I had the honour and delight this summer of covering the 2012 edition of the Førdefestivalen, Førde Traditional and World Music Festival (http://www.fordefestival.no). After two days of touring the mind-boggling fjords of Norway in summer, the first perfectly endless summer evening of the Festival began with the trio Ellika-Solo-Rafael, comprising Swedish Ellika Frisell on fiddle, Senegalese Solo Cissokho on kora, and Mexican Rafael Sida on percussion.
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I had heard Solo Cissokho playing in Bangalore in January this year, as part of a superb fusion lineup with Indian violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam, Japanese koto player Miya Masaokha and Dhafer Youssef from Tunisia on oud. This time in Forde, Solo shone again with Ellika and Rafael. “The borders are open,” Ellika triumphantly said in the opening set, referring to the ease with which the diverse trio was collaborating. Solo and Rafael paired up very well in vocals, with Ellika’s fiddle melodies blending in well. Each piece showcased one of their very different musical traditions, but their years of playing together was reflected in the smooth blending of styles.
Greek band Apsilies took the stage next, featuring rembetika or Greek blues, played by Turkish refugees to the Greek ports during World War I. Featuring soaring vocals and solos on kanoun (along with guitar and oud), the four musicians delivered a stirring performance.
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Brazilian vocalist Renata Rosa followed up with a very unusual set of Brazilian music, blending folk and indigenous music with European and Brazilian roots. She was backed by an energetic percussion section and melodic background vocals.
[flickr id=”7514746914″ thumbnail=”small” overlay=”true” size=”medium” group=”” align=”left”] Swift stage changes, flawless sound systems, and colourful visuals blending traditional and digital art marked the smooth transition to the next band, Nordic Fiddlers Bloc. The trio consists of Shetlands fiddler Kevin Henderson, Anders Hall from Sweden and Olav Luksengård Mjelva from Norway. The next act was a superb visual treat – the Musicians of the Nile, with a whirling dancer weaving dizzying circles of colour with electronically-lit up dresses and scarves.
The first part of the evening performance ended with the 14-piece klezmer-lautar collaboration band, The Other Europeans. “This unusual collaboration could not have happened without the Internet, we could not have found each other,” said founder Alan Bern. The next four acts performed in another venue, the three idyllic small cottages at the Jølster Museum. The Talent 2012 collaborative lineup featured 11 musicians from Tunisia, Morocco and Norway – and one energetic dancer. The high ranges of the Atlas Mountains of Africa apparently connect musically with the mountains of Norway, as the musicians superbly displayed.
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[flickr id=”7514746012″ thumbnail=”small” overlay=”true” size=”medium” group=”” align=”right”]Shunsuke Kimura and Etsuro Ono from Japan showcased the power of the shamisen, a three-stringed folk instrument from central Asia which traversed the Silk Route to Japan. Etsuro Ono delivered some sizzling solos and percussive accompaniment on the shamisen, with flutework by Shunsuke Kimura. I had earlier heard them perform at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) in 2010. It was a treat to again see Korea’s Kyungso Park on the traditional instrument gayageum; I had caught her performance in Seoul in June with Youngjun Choi (see earlier interview at http://jazzuality.com/interview/exclusive-interview-with-youngjun-choi-of-oriental-express/).
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Just hours after the joyous Day One celebrations, Day Two of the Festival kicked off in fine style with a series of collaborative ensembles. Madagascar band Damily featured the scorching bassist Rakapo, who showcased some sizzling fretwork. The band also had another outdoors performance later that afternoon, where one of the speakers literally caught on fire! “Don’t throw water on an electrical fire,” shouted a concert-goer, but water was doused anyway on the fire which eventually went out. The band carried on merrily playing, with some pieces resembling the rhythms of soukous and bemba.
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One of the best collaborations of the day was between groups led by Iranian Alireza Ghorbani and Tunisian Dorsaf Hamdani. Their powerful poetic dialogue featured Persian and Arabic singing, accompanied by two percussionists and three string instruments. The soulful singing was punctuated by superb percussion, especially by Hoosein Zahawy on frame drums (who occasionally even played on the sides of the drums with his fists).
