A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.

Advertisements

Songs of revolution, joy and home

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the immigrant experience that you spend a lot of your time noticing other immigrants. Sometimes it’s just a flicker on the street, or it could be heading to the local watering hole for an expat get-together. Or you may even find yourself at a concert, watching performers from around the world singing of love, politics, joy, revolution and home in a mix of languages. All the things that make us lift up our feet and head out the door, and someday find a place to take off our shoes and put our feet up.

My fella and I had spent the afternoon walking around slightly dazed in the sun, savouring ice-creams and the warmth that I still can’t take for granted. When we had finished a snack at a Greek restaurant I got a message about a free ticket to a concert. Without really knowing what the concert would be, other than that it would feature Syrian and Iranian music, I said yes. Which is how I found myself in the Stora Teatern in the centre of town on a Saturday evening, as the compere introduced us to a night of music that would show us how many world class musicians there are driving taxis or living anonymously in Sweden, and the music they have to share with us. And how much joy we can return to them.

The concert was billed as a showcase of artists who have found a home, even a temporary one, in Sweden. It seemed that often they found their way here after running away from something – as with all expats and immigrants there is a reason we leave. Two had been tortured and another had grown up in a country where love songs had been forbidden for generations, and where he secretly sang forbidden songs. There was sadness in the songs, and joy but the strongest emotion that ran through all of the songs, and through the audience as the night went on, was defiance.

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

The first performer was a tall, elegant man from Kurdistan, who sang folk songs in a deeply resonant voice. Of all of the artists Naser Razzazi was the most charismatic. He had the audience in the palm of his hand each time he stepped on stage, and what sticks in my mind now, almost a week later, was his neat white mustache, tall frame and complete confidence.

Habib Mousa was another man with a presence, who sang about love and dreams, and spoke about his old homeland of Assyria. He was quietly spoken, with a powerful voice.

The next man is known as the Elvis Presley of Eritrea, who brought rock and swing to his country and then to us. Osman Abdulrahim grooved, grinned, sang and spoke briefly about the war and dictatorship he had escaped, and told the daughter of Dawit Isaak that he hoped her father could be returned to his family soon.

Elvis of Eritrea

Elvis of Eritrea

Throughout all these performances, people coming on stage to cheers and then departing for the next guest only to return a bit later, a band had played behind and around them. Drummers, a bassist and guitarist, keyboard player and a very enthusiastic violinist accompanied all of the performers. The next performer brought his own instrument, perhaps the one he’d brought to Tahrir Square 4 years ago. Ramy Essam is one of the most well known faces of the Arab Spring, who played rock music among the crowds as the revolution swept through Egypt. He’s currently living in Malmö, having been granted safe city residence, and while there he continues to write songs about the revolution. When asked how he is enjoying Sweden, he said he liked it very much, but would always want to return to his homeland and continue the fight.

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Finally there was a young woman originally from Iran, who grew up in Sweden and seems to me to combine the two cultures. Safoura Safavi sings in a mix of Farsi, Swedish and English, her music a mix of punk, reggae and soul and very infectious. She bounced around the stage and the audience bounced along with her, even more so when her sister joined her for a duet. She sang about pretension, life in Iran and in Sweden and was joined by the rest of the performers for a final song in Farsi that brought the audience to our feet. After they had left and the calls for an encore were answered she stepped back on stage and sang a song about Sweden, as blue and yellow lights shone on the stage.

Safoura from Sweden

Safoura from Sweden

The music had taken us all around the world, through war, revolution, oppression and hope, and then in the end it brought us home.

Songs of snow and the future

The first time I saw Sofia Jannok was at an open air concert as part of the Kulturkalas, a city-wide festival of music, crafts and dance, which I wrote about in a previous post. It was a wonderful performance, though I was too far back from the stage to be able to hear what she was saying. I am glad that I got to hear her recently, as what she has to say it definitely worth hearing.

Sofia Jannok singing

Sofia Jannok singing

Last month she did a free concert at the Värld Kultur Museet (for those of you with no Swedish, yes, it does mean what you think) and my partner, myself, some friends and a mass of others piled onto the steps in the main hall to listen to her. By the time she stepped onto the stage, we were all crammed together, leg to leg, babies on laps and in some cases knees to chins, which somehow suited the intimate feel of the concert. She was dressed quite casually, with a large round brooch festooned with polished discs on her chest, that I had seen once at home when my mum brought out the family jewellry and since then in traditional stores. A chap with a guitar played with her, and aside from a duet, there were only two on the stage. Despite the simplicity, there were many threads to her songs, and many layers beneath them.

