Distance No Object

In our small corner of the world, we imagine that Norway is not centrally located. We are not sure in relation to what. Nevertheless, the world finds us - and vice versa.

Sturmund Drang

The physical manifestation would be a typical Norwegian small town with a main street containing a gas station, a Co-op - and a Chinese restaurant. The world has become smaller, cultural expression more universal and taste more global. In the worst case, this kind of thing leads to banality and lack of character; in the best; depth of experience and the exchange of ideas.

Enthusiasts who come from abroad and see Norway from the outside bring exciting inspiration to our cultural life and create valuable syntheses rather than artificial hybrids. Constellations which might seem unrealistic in theory, like Pakistani music to Norwegian lyrics, contribute something to both cultures. Mutual understanding makes it more interesting to cultivate similarities than exaggerate differences. Happily, much of the work and activity take place at the grass roots and amateur level. It is difficult to register the effect of thousands of people attending salsa courses, choirs singing Greek and Russian folk music in the original language or a Norwegian musical director coming from the Seychelles. But it is easy to prove that they have a great deal of influence on people's happiness and mental health!

In the 1980s, modern Norway was supposed to become international and pulsatingly open once and for all, a carnival nation. Following the example of Copenhagen, London and Berlin, Oslo was to whirl to the 128 beats a minute of the soca and swing freely with its bodily parts decked in bright, festive colours. The Norwegian carnival had a brief, three-year history because Oslo could never be Rio. The reasons may be many, from purely meteorological to simple racial differences. Rich Norwegians with a world record in leisure time, restrictive drinking laws and a dearth of Latin characteristics are just not made that way. In hindsight, the generally accepted explanation seems to be that a Norwegian carnival was too artificial and had no roots in reality.

Now that the passionate rhythms of steel bands are once again spreading through the country like a fever, it is happening in a far more haphazard, disorganised way, driven by the popularity of the music itself. The plagues are called merengue, cumbia, pachanga and, not least, salsa and are practised and perfected in sweaty dance studios and basements from one end of the country to the other. Not since aerobics made leg warmers acceptable fashion accessories has a fad spread more quickly, for salsa is both exercise and dance. The fully-booked courses at the dance studios are a real cultural shock for everyone below the age of forty because it takes two to salsa. Physical endurance is combined with precision and musicality. After the lessons are over, the dance is performed at discos and clubs, which in the 90s are musically liberated. Anything goes, provided it swings and has groove. Furthermore, there are no rules for dancing the soca provided the pelvis is active, and even Norwegians can manage that.

You don't need to be a Cuban exile to differentiate between the five salsa styles (which, by the way, are Columbian with the most difficult leg-work, original Cuban with hands-in-the-air and rapid steps for the ladies Miami, which is American post-Castro and perhaps for that reason the quickest and hottest, and New York/Puerto Rican, which is almost ballroom with the couples splitting into solo dances), but you may well be a dance fanatic from north of the Arctic Circle. The flowering of salsa and soca may be the top of a musical iceberg that is now emerging in the clubs and dance studios. It's only a matter of time before the salsa has its Norwegian ambassadors. The samba is being cultivated by the Trio de Janeiro group in Norwegian and Portuguese, while the tango, both traditional and newly-composed, is played by the instrumental group Tango for 3.

To a lesser extent, but with the same involvement, we have African drumming and dancing courses. Norwegian physio-therapists have been recommending their patients to attend belly dancing courses for years - they have proved to be an invaluable sure for certain afflictions! Something in winter-stiff joints and muscles is liberated and softened up with the help of music from warmer climes. However, we aren't really as frozen as we may seem; in many parts of the country there is a tradition of celebrating the arrival of the sun after a long winter, not with the samba but with equally fiery accordion music.

Mass tourism and popular culture also shrink cultural distances. Not everything is “Macarena”, and not everything is equally suitable for solitary experimenting at home. The folk music clubs, which were previously struggling, are noticing renewed interest. Juan da Cortes has made flamenco a fashion, while Riverdance has rejuvenated Irish folk dancing. Enthusiasts are doing unseen but impressive work as music promoters and, not least, two-way ambassadors.

Greek-born Marilena Zlatanou runs the medieval orchestra Vox Antiqua which delves into the music of the Greek Orthodox Church. In the summer months, the orchestra frequently gives concerts in medieval ruins in order to give the music an authentic setting. As conductor of the amateur choir Arcadia, she is even more impressive. The entire repertoire is sung in Greek - by Norwegian singers who certainly don't understand every word they are singing. The seasonal climax for the choir is a trip to Greece and several concerts for an unsuspecting audience which gapes, laughs and even cries! Inspired by Zlatanou's work and productions, Bosnian and Russian choirs have also sprung up for the linguistically illiterate.

