Crossing Musical Borders

In the last decade, the Norwegian Concert Institute has developed a vibrant, diversified multicultural programme. Nevertheless, it has still only scratched the surface in relation to its ambitious goals in this area.

In October, musicians from four continents met on stage as World Strings opened this year's Verden i Norden (The World in the North) multicultural music festival, arranged by the NCI. For the first time, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation supported the festival and commissioned the opening work by Indian violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam, played by the Madras Percussion Ensemble, violinist Arve Tellefsen, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and an excellent group of string instrumentalists of different nationalities living in Norway. The NCI has gradually become expert at arranging this type of colourful, coordinated meeting of different traditions.

“We started in 1986 with a great deal of ignorance. We have often felt like a bull in a china shop. I remember our first concert with Indian musicians. We marched in with our shoes on and stepped over their instruments. To them, this was sacrilege,” relates Tom Gravlie, head of the Multicultural Music Centre, a department of the NCI.

“We have gradually gained experience,” he says. “Now we can spread this further so that it becomes a natural part of our society.”

Resonant community: The Norwegian Concert Institute is a government-funded institution under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and is responsible for promoting live music in Norway. Although the NCI had previously arranged concerts of music from non-western countries, the systematic integration of immigrants and their music into the NCI's programmes did not begin until 1986. From 1989 to 1992, the NCI carried out a survey entitled Klangrikt fellesskap (Resonant Community), an ambitious project to discover how immigrant and Norwegian children are affected by exposure to immigrant music and culture in schools. The final report from the project makes encouraging reading. Its main conclusion is that music is an effective means of reducing intolerance and cultural conflicts among children. The best anti-racist measures have proved to be those that appeal to the emotions, since intolerance is an emotional rather than a rational state.

The NCI has had the full support of the authorities in its efforts to promote immigrant music and culture. The former Labour Government emphasised the importance of this type of work in its long-term programme, where multicultural Norway was one of four priority areas.

325,000 children: In 1996, the NCI arranged 5,627 concerts in schools, 850 in day-care centres and 340 for the general public. In the last decade, immigrant music has featured as prominently on NCI programmes as Norwegian folk music. Immigrant musicians perform at ten per cent of school concerts and five to seven per cent of concerts in day-care centres. The touring musicians play at schools and day-care centres during the day and public concerts in the evening. They meet local musicians and choirs, and work particularly well with local folk musicians.

“There has been a growing demand for these concerts. Between 1989 and 1997, 325,000 children have experienced “the resonant community”, says Hallgeir Frydenlund, who is responsible for arranging school concerts featuring immigrant musicians. He says that during the initial stages he used to spend several days with the musicians beforehand, getting to know them and making sure that they understood what was expected of them. It is important for immigrant musicians to be competitive on the Norwegian musical scene. The NCI acts as a vital service institution, providing information, training and advice.

From Senegal to Setesdal: One multi-cultural meeting generated by the NCI reached the record stores this year. The CD Frå Senegal til Setesdal, featuring singer and do-do (African mouth harp) player Kouame Sereba, cora player Solo Cissokho, folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg and mouth harp player Bjørgulv Straume, is the successful result of cooperation between musicians with the same love of folk music and the same sensitive openness to each other’s traditions. Norwegian and African songs, rhythms and sounds have been woven together in a way that eradicates distance. Intimacy is the word that best describes this music.

Kouame Sereba says that he noticed Kirsten Bråten Berg and her singing style as soon as he came to Norway. “Here's your lady,” shouted the family whenever Kirsten appeared on TV. But Bråten Berg, Cissokho and Sereba met quite by chance. They were warming up for a concert in the same room when something happened quite spontaneously; magical coordination and mutual understanding. They performed a few songs together as a surprise for the audience, who happened to be NCI concert organisers. The group was later extended to include mouth harp virtuoso Bjørgulv Straume, and has since given many concerts and recorded the CD.

After fourteen years in Norway, Kouame Sereba learned a lot more about Norwegian traditions by working with these musicians, especially about how much more similar Norwegian folk music was to African music fifty years ago.