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Another outstanding collaboration was between award-winning Norwegian fiddler Ragnhild Furebotten and a six-piece horn section featuring some of Norway’s strongest performers, including jazzmen Geir Lysne and Helge Sunde. Ragnhild anchored and led the performance in skilful and charismatic style, with particularly notable accompaniment on tuba by Lars Andreas Haug. The musicians shared an easy and jovial relationship with one another, which shone right through their musical excellence.
The afternoon performances were spearheaded by Yasmin Levy, regarded as the main exponent of Sephardic music sung in ladino, or the Spanish language of the Jews of Spain expelled by the Catholics in 1492. Ladino has absorbed influences from languages such as Bulgarian and Turkish. Levy’s haunting vocals and instrumental accompaniment drew from other influences such as flamenco; her band included a flamenco guitarist, cajon player, bassist and duduk player.
“The Sephardic way of life is under threat and the language may soon die, and my music tries to preserve this language and culture,” said Levy in an interview after her performance. I asked her how she approaches the process of putting together an album. “Unlike some other artistes who produce an album by picking the best dozen songs out of their 30 new songs, I slowly fill out an album song by song. My latest album was the hardest to produce,” she said.
I also asked her about how she as an artiste living in Israel feels about the question of Palestine. “I am afraid to address this issue because whatever I say will hurt somebody. But the hatred on both sides is so deep that it may take generations for peace, it will not be easy. I try to build bridges between the sides through musical collaboration and working with children’s groups,” she explained.
The power of collaboration was again highlighted by the next group, but in a different dimension: dance. The Frikar Dance Company featured four Norwegian dancers along with four Chinese monks (including a 10-year-old apprentice!) from a kung fu temple. The wide range of dance moves blended with high-energy kung fu using sticks, gongs and even balloons drew loud rounds of applause.
Outdoor performances featured Lindigo from Reunion islands, and The Other Europeans. This was followed by waltz performances and a church concert, and Norwegian DJ Guttorn Andreasen was the final act of Day Two.
With no let up of the energy and creativity of the first two days, Day Three kicked off right in the lobby of the Rica Sunnfjord Hotel at breakfast time with the Russian folk performers of the Sergey Starostin Ensemble. This was then followed by a unique festival feature: a parade through town, with over a dozen bands in horse-drawn carriages!
The performances for the day kicked off with a magnificent acoustic set by Renata Rosa from Brasil. She had excellent accompaniment by Pepe on guitar and Lucas on percussion. Her soaring vocals filled the small Piqant café which was already packed to capacity, as she showcased a mix of indigenous Brasilian, Portuguese, African and Arabic sound. Those who think Hollywood star Julia Roberts has the best smile in the world have clearly not seen Renata Rosa. Her infectious energy and sensuous performance drew rousing applause, and her guitarist and percussionist were later joined by the other group members (bassist Lins and percussionist Ana) for the last number.
The group wound their way around the cafe from upstairs to downstairs and out into the sunshine, involving the audience in the chanting and chorus — cementing Brasil’s reputation as star entertainers in the world.
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The texture shifted to another equally joyous group, Kamel El Harrachi. He has been hailed as one of Northern Africa’s new stars with a terrific mix of Arab rhythms blended with Afro-Andalucían music. Kamel interpreted songs made famous by his father, legendary singer Dahmane El Harrachi. The catchy tunes with swaying grooves had many in the audience on their feet, as Kamel sang in Arabic and French with superb accompaniment consisting of two percussionists, cellist and violinist. The violin and cello made for haunting introductions to some tracks, while the darbuka (played with flair by Naser Hawa) and tambourine drove up the energy levels.
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The highlight of the afternoon performance was Anoushka Shankar, who featured works from her recent collaborative album of Indian classical music and flamenco. I had heard her perform twice earlier this year in Bangalore while promoting the CD “Traveller” and in a duet with her father, the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar.
She performed with a smaller group this time, consisting of Sandra Carrasco (vocals), Pirashanna Thevarajah (mridangam), Ramon Porrina (cajon), Sanjeev Shankar (shehnai), and Melon Jimenez (flamenco guitar). Anoushka began with the traditional namaste greeting which did India proud, and launched into an innovative set blending Indian classical rhythms and melodies with flamenco vocals and guitar.
The mridangam-cajon combination was outstanding, as well as vocals-shehnai. Anoushka and Melon shared some memorable duets, and Anoushka ended with two pieces of Indian classical music (raaga Kirwani and Charukeshi). “I will conclude with an alaap, which is normally played at the beginning of a performance, but flamenco music is so fast that I would prefer to end with the alaap this time,” she said, in an innovative inversion of traditional Indian music.