The male voice choir Gli Scapoli - the bachelors - understand what they are singing and have a unique musical understanding thanks to their conductor, Iranian Reza Aghamir who, after the concert is over, has to sign autographs for screaming fans, mainly female. All Gli Scapoli's concerts, which are always in two parts and usually take place in licensed premises, are sold out. Before the break, the choir is formally dressed and performs Reger, Bach and Händel so correctly, that no music professor can fault it. The auditorium is as quiet as a church and the audience listens attentively. After the break the choir turns up in jeans and sings soul so steamingly sweaty that no soulboy could fault it. The room seethes and the atmosphere is electric. Gli Scapoli is a male voice choir of 23 bachelors who don't really like choral singing for an audience that had no idea it liked male voice choirs.

Aghamir was thrown out of the Norwegian State Academy of Music. He found it more concerned about technical perfection than musical content. He was looking for life, the enriching internal feeling of the performer that is transformed into pure emotion in the recipient. He wanted to break the code that makes perfection speak, and he wanted to know how to move people. As a conductor, he begins where other choirs give up, because technique is only the beginning. He goes as far as to maintain that musical puritanism approaches the censorship he experienced in his former homeland. But most of all, he and his choir demonstrate the joy of singing in practice. Their Max Reger recording was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy award, they performed at the opening of the Bergen International Music Festival, and they give innumerable concerts all over the country. The only concern is that the bachelors of Gli Scapoli insist on arranging a joint concert with the conductor's female choir, Lazitelle. There may be a concert, but there will never be a mixed choir!

Moroccan Miloud Guiderk, known as simply Miloud, works on the same principles. He runs the Cosmopolite club, a multicultural oasis with an exceptionally good reputation. The club has housed several leading international jazz, blues, soul, rock, world and roots musicians - Cosmopolite is really cosmopolitan.

As a musician, Miloud uses the same methods he uses in his other profession, as a chef. When composing the club's programme, be combines music in the same way he used to taste and select vegetables at the market in Casablanca. His motto is, “Diversity in food and music is the best sign of progress”. After 27 years in Norway, he is also praised for his efforts as a promoter of music for the mentally disabled. He believes they have far more insights into life than the rest of us and are superior to “normal” people. The ability to express feeling is the most important thing in life, particularly in music, and in the mentally disabled Miloud finds much of our original register of emotions intact.

In 1969, interest in Peer Gynt and Edvard Grieg brought 19-year-old Barth Niava from the Alladjan tribe on the Ivory Coast to Norway. And, luckily, he stayed. He is the founder and manager of the Centre for the Promotion of African Culture. His goal is to unite north and south by promoting African culture in Norway and Norwegian culture in Africa. Dance, singing, music, folklore - these must be room for both seriousness and humour. As one of the first Africans in Norway, Barth knows all about adapting to cultural differences and distance. He trained as a flautist at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo and was an actor for many years. Now the Centre takes up all his time, having meanwhile developed into a centre of expertise in the field of cultural exchange.

Norwegians are always interested in the weather, and the Seychelles is undoubtedly one of the earthly paradises that keeps daydreams alive through the long, sold winter. When Cliff Moustache from the Seychelles became a Norwegian citizen in 1990, many people were genuinely surprised - for meteorological reasons. Now they are more impressed than surprised when they realise what Moustache's Nordic Black Theatre has achieved. It fulfils all the fine words in the speeches by arranging meaningful youth activities among second-generation immigrants in the local community. The audience is far broader than that.

The theatre excitingly unites cultural activities with social involvement. Norwegian Pakistanis have played both
Romeo and Peer Gynt, while Julie and Solveig have had Iranian origins. Through music, these young people learn about each other’s backgrounds, useful experience when they produce I musicals. But the theatre will never be a “Fame” school. Moustache is convinced that theatre must be a struggle, so the actors have to clean the theatre and hang up their own posters before they take centre stage and are transformed into stars.

Cultural influences from far-off lands are not the only things to bear musical-fruit. Local musicians may be just as exotic and undiscovered. The gypsy and klesmer music of the Sturm und Drang group, the creole music performed by several jazz ensembles and string swing with its roots among both gypsies and creoles are all experiencing a renaissance. Common to all these genres is the fact that the interest and performance is for pleasure and seldom has other motives. But when Bente Kahan promotes the almost extinct Jewish musical tradition, she certainly has reasons that we are not permitted to forget.

If Yiddish music is what they call it in Warsaw, “white man's blues”, Bente Kahan is its Bessie Smith. Actress, dramatist and musician, she founded Teater Dybbuk - Oslo to illustrate Jewish-European cultural history through music and drama. Her tours have taken her all over Europe, Russia, Israel and the USA, in Yiddish, Norwegian, German, Polish and English.