Sofia was born in Sweden, and identifies herself as Sami, the indigenous inhabitants of the European countries that hug the arctic circle. They are known as reindeer herders who wander the snowy steppes, continuing the nomadic way of life of their ancestors. From what Sofia said this is basically true, but there is more to it than that, and those of us who live in cities are ignoring the deeper layers to our own detriment. I couldn’t understand the words she sang, but they conjured for me the sound of snow falling, longing, the past and a hope for the future. Sami lands are being plundered for oil and the culture is gradually disappearing. She spoke of watching the movie Avatar and crying the whole time, as the story echoed what was happening to her own culture and lands.

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

She was passionate, hopeful, angry and had a lovely voice, which I hope I will get to hear again.

A few weeks later we decided to end our weekend with music at a cafe we are fond of. We didn’t know much about what we would expect, other than the somewhat vague hints of Finland, traditional music and the extremely broad ‘world music’ and that the artist was called Aino Kurki. What we saw as we sat down and settled in was a large wooden instrument resting on a stand, somewhere between a harp and a guitar, or the insides of a grand piano. I very much wanted to touch it or try plinging on the strings, but managed to hold myself back. Before long a young woman stepped up behind the instrument and began to play. The music was a mix of blues, samba and something that I’ve never heard and so can’t put a name to it. We sat mesmerised as she played, her hands finding the correct strings with seemingly inhuman precision, knowing against the boards for a beat and constantly twiddling the tuners.

Aino with her kantele

Aino with her kantele

The instrument, Aino explained between songs, was a kantele. Kanteles originated in Finland, and have been around for thousands of years. My research while writing this post revealed that there is a mention of a kantele in the Kalevala, and ancient saga from Finland. After hearing about it’s history, I wanted to play with it even more and even own one myself, half for the fun of trying to make music and half for the pleasure of owning something beautiful and historical.

After the show, she sold CDs (one of which I bought) and spoke to the audience. It seemed as though half of the Finns of Göteborg had gathered in the cafe, listening intently and clapping politely, and talking to her in their clipped and unfamiliar language. I wished that my grandmother had taught me some words of her native language, if only just hello or goodbye, though I suppose I could have asked. Maybe I will when I see her next.
If nothing else it serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t let the past disappear, and there are those who can carry it into the future.

(Photos of Sofia Jannok from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/, photo of Aino Kurki from: http://ainokurki.com)

Sending music into the night

I get the impression that my antipodean friends and family believe that a Swedish winter consists entirely of cold, darkness, dreariness and staring mournfully out of the window in between chugging down beer and eating potatoes to drive away the misery. I want to make it clear, here and now, that this is not entirely true.
Yes, the vitamin D deficiency gets us down sometimes and comfort food is tempting (oh wedges and mash, what would I do without you?), but those of us who choose to live up here find ways to cope and sometimes even drive away the darkness.

Way back in November, all of four months ago now, we were invited to a concert across town in Majorna. We were unclear as to what sort of music there would be, but trusted the inviter’s taste enough to assume it would be interesting. After passing rooms full of billiards, young men smoking on the street and closed nail-art shops we found an obscure door and were within seconds enveloped in warmth and the smell of incense. The concert had already started, so after hanging up our thick layers of jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens we shuffled and apologised our way to the corner where our friends had already taken up position.

The band

The band

On the stage was a band of six men, a guitarist, two drummers, a cellist, a saxophonist and a bassist who treated us to cross-cultural melodies that I couldn’t begin to guess at the origin of. They seemed to twine from the east to west, and probably north and south too, and had all of the feet in the house tapping along. A lady from India then joined them, singing traditional songs in a style I’d never heard before being joined by an Iranian woman whose presence took up the whole venue. She was amazing, and managed to provoke the room into breaking into a veritable orgy of dancing. Fellow audience members who had seemed typically reserved and quiet were bursting all over the stage, a long line and then circle of dancers twisting around along with the music. Or in the case of some people, along with the music in their heads which seemed to have a different tune. Being Australian, and therefore reserved in a different way, we sat and watched and sipped our wine, as I at least tried to ignore the itch in my feet.

Once started the dancing can't stop

Once started the dancing can’t stop

We followed the concert with a few drinks at a local pub, claiming paintings of vintage aircraft, dancing, guessing the names of songs and staying until closing time.