Unfortunately it began to drizzle afterwards and the magical Nordic summershine dimmed, but the energy of the festival carried on with a slickly choreographed folk gala. It featured Aasmund Nordstoga & Abildsø Spelemannslag (Norway), Svanevit (Sweden), Talent 2012 (Morocco, Tunisia, Norway), Sergey Starostin Ensemble (Russia), and Alireza Ghorbani & Keyvan Chemirani (Iran and Tunisia). The vocalists in all the performances really stood out, cementing the role of voice in folk music and wisdom. Emcee Aasmund Nordstoga delighted the audience with anecdotes, jokes and duets with folk singers on video – who magically appeared on stage for the finale.
The icing on the cake was a performance by Bassekou Kouyaté from Mali, who would play later in a star-studded night-time showcase. The night celebration began with Kalman Balogh and his Gypsy Cymbalom Band, who stirred up a truly gypsy party with high-octane sheets of music. The deeper notes of the cymbalom stood out in the shimmering solos, along with fifth-gear violin. The five-piece band delivered a scorching set of pure 200% adrenaline, including historical discoveries of the boogie-woogie as a gypsy musical form!
Latin flavour then ruled with Cuban ensemble Septeto Santiaguero, and the night took on a celebration of beauty, camaraderie and temptation. This was followed by a top act from Mali, Bassekou Kouyaté. The infectious west African grooves – sometimes sizzling, always swaying – kept audiences on their feet with a healthy doze of electric ngoni licks that would have done Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton and John McLaughlin proud. The ngoni is a “spike lute” with a slim body that lends itself to electronic adaptation.
All featured musicians in the band were Bassekou’s family, including his wife Amy Sacko on vocals (sometimes called “The Tina Turner of Mali).” Bassekou’s centre-stage solos were hugely appreciated by the audience. In an interview that afternoon, Kouyate said he had jammed with a stellar cast of musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Ali Farka Toure, Bono, Santana, and Youssou N’Dour.
But is there is a deeper darker story behind the feel-good hug-your-neighbour-and-dance vibes of music festivals? “My music is good for parties, but there are also very serious problems in Mali. The aftermath of the Libyan civil war created havoc in Mali also, and the spillover has damaged the social fabric of our country. We appeal to the world to recognise and remedy this problem,” Bassekou told me in his interview.
Day Four of the Festival brought vital elements of the local into the global, in an innovative manner: taking the concerts to a delightful range of Førde’s local neighbourhoods.
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Swedish quartet Svanevit performed in the picturesque huts of the lakeside Sunnfjord Museum. Their set featured guitar, harp, bagpipes, violin and the unusual nyckelharpa. Each track seemed to begin in a subdued minimalist manner with a careful blend of space and alternating instruments, with guitar and violins taking turns as rhythm and lead instruments. Ballads and beats kept the audience riveted, and Anders Larsson’s engaging commentary and Anna Rynefors’ hypnotic aura made for an unforgettable experience.
The Sidi Goma African Indian troupe then took centre stage. The visually-rich set of the dozen male performers sitting in a square blended Sufi rituals with trance-like chanting and percussion, featuring the malunga musical bow. Face paint, peacock feathers, maracas, dance acrobatics and even breaking of tossed coconuts on dancers’ heads marked the colourful performance.
Buses then took concert-goers 45 minutes away to the picturesque town of Dale, where the Algerian band headed by Kamel El Harrachi played again, this time in the artistic Transplant café. The final act of the festival fittingly was a performance of Norwegian music by singer Aasmund Nordstoga and ensemble Abildsø Spelemannslag. The set included folk with a bluesy swing, and the band drew two standing ovations. DJs then took over and the party mood heightened with the arrival of the Brasilian musicians who were stranded when their flight was cancelled due to fog!
As the festival draws to a close, what really stand out are the high quality of international music acts, the richness of local culture, the flawlessness of execution, innovative programming features, stunning scenic backdrops, Norway’s international efforts in music collaboration, the egalitarian society, support from dozens of volunteers, and gracious local hospitality; the perpetual sunshine was icing on the cake.
Tussen Tak, Norway – a thousand thanks!
See more pictures:
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Written by Madanmohan Rao , July 2012, Norway
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com