In conjunction with the Norwegian focus at Showcase Scotland, we take the opportunity to present a “state-of-the-scene” outline of Norwegian folk. We spoke with two of the field’s key people, Silje Førland Erdal of the Norwegian Traditional Music Agency and Hilde Bjørkum of the Førde Folk Music Festival
“It would be an exaggeration to say that Norwegian traditional music is an easy commodity to sell,” says Silje Førland Erdal. “However, it is very evident that international awareness and demand is in the ascendant. Some of our key performers have been able to establish an excellent reputation for Norwegian folk music internationally and by now there is a notion that the quality of Norwegian acts is guaranteed.”
Erdal thinks there are a number of reasons for the upsurge of Norwegian traditional music as a borderless artistic commodity.
“One thing is the fact that bands such as Valkyrien Allstars and Majorstuen, and dancers such as Frikar exhibit very professional and arresting performances which generate a general impression that Norwegian folk culture is a true quality product. Another factor is the set of ‘ambassadors’ we have working for us; i.e., the international industry representatives and media that have experienced the most important festivals and conventions in Norway. They return home to their respective countries and markets with a message that Norwegian folk music is something to go for.”
Førde Folk Music Festival and Folkelarm are the two most important festivals in this respect. Førde has been a driving force in opening up Norwegian folk culture to the world for many years, while Folkelarm is a more recent success. In both cases, the strategy has been to create international meeting places and give international representatives a well-guided and persuasive “tour” of the Norwegian scene.
“The feedback we have been getting is extremely positive,” says Erdal. “Our success with these conventions testifies to the increasing professionalism of the whole field of traditional music in Norway, which has in many ways transformed completely over the course of the past ten to fifteen years.”
Traditional music used to be a matter of soloists performing in very specific styles and in very limited contexts, meaning that folk culture was largely a local phenomenon without any real possibility of gaining access to the general music market. Now the situation is quite different. Folk music has become a genre with a much wider scope, catering to a broad audience both domestically and internationally.
“I think one of the most important milestones in this development was the incorporation of folk music into higher music education in Norway, which happened about ten years ago,” says Erdal. The significant change was that traditional musicians stepped out of the specific folk niche and began to interact with all kinds of music and musicians, meaning that folk music opened up into a much wider landscape. Now traditional musicians will habitually be playing and performing in an array of different contexts and constellations, without, crucially, having turned their back on the specific traditional expression that is their basis. And naturally, it is the wider scope that allows traditional musicians of today to actually make a living as professional musicians.”
However, these changes have also created new challenges, for compared to the mainstream genres of popular music, the commercial apparatus dealing specifically with traditional music is still underdeveloped and undersized.
“The lack of agents and management services has been a big problem for the commercial viability of traditional music,” says Erdal. “But now we are seeing the appearance of the first dedicated management agencies. However, the work that has been laid down in terms of drawing international attention to Norwegian folk needs to be further underscored by the development of a tailored commercial infrastructure, because as a full-time musician, there is no way you can be your own manager and agent.”
One important step towards professionalising and streamlining this infrastructure was the recent union of the two major organisations for traditional music and dance in Norway. Following a schism back in the 80s the field has been divided. With the new unified organisation, the impact of its work will increase, hopes Erdal. “What is important is facilitating the new composite nature of folk music, coordinating goals and efforts and creating momentum.”
For some additional comments on the blooming professionalism of the Norwegian traditional scene, we spoke with another of the protagonists of the field: Hilde Bjørkum, Director of the Førde Folk Music Festival.
“I think we have been suffering from a certain lack of self-confidence,” says Bjørkum. “If we in Norway don’t believe that our traditional music has international potential, then who else will? But fortunately there has been a change of mentality in recent years. At Førde we have been very conscious about encouraging Norwegian agencies and helping anyone interested to start building up the auxiliary infrastructure. The festival has a huge international network, and part of our job as an advocate of Norwegian traditional culture is to introduce Norwegian agents, managers, festivals, etc., – as well as the actual performers – to the international circuit, and to make them see the potential.”
Bjørkum believes Norwegian folk could well achieve the same level of international success as Irish and Scottish music.
“Unique musical expressions will always be in demand; the market is potentially enormous,” he explains. “And Norwegian folk music is very distinctive, so it all depends on our ability to establish a truly professional infrastructure like they have in Scotland with Celtic Connections, etc. It is also a matter of political support, of course; we need the politicians to back up our efforts, and in that respect the recent consolidation of the musician’s organisations is very positive. Streamlining the entire apparatus and agreeing on some common goals will definitely give Norwegian traditional music more thrust internationally.”
The general feeling in Norway is that that our folk music is on the verge of some kind of international breakthrough. Suffice it to say at some of the bands that are currently travelling the world with what, until recently, were very local musical expressions. The Norwegian focus at Showcase Scotland is a case in point. Silje Erdal relates that there was no shortage of strong candidates for the coveted gigs.
“98 acts applied for a slot at the Showcase,” says Erdal. So we had to set up a jury narrowing it down to a shortlist of twenty before we could present them to the artistic committee at Celtic Connections, which is the festival that hosts the Showcase program. They were supposed to choose five acts, but couldn’t decide, so the number is six. That in itself is a good indication of the quality of Norwegian Folk music, and how it is now appraised internationally.”
Førde Folk Music Festival
Norway’s biggest international folk music festival, established in 1990
Showcase festival and convention in Oslo, established 2005
New body created when the two major organisations Lfs and NFD joined forces in November 2009. (New name to be announced.)
Den norske folkemusikkscena
A national network of local folk music venues
The Norwegian national concerts organisation
New national venue for folk music and dance