be members of the band. His wah-wah footpedal was utilised to lend a Hendrixian texture, though cannily cut down to a very low volume, maximising excitement in a teasingly sparse fashion. The only disappointment was that his two sets (each of the artists moved from house-to-house as the evening progressed) were virtually identical in repertoire and even their between-song banter.

Each performer only played for a short 30 minute spell, but this continued the refreshing smörgåsbord nature of the night. The other artists were very impressive in their own regional ways. Denmark’s Fromseier Hockings duo, featuring singer/fiddler Ditte Fromseier Mortensen and guitarist Sigurd Hockings, travelled towards a special acoustic sensitivity. Her vocals were enunciated with a measured emotional expression, phrased with diligence, yet openly skirting the room. The division between the pair’s original compositions and their traditional tunes is permeable, as stylistic traits commute.

Hardanger fiddler Erlend Apneseth was one of this native instrument’s most inspiring players over the weekend, as well as being one of the youngest. His completely solo set crept even closer to the ears, conjuring an attentive séance-trance from his listeners, playing with the distinctive resonances of his sympathetic strings, as he softly tapped out time with his steadily tramping foot. There was an unpredictability to his phrases, his manipulation of simultaneous tones, that marked Apneseth out as an innovator.

Upon close examination of the hardanger, it was observed that its sympathetic strings lie below the main strings rather than beside them, as expected. They already sound divine, but they also look good too, invariably adorned with carved decorations. Yes, the weekend was set to include a great number of these crucial Norwegian folk axes! This was a glut to be welcomed…

To be continued.