With November underway, a month in need of some hot seasoning in the Norwegian capital, it is a welcome fact that Oslo World Music Festival kicked off last night. Musical expressions from around the world will infuse the chilly Oslo night for a whole week. Being a city festival, emphasis is on urban and sub-cultural expressions, says its chief Alexandra Archetti Stølen.
-This year the thematic concepts we have been working with are identity and roots. We are interested in presenting expressions that are rooted in tradition and cultural heritage, but that have been developed and transformed in urban contexts. In a way this mirrors the general development of the world music scene over the past couple of decades, which is distinguished by the amalgamation of traditional expressions and rural folk music with the influence and pulse of big cities. In the early days we were more focused on traditional folk music, but now world music is just as much an urban phenomenon as it is a category based on natural and historical structures.
Since its inception back in 1994, the Oslo World Music Festival has been continuously strengthening its reputation as a festival that brings new names onto the world musical circuit; focusing on budding artists and thus functioning as a gateway.
-It is very interesting and rewarding to look back at our program catalogue over these years and see how many of the fairly unknown names that we have brought in that have later grown to become major acts on the world musical scene. That aspect is still something we put a lot of emphasis on. Still, creating a good program is all about finding the right balance between new acts and established stars. For a festival to be all that it wants to be we need both, because our objective is to be progressive and at the same time create some big and special events that draw a lot of people and attention.
This year the main focus is on Africa and Archetti Stølen reveals that the African line-up they are presenting is something out of the ordinary.
-It is really a top shelf selection, I have to say. Autumn isn’t the easiest time to put together one’s dream festival, since many artists are having a break after a hectic summer season. But this year our program has been causing a lot of excitement well in advance of the festival, also because many of the artists have new records out.
(Photo: Staff Benda Bilili )
The African list includes Staff Benda Bilili (the group of Congolese polio victims that became an international musical saga), Oumou Sangare, Tinariwen, Culoe De Song, Ferro Gaita, BLK JFS, Khaled and not least Toumani Diabaté.
-The concert with Toumani Diabaté and KORK, the Norwegian National Radio Orchestra, is really the talk of the town. -Not least because they will most likely make a record together during the stay in Oslo. This is really quite special, since an album has already been recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, but not released. The rumour is that the label, a renowned British one, is sending over the same conductor and producer to do the recordings over again, with KORK.
The extended collaboration with KORK testifies to the standard of that orchestra of course. But it also says something about the reputation of Oslo World Music Festival and the general fact that Oslo has become an acknowledged locus of musical happenings and development.
-The festival has a very good reputation, says Archetti Stølen. The feedback from the artists, from every corner of the world, is that coming here is a very good experience. I think it has to do with the fact that the festival is well organised and managed. From the very start our focus and strength has been to work very systematically. We have funding from several public sources: The city of Oslo, The ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian National Concerts, of which we are in fact a sub division. The point is that these are not just financial sponsors but active partners whom we work closely with in throughout the year to organise the festival. We depend upon the different Norwegian embassies and consulates for visa arrangements and logistics, and the city of Oslo is well aware of the greater benefits of hosting and sponsoring a world music festival of renown. Even though changes in policy are always a possibility, we are lucky to have committed partners. This makes it possible to create a festival that continues to be at the forefront in terms of organisation, and thus also artistically.
Alexandra Archetti Stølen has been the festival’s chief for four years now. Her work includes a lot of travelling and research. But it is not so much a matter of exploring and finding new uncharted expressions -like a musical geographer- as it was in the early days of world music.
-These days it is easy to travel the world on the internet, of course, so everything spreads very fast. There might still be unknown music out there, but that is not our focus. Fist and foremost we look for new and exciting combinations and juxtapositions of existing expressions; it is a matter of catching on to the ongoing dynamic of music. In our case we focus on how traditional idioms blend and transform in new contexts and circumstances. My main tool as festival chief is meeting with the European Festival Forum, which organises 55 festivals of our kind. There we exchange information and try to create as many synergies as possible. Both artistically, as in the case with Toumani Diabaté and KORK, and also culturally; bringing together expressions from different corners of the world. More specifically we try to present artists and bands that have not visited Norway before, and create collaborations with Norwegian artists. Another such event to look out for this year is the concert with Bugge Wesseltoft and Michy Mano from Morocco. I’m pretty confident that that will be a special evening, and a record will ensue from it, to be released on Wesseltoft’s Jazzland Recordings.
Another example is the concert on Friday, poetically named Scent of reunion, where the Norwegian guitar master Knut Reiersrud and a band of some of Norway’s finest musicians will be joined by Mahsa Vahdat from Iran and the American blues singer Mighty Sam McClain to perform live the songs from the brand new record Scent of reunion: love duets across civilizations. This project is producer Erik Hillestad’s latest effort in his series of recordings aimed at bridging political divides with music.
-It will be a poignant event, naturally, says Archetti Stølen. I am just really happy and impressed with the whole project; it takes a lot of courage, I think, for an American and an Iranian to come together to make music in today’s political climate.
The festival also has a focus on cross-cultural meetings for children and youth. There will be family concerts blending music and musicians from Norway and Pakistan. And then there is the Bollywood feature So you think you can Bollywood? where 36 young Norwegian dancers are joined by 16 professional Bollywood dancers from London for an extravagant and probably awesome performance.
The Oslo World Music Festival attracts not only foreign musicians but also music lovers from all around, says Archetti Stølen.
-Because we have established a reputation as an event where you get to hear some very special music, with budding bands from around the world and many exciting collaborations.
It is all about meetings and synergies, which means letting world music continue to develop as a truly global phenomenon.
At half a dozen rather special venues, from neon nightclubs to The House of Literature, the Oslo World Music Festival will heat nights and widen horizons until Sunday.