Elias Akselsen - the Romany Ambassador

He belongs to an ethic minority that has been the subject of persecution for centuries. Elias Akselsen, one of the most remarkable voices to make an imprint on the Norwegian music scene in recent years, is Romany - a Tater - and a proud one.

Elias Akselsen 2004 (photo: Pål A. Berg)

Elias Akselsen (b. 1947) is the grandson of Stor-Johan (Great Johan) – in his time the spiritual leader of Norway’s Romany population and a central figure that would live to celebrate his 106th birthday. Akselsen is himself an evangelist in the Pentecost community and frequently employs his captivating vocal skills to spread the Word, being generally regarded as the nation’s foremost interpreter of age-old Romany songs and ballads. Elias Akselsen belongs to a family of God-fearing and previously persecuted Norwegian Romany – also known as Taters. Today, he enjoys a position as a proud ambassador for the Taters and a conveyor of the rich cultural heritage of his people.

A history of persecution

The persecution of the Norwegian Romany population represents one the Norwegian society’s most disgraceful outrages. In a country that prides itself on a strong human rights track record, the inhuman persecution of the Taters is a dark spot on the collective Norwegian consciousness. Sterilization programmes, lobotomy, coerced medical research, forced segregation, open governmental racism, hard labour camps and loss of education was the brutal reality for many Taters as late as the 1970s. Hundreds of small children were taken from their parents and put into child homes, where they often subjected to mental and physical abuse. Quite remarkably, it wasn’t before 1998 that the Norwegian parliament acknowledged that the Romany people had the same rights as other ethnic minority groups such as gypsies, the Sami people and the Kvens. The Romany people are now fighting a motivated but challenging campaign against the Norwegian state claiming economic compensation for the loss of education and other forms of persecution.

Says Akselsen on this dark past, “We were victims of preconceived notions, myths and prejudice that portrayed us as thieves and parasites. Nothing but lies.”

The search for his roots has been a long and hard process for Akselsen. Coming to terms with his past, defining himself and forgiving the ones that have oppressed him has not been easy. “If you have love, then you will conquer anybody!” states Akselsen.

A hard childhood

Akselsen grew up with loving and caring parents that would bring their children with them in their travels along the Norwegian countryside roads. Elias Akselsen was only three days old when he began his first journey. Despite being met with racism and persecution from the local population, school authorities, church representatives and police, Akselsen’s parents kept their dignity and gave their children an upbringing centred on faith, pride and love.

Says Akselsen, “I was still a small boy when I left home at 15. From my childhood I can’t remember a time when we didn’t travel along the roads of the rural countryside. At one point I got frustrated and left for Sweden to visit my brother who had married and settled down on the other side of the border. I wanted to settle down, too, and eyed an opportunity for something better. The reality turned out to be the opposite – life in Sweden was tough. I lived on the street, hung out with alcoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes and developed a drinking problem of my own. But still, I kept the faith of my childhood and would never go to sleep until I had done my Lord’s Prayer. It made me feel safe.”

In his younger years, Akselsen nurtured a dream of becoming an opera singer and took lessons to be accepted at Stockholm’s conservatory. He was qualified to attend classes, but one remaining obstacle would deny him his dream: He had to produce some kind of documentation of his education back in Norway. When Akselsen returned to his former school to obtain a copy of his elementary school grade sheet, the reply was, “No! The Tater kids’ certificates have all been burned!”

Valuable mentors that helped him develop his instantly recognisable vocal style include his mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – music was an integral part of the Akselsen family’s daily life. Throughout Elias’ life, music has remained a solid pillar that, together with his faith, has helped him through difficult times. He has sung with his family, on the streets of Sweden and for the entire Norwegian TV audience at the national Spellemannspris show (Norway’s equivalent of the Grammy). Akselsen’s career spans from the gutter to the limelight, with the latter describing his current status.

The success story

Akselsen’s breakthrough album Hjemlandsklokker (The Bells of my Homeland - Via Music, 2002) burst onto the domestic market two years ago, earning rave reviews and solid sales. Not bad for a collection of sparsely arranged religious ballads. Some quotes from the domestic press: “The world was never as beautiful as when I inserted Akselsen’s Hjemlandsklokker in my CD player. From the very first note one is sucked into a world of emotions that are stronger than anything the mind can comprehend,” says Norwegian daily Aftenposten. And VG says, “From the very first note he gains control over your tear ducts.”

The collective pain felt by a people forced to endure such hardship is vividly portrayed in their song tradition. Many of the traditional pieces interpreted by Akselsen go back centuries, but they still hold painful relevance today. His sole companion on the Hjemlandsklokker release is renowned multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen who contributes with supportive parts that complement Akselsen’s unique vocal style. The ancient songs deal with issues that are close to many Taters’ hearts: Faith, stigmatisation and yearning for the journey’s end to come.

Akselsen has since followed up with two new acclaimed albums, Her kommer dine arme små (Thy Little Ones, Dear Lord, are We) and Høstdrømmar (Autumn Dreams) – both on Via Music – and performances that have been very well received by enthusiastic audiences. Akselsen is today firmly established as one of the Tater minority’s foremost spokespersons and is a respected ambassador for his people’s multi-faceted cultural heritage.

Akselsen’s stunning vocal performance, the sparse yet delicate arrangements and subtle playing on his releases leads to a transcendence of language and cultural barriers, aiming directly for the listener’s heart. When you are familiar with the Taters’ dark history, it’s impossible to remain untouched by Akselsen’s captivating vocal deliverance.

When asked to explain his success, Akselsen responds, “I think that people have grown tired with fabricated songs. People want songs with a meaning. Deep within each individual lays a yearning – a yearning that is somewhat lost in today’s hectic hustle and bustle.”

Despite persecution, a tough childhood and hardship upon hardship, Akselsen is not a bitter man. “From time to time I’m still confronted with prejudice and intolerance by some, but then again I belong to the Taters – the proudest people on earth!”

Recommended release:
Hjemlandsklokker (Via Music)

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