Her first performance, Jiddischkeit, consisted of religious and secular Yiddish songs and functioned as an introduction and door-opener to the genre. The next, Farewell Cracow, was devoted to songs by Mordechai Gebirtig describing life in Kazimierz, Cracow's Jewish quarter, during the period prior to the Holocaust. Both these performances have been released on CD in Yiddish.

With the trilingual monodrama Voices from Theresienstad she has really made an international impact. The play is set in the Nazi's model concentration camp Theresienstadt, 60 kilometres north of Prague, during World War II. The camp was intended to give the impression of being a “normal” town, was built for 7,000 refugees and housed 50,000, and the “citizens” were forced to take part in cultural activities such as cabarets and musicals. Kahan portrays five women aged 19 to 70, unsentimentally and without turning them into heroines. She either researched the music or composed new music when it was impossible to find the original melodies. The lyrics were written by author and teacher Ilse Weber, who did not survive the camp. The musical has been recorded on CD in English, German and Norwegian. The production will tour the USA in 1998.

It is often maintained that minorities make the best music. This type of thinking reinforces the myth that only hungry artists create good art. But it is not surprising that the most interesting contemporary music in the popular genre comes from so-called minorities whether they be Yiddish wartime cabarets from one of Norway's smallest minorities or rebel music from Norway's biggest minority, the Pakistanis.

No-one who grew up in Norway in the 1960s can forget the Saturday Children's Hour serial “The Road to Agra”. Before the age of TV, we followed the radio play about two little Indian children who struggled to get to Agra so that the blind sister could find a doctor and see again. Week after week, we sat enthralled and imagined the dusty road and listened, dreaming, to the music and the wind that intensified the drama. Much that was strange and foreign became alive and demystified. When the first Pakistani immigrants came to Norway at the beginning of the 1970s, there was at least one group that welcomed them: the people who had listened to “The Road to Agra”.
Naive? No more naive than the fact that until then salt and pepper were Norway’s most exotic spices. This type of strong media experience helps to form many people's attitudes far into the future.

Almost thirty years later, there is still a surprising amount of naivety; but it is now accompanied by prejudice. Africans, Pakistanis and other Asians are not the largest immigrant group in Norway but the most visible. Officially, and according to politically correct thinking, there are neither class differences nor ghettos in the small capital city of Oslo. But word has it that “Little Pakistan” in the centre of town is the Muslim capital and has a mosque, exotic shops and special cultural institutions. Or, word has it, there are resourceful Pakistanis more or less assimilated in the Norwegian community - men like McJobs in low status work no-one else wants.

The largest group of Pakistanis is the one that makes temperatures rise in any political discussion, the ones that are “like us”. Of course, first-generation Norwegian-Pakistanis can provoke Norwegians and Pakistanis, God and Allah - which they do - and their personified symbol of revolt is a 20-year-old pop star. A girl.

Perhaps she is no more different than any other multicultural city girl who grew up with the complicated scales of the raga and Madonna-pop on MTV. What is different about Deepika Thathaal is that she uses her difference. She began to learn classical Indian singing, as a 7-year-old. This year she is being launched world wide by recording giant Warner Bros. To people's delight and despair.

At school concerts, audiences laughed till they cried when funny little Deepika sang - she was so exotic. Behind the charm and the smile were all the things that were not so visible: her musical talent and extremely hard work. Through her father and later teachers such as the recently deceased raga master Ustad Fateh Ali Khan now deceased and sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan, she acquired enough knowledge to dare. You can't allow yourself to experiment before you have a good grounding in musical theory. In order to break barriers, you have to know what you are breaking. These principles are the basic foundation of her career; she wanted to be noticed for something where the colour of her skin was irrelevant. She had to choose between music and sport, activities where performance alone counts. Paradoxically, according to the experts, race and gender mean something today because everything else about her is undisputed.

Deepika's first record I all slags lys (In All Kinds of Light) was in Norwegian with Asian sounds mixed with pop and jazz. She was fifteen years old, impressed both eastern and western audiences, and became a kind of harmless mascot everyone could like. These years later the idyll was at an end. The album Deepika contained elements of modem western dance music, Pakistani folk tunes and Indian raga. She sang that you must do what you believe in, regardless of what other people say, in Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and English. Heavy, unpolished grooves conveyed scholarly purity and put Kipling's prophecy to shame. The thing that really made the Pakistanis' chapatis stick in their throats and the Norwegians drop their pizzas was her visual image, which was closer to sexy Melrose Place than puritanical Bollywood.

Today she lives in London, working in the melting pot that one week promotes “Asian Underground” as a fashion phenomenon and the next applauds “tabla'n'bass” as the latest one night wonder. She is not unaffected by the pop music that surrounds her, the classical melodious music that follows the verse-and-chorus pattern. She is more exotic than ever. For many Brits, the Norwegian Pakistani is as geographically untraditional as a Polynesian from Greenland. And there Deepika is at the heart of the matter: distance no object.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 3
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