When the year had turned and we’d returned and mostly recovered from the excitement of Jul and visitors, another celebration arrived. This time is was a housewarming at the home of a good friend of mine. We turned up late, due to getting a little bit lost, and arrived to find an apartment full of Swedes, warmth and talking. We bobbed around between rooms, chatting and listening, and finally found a space in the living room to enjoy our dinner. I had seen on the invitation that guests were invited to bring their instruments, as the girlfriend of my friend is very heavily involved in music, and it seemed as though most of the others who had come to the party were as well.
As the night drew on we became the slightly stunned but gleeful audience of a sudden orchestra of violinists. A guitar and banjo joined in at various times, plus little people dancing among the legs and chairs, but for the most part violins were coaxed into life, belting out folk music and dances. They all seemed to be speaking a language I couldn’t understand, switching between styles and songs with cues I couldn’t hear or see. At the high point, there were 7 violins playing at one time, and I’d guess about 9 in total passed in and out of the apartment. Though I can play music to an extent, these people had the ability to play in the other sense of the word, in the same way that I sometimes like to do with words – throwing them around to make patterns and for sheer enjoyment.
We left late, or early, with the music following us down the street.

Keeping away the cold

Keeping away the cold

So my advice, if you want to take it, is if you are feeling cold and miserable on a winter’s night, follow an invitation for a night of talking and music. Even if you don’t bring your own violin, you can sit amid the music and forget the cold.

A night of unexpected art

So it has been over a year in Göteborg now, and you know what that means? It’s Kulturnatta again!
Last year we went on a sort of guided tour, arranged by an long-term expat who has sadly left Sweden, from a photography show (possibly more on this in a later post…) to an opera, via interpretive dance and buzzing crowds. It was something like Kulturkalaset, except that it was packed into one day rather than a week. Every performance space was performed on, every gallery was open and any sort of expression of art was on display.

It was the same this year, but we took a different tack, and in the process discovered a new part of the city and a building that could only exist in Sweden.

Used printscreens

Used printscreens

Our evening started at the square next to Stora Teatern, where a clutch of musicians huddled under a tent in anticipation of the rain that had beset Göteborg for a few days. Luckily the rain never arrived, and instead the growing crowd were treated to some wonderful Jewish themed music, from lively dancing songs to melancholic ballads, played on violin, piano, double bass, drum and saxophone. The pianist also doubled as a singer, sometimes using Yiddish, and then switching to her native Danish, then through Swedish to English. I wasn’t the only person to thoroughly enjoy it either, as demonstrated by a couple nearby who almost provided a show by themselves.

By the end of the show most of the gang who were to explore Kulturnatta together had gathered, and we picked up our last member as we began our search for food. It led us all the way across town, though sadly it was a journey almost entirely without eating, as we had forgotten than a Friday night during a cultural event is not a good time to get a free table in the city. In the end we settled on an old favourite, and only worked out towards the end of the meal that we had missed the event we had been aiming for.
Rather than give up, though, we headed to another event further across town, in an area I had not seen before.

Interactive art

Interactive art

Klippan is a little suburb nestled between the E45 and the river, with the Älsborgsbrun looming above. It is also a bit of an artists hub, with Röda Sten sitting solidly under the bridge and a few artist collectives nestled among the maze of tall, red brick buildings.

The first one we found was especially surprising, given that from the outside it seemed to be a castle, with a setting and view that any where else would suggest very expensive apartments. Here, however, it meant galleries, workshops and small art factories, winding around a steep staircase. I suggest having a look for Gamla Älvsborg on Google Maps, and looking at the street view, or if you’re in Göteborg, popping down for a look. It’s unexpected, to say the least.

Artistic folk

Artistic folk

It seems to me to be an example of a type of place that wouldn’t exist anywhere else, where a collective takes over control of a very fine bit of real estate and uses it purely for art, and the sharing of that art. If this sort of thing exists in other places please let me know, because I’m quite curious about how they work and are maintained when property prices are rising and cultural priorities change.

What was even more unexpected, more so even than the workshops and kilns and bronze smelting rooms, was the sudden party. Inside what looked like a storage room was a crowd of people, sitting, drinking and talking while listening to a live band.

An unexpected band

An unexpected band

Among the crowd were men in top-hats and cloaks, drinking from brass tankards and generally acting as if this was perfectly normal behaviour. When the dog arrived with the pensioners, we decided to continue our Kulturnatta explorations.

