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June 30, 2020

'In the Faroe Islands, everyone is in a band'

Out in the North Atlantic, this tiny archipelago has a thriving music scene of everything from primary coloured-pop to thrash metal – despite having one record label and just a handful of venues

It is midnight on Saturday in Syðrugøta, a village on the Faroese island of Eysturoy. On a stage at the beach, a house band is joined by a succession of singers for a singalong. And sing along is precisely what the Faroese do. Although this is perhaps the least fashionable event at G! festival, it attracts one of the event’s largest and most committed crowds.

The music itself is pretty unremarkable – a kind of Nordic answer to the Germanic folksy MOR style called Schlager. But everyone knows the songs – toddlers, teenagers, tough-looking lads, parents, grandparents – and everyone joins in. Around the beach snakes a giant rope of people engaging in Faroese music’s ancient tradition of chain dancing: join hands, take two steps to the left, one to the right, and repeat to create a closed chain that never forms a circle but instead spirals around itself. The immersion of hundreds of people in the music is memorable. And the fact that it is happening at the foot of a fjord, with mountains tumbling into the sea on either side, only adds to the oddity.

Music is embedded in Faroese culture. Kristian Blak, who runs the islands’ only record label, Tutl – state-supported and artist-owned – explains that there is a music school with 2,000 students, which is staggering on a set of islands with a population just shy of 50,000. “Even if we don’t want 2,000 musicians,” he says, “music makes a difference in society.” As Heini Djurhuus, the 24-year-old bassist of the Faroese metal band Iron Lungs, puts it: “It’s rare you meet someone who doesn’t play an instrument.”

 

"Hamferð have toured the island by boat, stopping to play acoustic sets in coves and inlets"

 

You can take the facts and figures to explain the prevalence of music in Faroese culture. Or you can be more ethereal. Eivør is possibly the Faroes’ biggest star. She’s 33, and has been making albums since she was 16, building up an international profile in the process. She’s famous in Iceland and popular in Denmark; she’s got an audience in the US; and her music was featured in the BBC Viking saga The Last Kingdom. “I think it’s something to do with the landscapes and the weather,” she says of the number of musicians. “Artists tend to like this kind of place because it has so many dynamics. We have this crazy landscape, and weather can change from one day to the next. And the light is very bright and the darkness is very dark, and the contrasts are big. I think that inspires artists and musicians to create.”


Eivør is one of several leading musicians from the Faroes who incorporate the lyrics and musical styles of traditional Faroese music and have achieved international recognition. There’s also the “Viking metal” band Týr and the folk metal band Hamferð, both of whom look to the ancient ballads for inspiration. Hamferð take the whole seafaring heritage thing seriously enough that they have toured the island by boat, stopping to play acoustic sets in coves and inlets inaccessible by road. Though how you get an audience to those shows I’m not sure.

Faroese music evolved in isolation. Not just for geographical reasons – the archipelago sits midway between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic – but also for cultural and commercial ones. Although it is a country with its own parliament, cabinet and prime minister, it’s also part of the kingdom of Denmark. No musical instruments reached the islands until the 1860s, partly because of their remoteness, and partly because until 1854 Denmark was the monopoly trader with the Faroes, and the islanders were not allowed to own their own ships or trade with other nations. Before then, the only accompaniment to song was the stamping of feet. And so its ancient traditions have remained part of the mainstream.

There are three strands to Faroese traditional music. There are the ballads, the ancient tales, whose lyrics are handed down orally and are accompanied by the chain dance. Here’s a sample ballad storyline, taken from the sleeve notes of Traditional Music in the Faroe Islands 1950-1999, a compilation of field recordings: “Viljorm’s sister Kristin has a child by him and advises him to find a wife for himself. She tells him to propose to the daughter of the king of Girtland. Viljorm sails to Girtland and asks the king for his daughter’s hand. He receives an insulting reply. The king bars the door to his hall and his men attack Viljorm, who is killed.” There’s more – some of these ballads have 200 stanzas – but you get the picture. There is also the strand of music known as skjaldur, which are lullabies for children that have roots in the pre-Christian, fairytale universe. And then there are hymns, known as Kingosálmar, or Kingohymns, after the Dane Thomas Kingo, who published a hymn book in 1699. (Faroese hymns are known as Kingosálmar whether or not he wrote the words.)

 

"Don’t get the idea that Faroese musicians are all woolly-jumpered folkniks - music veers from mainstream pop to techno"

 

In the tiny, austere wooden church in Norðragøta, Kári Sverrisson – who compiled Traditional Music in the Faroe Islands – explains that even in the Faroes the old songs vary enormously. All forms of music differ from village to village – until the advent of cars and roads, getting from one place to another was a slog over the fells, or a potentially hazardous journey by boat – and the field recordists who started to compile the Faroese ballads in the 1950s discovered that you might find different melodies for the same song even in the same village. “There are harmonies, but there also disharmonies,” Sverrisson says. The 50s were the last decade when the Kingosálmar were still commonplace. In the 70s you might have heard them at funerals, he says, but no longer. The ballads, however, remain alive. Every week, the Nordic House cultural centre in the capital of Tórshavn hosts a ballad-and-chain-dance session for local kids in the venue’s dance hall. It’s the ballads that feed most into modern Faroese music.


But don’t get the idea that Faroese musicians are all woolly-jumpered folkniks (though pretty much everyone here seems to wear the islands’ famous fishing sweaters). At G! festival, the new Faroese music on offer veers from the bouncy, primary-coloured pop of Sakaris, to the slick mainstream music of Konni Kass – tipped to be the island’s next breakthrough – to the Nilssonesque pop-rock of Lyon, through to Jógvan (who was the runner-up on the Danish X Factor last year) and also techno, country and metal. What’s noticeable is how enthusiastically all are supported. Every single Faroese performer seems to get a large proportion of the crowd singing along, and boys and girls are equally delighted by all of them. Not everything is good – some of it is very average indeed – but almost every performer gets a response.

Read the full article on The Guardian: In the Faroe Islands, everyone is a band

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