SOMMERFESTEN – NORWAY

22 August 2011

 

Eight years ago, on a beach on the island of Giske in North Western Norway, some friends threw a party. A small gathering of 30 people. Everyone brought food and drink to share. It was awesome so they said “Lets do it again next year”

Seven years ago , in a field on the island of Giske in North Western Norway, some friends had a party. A bit bigger this time, 70 people came with their food and drink. Afew of them brought guitars. It was awesome so they said let’s do it again next year…

Six years ago and the party expanded to 300 friends bringing food and drink. Some bands came too. Someone said “We’re going to need a bigger field”…

If there was such a thing as viral in slow motion then Sommerfesten on Giske, pronounced Yisk-ih, could be a prime candidate. Over the 7 years since it’s inception, word has slowly spread about this free festival promoting Peace Love And Understanding. By 2010 some 25,000 people from all over Norway gathered to enjoy music and food and eachothers company. Damien Rice headlined the event with bands queuing up to be included. Because it’s a free concert, bands waive their fee. Organisers pay travel and accommodation expenses and the provide the kind of hospitality usually laid on for royalty. In addition, people all over the island open their homes to house the many performers who descend on their town. Of the numbers who attend, most bring food which is handed into a station and shared. The only thing you have to pay for, if you’re a punter, is drink.

In May this year I was contacted by one of the organisers, award winning Norwegian journalist, Bernt Jacob Oksnes. We met in 2003 in London when he interviewed me for 12 Memories. Anyone who knows him will tell you he also happens to be the nicest guy in Norway. A journalist!!!? Never!! Well it’s true. So when he asked me to come and headline Sommerfesten 2011 I didn’t miss a beat. “Bring your wife and son too.” “Umm…Ok!”

Then, a week before the festival, a bomb rocked central Norway killing 8 and 68 were shot to death on the Isle of Utøya. I waited until Monday before contacting Bernt. “Is the festival cancelled?” I asked. He said “We were very close to cancelling until politicians, survivors, even the King of Norway urged us to continue… are you still coming?” To be honest, the thought of heading to a remote island in Northern Norway in the wake of a mass murder on a similar island, wasn’t appealling, especially when the killer was talking about another 2 cells planning similar attacks. My wife Nora was even more concerned. She emailed Bernt voicing her concerns. Bernt was adamant it was going to be safe. We packed our bags.

 

Bernt was at the airport to pick us up. He had been anxious about the international artists coming, worried they would cancel. He looked relieved to see us emerging from arrivals. We drove through two very long tunnels under fjords then over a long arcing bridge towards the festival site. It was teeming with volunteers, making finishing touches. A giant pink cow, the festival mascot  loomed in the distance. Stages were set. Everywhere we went we were met with wide smiles. The atmosphere was unlike any festival I’ve ever been to. But then Sommerfesten is a wholly different festival from any other that exists today. It’s no surprise though. Norwegians have an unwritten law that states every person is equal and not above the other. The country was relatively poor until the 1970’s when oil was discovered off the coast. Instead of the usual scenario, where a minority benefit from such a huge windfall and in keeping with this unwritten code, the wealth was shared among everyone. Education, healthcare and infrastructure are among the best in the world. Sommerfesten is a distillation of this national ideology.

As we wandered about the festival site, Oslo and Utøya are on everyones lips. It’s fresh. People want to talk about it. Many I spoke to held back tears. Everyone is shocked. The community feeling Norwegians have sits uncomfortably with this tradegy. How could this happen? In the hotel lobby Bernt took me aside to ask if I would sing at their memorial the following day at the festival. Survivors from Utøya would be talking from the stage then “We wondered if you would go up and sing ‘Sing'”  ” Sure.”

That evening the festival organisers take performers and their friends and family on 3 old fishing boats out into the sea. The fishermen collect crabs. My son, Clay and I throw one back in. They let him steer the fishing boat and wear the captains hat. We ended the evening on a little island by a lighthouse where a large marquee had been set up. Enough food and drink for twice as many revellers was laid out. There was a rowing boat filled with crushed ice and endless beer. Clay was tired so we slipped out and returned to Alesund. I made the car wait while i saw him to bed with Nora then returned to the lighthouse where the party was in full swing. From talking to everyone it’s clear the festival will serve as a moment for mass reflection.

When we arrived at the site the next day, people were already streaming in, bands were already playing. There was a family vibe. A lot of kids running around laughing and playing. The weather too, was perfect. We wandered between the 3 stages for a while but mostly hung out back stage and waited till 5 when the memorial would happen. Backstage at around 3pm there were murmors that some of the survivors had arrived. They sat at the next table from us. Teenagers. Their parents looked solemn. God, what they had been through, what they’re going through…

5pm and these teenagers file onto the stage. 20000 people are standing in silence as one of the kids speak… As a foreigner, I have no idea what is being said but get the feeling it’s incredibly poignant and somehow optimistic. Then a Norwegian actor recites a poem about youth followed by another survivor. Then one of the main politicians speak. Then I go and sing ‘Sing’. All the performers of the day are at my back singing along to a sea of hearts. Alot of crying. Quite a moving moment.

That evening Clay was my roadie. He helped with plugging in leads and puting guitars away. The rest of the day was a blur.

We stayed for 5 days on Giske at Ocean Sound Recording Studio. Weirdly, they have the desk we recorded some of The Man Who on. OK Computer was also mixed on it and quite afew other titles. Tina Turner too!!!

The festival is really special for many reason. For me, it was the way the treated the bands. For 3 days they looked after some 100 or so people, taking them to remote houses on a fjord or on the final night sitting everyone down for a meal cooked by Norways finest chefs! The spirit among performers is so different because of this. By the end of the trip people are making arrangements to meet up again, write together, play together. There is a real songwriting revival going on in Norway. Among them a guy called Morten Myklebust, Odd Martin Skaalnes singer of the Alexander Quartet,  Robert Post who I’d met in London earlier. Lukestar also played at the aftershow. This guy had the highest voice I ever heard!! I’m sure his nuts are in a jar on some byzantine choir masters mantlepiece. I dueted with Odd on a version of Slideshow. Was cool. There was a fantastic Indian artist there too called Raghu Dixit. He and his band rocked the festival and provided Clay with his own entertainment system for the duration of the weekend.

 

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