“When I heard the mouth harp tape sent to me by Bjørgulv Straume, I had to call and ask who had played the drums with him. I was very surprised when he told me that it was the sound of his own feet. Fifty years ago, it was quite common to use your feet in this way, he explained, but when the musicians came into the studio they put a carpet under their feet so that the drumming would not be heard on the recording. I had difficulty in working with Norwegian musicians before I met folk musicians. I have no rhythmic problems with them,” says Sereba.

Drumming with the vice: Kouame Sereba from the Ivory Coast is a fine representative of the many talented immigrant musicians working with the NCI. Since 1989, Sereba has been involved in everything the NCI has had to offer. He has toured with his own band, taken part in tours to schools and day-care centres and performed at festivals, seminars and workshops. As a musician, he is not afraid of exploring new avenues. His repertoire spans everything from afropop to traditional a cappella singing and a combination of African and electronic sounds.

“The NCI has helped me a lot. I don't know whether I would have made so much progress if I had not had the opportunity of trying things out,” he says.

On the Ivory Coast he's a pop star. His record Galé with the Zikolo band was voted the best dance record in 1994, and a national competition was arranged for the best choreography to his music. When Sereba goes back home, he is waved through customs and the news of his return is immediately reported on the radio.

In Norway, he learns most from his concerts for schools and day-care centres. These long tours involve intense hard work and a unique opportunity to develop his communication talents. The fact that the children are not interested in who he is, is a challenge. They listen to find out if his music is interesting. If it isn't, they go away.

Sereba particularly likes performing at venues with a large proportion of immigrant children: they are proud when foreigners do something positive and they remember the visit. He is gradually beginning to use the same methods when he works with adults. Starting from the way he learned to play and sing himself, he teaches rhythmical singing, which involves mimicking drums with the voice.

“Living as a musician in Norway, I have become more aware of my musical roots and have learned to talk about them,” he says.

The World in the North: The NCI's Multicultural Music Centre was established in 1992. Each year, it arranges the World in the North festival in cooperation with similar institutions in the other Nordic countries. In Oslo, the festival takes place in October, after which the musicians tour Norway and take part in festivals in other Nordic countries. Otherwise, this year's festival evidenced a strong desire to strengthen cultural cooperation with Pakistan. It featured a Pakistani folk music group and an exhibition of Pakistani folk art arranged by Riksutstillingen, the NCI's sister organisation for pictorial art.

The Multicultural Music Centre also organises a weekly Ethnic Music Café in cooperation with the Cosmopolite music club in Oslo. At first, the cafe, which opened in 1992 as a result of the NCI's stated policy of supporting this area, attracted very few people. However, in the last five years audiences have grown to 200 every second Wednesday. The Ethnic Music Café has become an important meeting place for musicians and now has a branch in Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle.

In autumn 1997, in addition to Nordic medieval music, the programme will include music from Bolivia, Kurdistan, Madagascar, Mali, Bosnia, Latin-America and West Africa.

“The problem for immigrant music here in Norway is that we do not have a big enough population,” says Tom Gravlie, pointing out that Multicultural Music Centre is currently extending its cooperation with the other Nordic countries to include exchange visits and Nordic tours outside the festival programme.

Give and take: The Multicultural Music Centre receives an annual allocation of NOK 2 million from NORAD, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, which is mainly used to finance cultural exchanges between Norway and other countries. For example, the small municipality of Fredrikstad, south-east of Oslo, has for many years been cooperating with ZAME, the Zimbabwe Association for Music Educators.

During the Førde International Folk Music Festival in western Norway, young talents from Asia, Africa and Latin America take part in workshops and concerts. In 1996 a group that was formed in Førde toured India, arousing a great deal of attention in the Indian media. In 1997 priority has been given to inviting talented young Pakistani and Indian musicians to mark their countries’ 50th anniversaries as independent states.

A charming constellation called OBENDA, featuring singer Bjørn Eidsvåg and his band and The Sunshine Kids, sixteen young musicians from Namibia, have been playing together for several years.

Through this initiative, Norwegian musicians will be travelling to India, China and South Africa in 1997, bringing inspiration, knowledge and their colleagues back to Norway.

“Cultural exchanges are helping to improve the status of other cultures,” says Tom Gravlie. “They are important in connection with development cooperation. We get to know each other through our own means of communication and understand that development cooperation is not only about giving but just as much about receiving.”

Translation: Virginia Siger ©

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