By The Landlord
Back in the mists of time, when our ancestors slowly left Africa and began to traverse across continents, encountering foreign lands, fierce animals, frozen wastes, aggressive or indeed randy Neanderthals, and worst of all, the North Circular A406, some particularly hardy types decided to just keep going. And some went a bit further still. And some even got on boats and went even further. Perhaps they preferred the cooler weather, liked sliding on ice, or just wanted to escape a nation of shopkeepers settling in Britain. Wherever they came from, and for whatever reason, they finally stopped, perhaps attracted by beautiful fjords, forested tranquility, and fish. Also, tens of thousands of years ago maybe Agnetha Fältskogsonsononsong, being quite a determined woman, just insisted on going further north, so Björn Kristiansonsong Ulvaeussonsonsong, who fancied her a lot, thought he’d better follow. "Ugh, can we stop here now, please, my love?" he kept saying.
But what distinguishes the Nordic countries we now call Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland? And what of the culture there expressed in their music? Being from none, but having visited some, I have decided I’m totally qualified to say something about them. No I haven’t. But to kick off this musical outpouring, I’m just going to list some of the stereotypes associated with these countries, giving you, dear learned readers, ample opportunity to debunk such myths, Viking or otherwise. Let us reveal stories, styles and nations rich in variety, sophisticated in culture, and almost all of whom seem to be brilliant at speaking the English language, to the point of being better at it than us native of this tongue.
Nordic countries make me feel cosy, somehow. Yes, this might come from knitted jumpers and ancient handcrafts. But there is also groundbreaking mobile phone technology, great minimalist design, "Nordic noir" drama and murders on bridges, but my first childhood sense of this region came courtesy of that king of British storytellers - Oliver Postgate. It’s snowing outside, so let’s pull on a blanket, and go to the land of the Nooks:
Sweden, with almost 10 million people, is the largest of the five in population - Denmark, Norway and Finland with more than 5 million, and then Iceland, by far the smallest with just 329,000, more than punches above its weight culturally and otherwise. So what do we associate with Sweden? Abba, saunas and snow, blonde or flaxen hair, sex people, and Ikea? Combining some of these elements, here is an Ikea commercial broadcast in Norway. What does it say about both cultures? Do please, er, reveal all, with your thoughts:
A friend of mine who spent several years living in Sweden was surprised at how uninhibited all generations, even older ones, seem to be about sex or nudity, but, saying something that could even be deemed slightly blasphemous (Christ almighty! Goddam!) was regarded as absolutely shocking and obscene. But what do the Nordic countries think of each other? Is it true that Danes are aloof, and perceive Swedes as noisy drunkards who come to Copenhagen? Are Norwegians the more reserved and quieter neighbours? Are Nordic countries the world’s most liberal, advanced and sophisticated, or in equal measure can they be backward and racist? All of these qualities are revealed in the incredible Dogma95 film by Thomas Vinterberg - Festen.
There are forums aplenty discussing how they perceive each other but what would be particularly interesting this week is songs that reveal any of these inter-nation perspectives.
One quality all five countries seem to share is a landscape that is both sparsely populated and beautiful. How much is this expressed in its music? Iceland, bubbling hot, freezing cold and volcanic, is also a particularly creative country. From its puffins to a hardy breed of blond-haired horse, it has become perhaps the highest profile of all five in terms of musical artists, thanks to Bjork, Sigur Rós and many more. I could list these in this topic launch, but let’s indulge, share and explore that in comments. However, let’s look at two contrasting Nordic artists. One who seems to express so many qualities is a Norwegian. Farao, aka Kari Jahnsen, a multi-instrumentalist who grew up in a small village community where she learned here skills before moving to Oslo, London and Berlin. Was this all inspired by splendid isolation?
And then, by contrast, the Nordic culture can also be exemplified a different sense of humour, a particular form of masculinity that frequently results in winning World’s Strongest Man. Let’s indulge now in a bit of Finnish goth metal, courtesy of the shy, retiring Lordi:
So then, this week’s King of the North is Song Bar regular DiscoMonster. Put forward your song nominations from or about the Nordic countries in comments below by this coming Monday 14 March until time is called. DiscoMonster’s playlists and piece about them will appear on Wednesday next week. Ha det så kul!
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