In a fusion of two different musical cultures and rhythms, South African rock musician Blondie Chatlin and Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Hallvard T. Bjørgum become one.
“And now for something completely different,” as they say in Monty Python. With detours and cul-de-sacs, the labyrinthine path to cooperation between Blondie and Bjørgum really passes through ‘something completely different’. It winds its way past folk music and the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan’s backing group The Band, the Beach Boys, the virtuoso Miller’s Boy’s Hardanger fiddle and the Norwegian Sylvartun Cultural Centre, which has roots in an old silversmith tradition and now houses a unique sound studio.
To begin at the end: at Sylvartun Studios a CD featuring Blondie and Bjørgum is currently being recorded under the working title Fellesbeite – Common Land. With characteristically low-key humour, the folk artist and government grant holder points out that people who work in specialised fields are often labelled purists, placed in boxes. Bjørgum likes being in his box, especially when he receives visitors like Blondie and they can enjoy life together, both indoors and outdoors on common land. But how did they meet, and what brought a rock musician from Durban to a studio way up in the Setesdalen Valley?
The state purchasing scheme
Thanks to the Norwegian purchasing scheme, whereby the state buys new Norwegian literature and music for the public libraries, quite by chance folk singer Eric Andersen from New York and Kløfta (a small place outside Oslo) came across a CD made by Bjørgum and his father, Torleiv, at the end of the 1980s. Dolkaren (Genuine Folk Music from Norway, SYLV-cd 3) was not entirely unknown; in 1988 it was “Top of the best 100” on Tokyo Music’s ethnic programme.
Andersen, himself an icon in the USA, was so excited by the CD that he got in touch with Sigbjørn Nedland, producer of the popular Norwegian Radio music programme “Pandora’s Jukebox”, with a view to a joint production. He enrolled bass player Rick Danko from The Band – the most famous American rock band in the 60s and 70s and Bob Dylan’s backing group – and Norwegian guitarist Jonas Fjeld and gave a solo track to Hallvard T. Bjørgum, as well as using him in the backing for three other tracks. They all got on excellently, the CD was well received and they won a Norwegian Grammy award.
Two years later, Hallvard T. Bjørgum visited Rick Danko at Woodstock and in 1995 Danko organised four concerts in New York. The last of them was at the Bottom Line Club in Greenwich Village, which is where Blondie entered the scene.
Feast or famine
Blondie Chatlin was born in Durban but left South Africa in 1968 and joined the London group The Flame. They met the Beach Boys, who took them to Los Angeles to record an album, with little success. Says Blondie: “It was not released, it escaped!”
When the band broke up in 1975 he returned to Durban, deeply depressed. Then came an offer from the Beach Boys to play bass and sing with them. Blondie flew to Europe, and six hours after leaving the plane was playing at a live concert on Radio Luxembourg. For a few years it was feast or famine on the rock scene, until he met Rick Danko and played with The Band for a year. His musical relationship with Danko continued, and a couple of years ago Danko asked Blondie to write a song for him. That song is now a tribute; Rick Danko died in December last year, just before his 60th birthday.
Blondie has been working with the Rolling Stones since 1997. He made a strong contribution to the Bridges of Babylon CD and toured with the famous group for two-and-a-half years. He was the only new face in the backing group, and for the first month he did nothing. Then he began to sing a little, then played bass, then piano and finally percussion.
“I tried a bit more each day and ended up with my name all over the place! The CD took three months to produce and the subsequent tour went all over the world. We played at outdoor arenas that took 70,000 people – in Germany for 90,000 in one evening. In the winter months we played in indoor sports halls all over the USA, from New York’s Madison Square Garden to Salt Lake City.”
Hallvard T. Bjørgum and his wife, Marianne, missed the Rolling Stones concert in Oslo because they had to attend a funeral. They went to Greece and met Blondie after the concert at the Athens Olympic Stadium instead. They had a great time in the hotel room, where Keith Richard – Blondie’s introduction to the Stones – was also present. Bjørgum had brought a mouth harp from Setesdal, gave it to the Rolling Stones musician and tried to teach him to play it. Richard, who collects knives, was also presented with a sheath knife from Setesdal. It was exciting for the Bjørgums to be there, and it was exciting for Blondie that they came.