We found a band playing Greek folk music, swing-dancers, drunk-dancers, the end of a light show more art, tucked away on various floors of the cluster of buildings.

Red Riding Hood was also surprised

Red Riding Hood was also surprised

Even once we had decided to call it a night and waited at the tram stop, we were treated to the toneless humming of an old man with headphones, perhaps deciding to join in on the festivities. He was then replaced by a younger man who, slightly less tunelessly but more annoyingly, sang hits from the Backstreet Boys and other 90s acts in people’s faces.

Maybe it’s an example of how the general community gets involved in art and culture, and uses the opportunity to express themselves.
Or simply alcohol + boisterousness = pop songs sung badly.
Whatever the reason, the evening showed me that art can be found in unexpected places, if you are willing to explore.

(All photos in this post are used with the permission of goddohr31)

A party in Göteborg

In the week that we’ve been back, we were lucky enough to be part of a great national event here in Göteborg. An event that had about a 10th of the cities’ population singing and cheering, lining the canals and having picnics on rooftops. People spent the day in costumes and sang in public and the sound of the celebration and the fireworks of the finale reverberated around the city.

No, I’m not talking about Swedish National Day. I’m talking about a concert performed by someone who may not be known outside of Sweden, but is adored in his homeland – Håkan Hellström.
Brief backstory for those not in Sweden – Håkan Hellström is a rock/pop musician from Göteborg who was a drummer and bassist in a couple of Swedish bands before he decided to go solo and has since released a number of records, all in Swedish. Months ago a concert was announced in Ullevi, the biggest stadium in the city, and sold out pretty quickly. I heard snippets about it from Swedish friends who were either going or wished they could go, but it wasn’t till I saw fans in sailor outfits wandering around the city, overheard people singing his most famous song in a park and heard that the venue had reached a record breaking capacity that I realised how important the event was for a decent percentage of the population of Göteborg.

Relaxing by the canal

Relaxing by the canal

My partner works in a building near the stadium which has a balcony, so our plan was to view the concert from high above. (Unfortunately we couldn’t get access to the top floor, but at least we know more for next time) We set off from our apartment with a bottle of wine and some glasses, just in case, and strolled along the canal that leads to the stadium. From the moment we stepped outside our apartment we could hear the concert, and as we got nearer it got louder, covering the screams from Liseberg and the rush of traffic. The volume of Göteborgare also increased as we got closer, from people sitting on benches with picnics, or on the grass lining the canal, standing around with their arms around each other or sitting on the wall of the canal, feet dangling down above the water. The rooftops nearby had new residents, and the road near Ullevi had been closed off and was packed with people singing along or just standing and smiling. It was a city celebrating and vicariously sharing a few hours of music. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The contrast to the concert was National Day, which seems to have been popularised within the last few years and the mention of which was greeted with ‘what? Oh yeah, that thing’ from the Swedes I questioned about it. Hoping to get some sort of cultural experience, even if it was manufactured, we headed to Slottskogen on Friday, to listen to the orchestra and watch some folk dancing. Unfortunately the weather didn’t seem to have realised that it’s summer so it poured from the moment we stepped outside. While I do love a bit of Ode to Joy, standing in a crowd feeling the rain seeping through your jacket is not the ideal way to enjoy it.

Orchestra in the rain

Orchestra in the rain

The folk dancing seems to have been rained out (though why they weren’t more prepared baffles me – I take it they of all people would know they are in Sweden), though I did enjoy the costumes.
Speaking of which, a question for readers: Does anyone know why ‘folk’ outfits seem to date from the 17th centuries? Why not the 14th, or 19th? I suppose the equivalent nowadays would be a suit or cocktail dress.
There were of course crowds of people at the National Day celebrations, and those who can stick around in the rain must have some good reason to do so. However I didn’t get the same feeling of love as at the concert the next day. Perhaps people have to decide what to love.

Prior to checking out the concert, we had a picnic in a park, a long and relaxing affair in which we ate, drank, talked and I got slightly sunburnt. Now that summer is beginning to show its face I hope it stays for longer.

Picnicing in summer

Picnicing in summer

Life has otherwise been settling down to the usual routine, or classes and chores, looking for work and another apartment and reconnecting with friends. The holiday in Australia is passing away and life is returning to normal, back in step with the city around us.