The Sylvartun Cultural Centre
Hallvard T. Bjørgum was born in Setesdal, a mountain valley in southern Norway, in 1956 and is a third-generation folk musician from a well-known musical family. He plays fiddle tunes from the Setesdal and Telemark region as well as stev and hymn tunes. In addition to being a powerful, expressive fiddler, he is also a master story-teller, and he combines these talents in his concerts. He has taught at universities and municipal music schools and has instructed musicians from Norway and abroad.
In 1990 he took over the Sylvartun Silversmith and Cultural Centre, which he had managed with his father. The centre houses the largest existing collection of Hardanger fiddles, which includes many instruments that once belonged to legendary Norwegian musicians. Bjørgum was awarded a lifetime grant from the Norwegian government in 1990. He has collaborated with many great artists, including Kirsten Bråten Berg (LtN 3-99), Lena Willemark, Mads Edén, Bjørgulv Straume, Eilert Hægeland and Arild Andersen.
Sylvartun also serves as a concert hall and studio. Built of wood, glass and stone, it has excellent acoustics and state-of-the-art equipment. The mixer table has 268 tracks – sixteen main tracks that can be split up into 268! Bjørgum has built up the studio year by year with the support of the Setesdal Regional Board of Commerce. He owns 51%, the county 14% and the municipality 35% of Sylvartun, which presents music and other cultural programmes and sells modern silver jewellery designed by Bjørgum’s sister. There is also a small café serving traditional food for visitors in the summer months, from May to September.
The centre was opened in 1992 by the Minister of Cultural Affairs and visited by HRH King Harald the following year. The fiddler-manager now receives a government grant plus support for special projects, such as the above-mentioned CD and a CD of gypsy music.
The gypsies have contributed a great deal to the fiddle music of Setesdal. The tradition has been kept alive in the valley for 150 years, but there are no recordings of the original music. The gypsies themselves have forgotten their old fiddling tradition, but the singing tradition is still alive and Bjørgum’s father recorded a female gypsy singer in 1961. That tape provided the foundation for the CD Barn av den bortglemte rase (Children of the forgotten race) with Elias Akselsen.
Bjørgum’s idea was to make a solo album with a number of well-known collaborators. He has always been willing to enter into other people’s music; now he wanted other people to enter into his. Blondie has been in contact with all sorts of musicians and all sorts of music during his life. He has roots in South African rock and folk music, but he was not expecting to fit into Norwegian folk music to such an extent when Bjørgum introduced him to it. The music of Setesdal is based on rhythm, and Blondie embraced it with all his heart.
Bjørgum, Blondie and Keith Lentin, their brilliant South African-Jewish producer and bass player, worked hard together for two weeks, living, eating and working in the same building. The two Swedish musicians, Daniel Sandén (medieval harp) and William Olson (flute) are also involved, as are the Norwegian mouth harp virtuoso Bjørgulv Straume and folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg. Bjørgum also wants to include Eric Anderson on acoustic guitar, and intends to use a bronze lure on one of the tracks. The CD will be released next year, and it is no exaggeration to say that people are looking forward to it with anticipation.
The concept for the musical content is slåtter in modern times. One example: inspired by a landscape painting by Halfdan Egedius, Bjørgum played his thoughts on this theme, expanded a well-known slått to seven minutes and added an English lyric about a morning walk. He based the song on six notes, the six notes of his Hardanger fiddle’s six sympathetic strings – the first fiddle ever to have six sympathetic strings. It originally belonged to the Miller’s Boy, was later presented to Oslo’s former mayor, Rolf Stranger, on his 70th birthday and was subsequently given as a 70th birthday present to artist Ludvig Eikaas by his wife. Now it belongs to Hallvard T. Bjørgum.
When the Norwegian fiddler played his tune for his South African colleague, it turned out that Blondie had composed a tune on the same six notes! Two musical cultures, two rhythms became one.