Northern exposure

Where's the best place to see Norwegian jazz and Inuit singers? Caithness of course...
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The Independent Culture
There's a theory that British cinema's answer to the Western is the Northern, where a hero journeys northwards (usually to the remoter parts of Scotland) and after sundry struggles in an alien landscape somehow finds his or her true self, like Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I'm Going, or Burt Lancaster in Local Hero. Here, the far north is less a real locale than a metaphysical one, and it's not British. The North is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Although film plays a relatively small part in its programme, the Northlands Festival, which begins on Tuesday in Caithness, is dedicated to exploring exactly this sense of difference. Set at the top right-hand corner of the map, around the fishing port of Wick, Northlands looks further north still, towards Scandin-avia and far-off Greenland, in search of a possible cultural identity for a region for whom Scotland, it seems, is not quite northern enough. "Caithness has as little to do with Scotland as Land's End does to Birmingham," says Mary Miller, the festival's artistic director. "Wick used to be the busiest fishing port in Europe, with boats from Scandinavia and all over the world. It was a highly cultured town with real society there, a bit like St Ives in the Fifties.

"Then, when the herring went back to wherever it had come from, the fishing industry moved to Thurso and Wick declined. Robert Maclennan [the local MP, also a dramatist, and now the Lib Dems' arts spokesman], decided something had to be done to uplift Wick again, and that the interesting thing to do would be to reunite Caithness with its Nordic roots."

The result is a festival that is strongly local, but far from parochial. Northlands has its own ensemble-in-residence, Lys (after the Nordic word for "light"), and visiting artists are incorporated into special festival commissions that follow the governing Nordic theme, sometimes in a surprisingly avant-garde way. Last year there was a Viking version of Carmen set in Wick's old bus depot; next year's plans include a Lapland tango orchestra and what Mary Miller describes as "a big installation piece", in the dome of Dounreay nuclear power station. This year, major events include an adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts with music by the Norwegian composer Maja Solveig Ratkje, and a performance of Schoenberg's "Song of the Wood Dove" with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's new soloists' ensemble, conducted by Osmo Vanska. The hot ticket could well be the all-male Jo Stromgren Dance Company from Norway, who present the UK premiere of "A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football", complete with hot dogs and pies.

There's also the world premiere of "Sounds from the Snow and the Flow", with Mari Boine, the celebrated traditional Sami singer from north Norway, Kasulak Qavigak, a Greenland Inuit, and Scotland's own Sheena Wellington.

The festival ends on Tuesday, 21 September with the second and final performance of Tales from the End of Northworld, a community opera set, once again, in Wick's venerable bus depot.

One of the star attractions of the latter is the remarkable Norwegian brass group, the Brazz Brothers, who are making their British debut. Two sets of brothers, with a Swedish drummer, the Brazz Brothers demonstrate perfectly that easy ability to mix and match musical manners that has become a specialism of younger musicians from Scandinavia. While they are partly a classical brass ensemble, and all brothers play regularly in Norwegian and Swedish orchestras, they are also a stormingly good jazz band.

Jarle, Helge and Jan Magne Forde, and Runar and Stein Erik Tafjord, come from the island of Sula on Norway's west coast, where there is a strong brass band tradition. "We started playing the standard classical repertoire for brass quintet, but before this we had played traditional jazz, and we were conscious of the different settings," says Jarle Ford, the group's spokesman. "Then at one concert of Bach, where we hadn't had time to rehearse, we just started improvising to cover ourselves. This changed our whole way of thinking about classical music, and after that we took away all the music from our music stands in order to feel more free and to use our ears. Immediately, our ears got 50 per cent bigger. Now, we can memorise anything, even 12-tone music."

The next step was to add rhythm to the line-up, which the Brazz Brothers did by calling on Norway's foremost jazz drummer, Egil "Bop" Johansen, who played with them for 12 years until his death last year. As the repertoire of the group developed, it began to follow the model of the only real precursor there was, the jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy. "After a few years we thought, why not call Lester Bowie and see if he will play with us, and we ended up doing two gigs with him at the Molde Jazz Festival in 1992," says Forde.

The experience made their ears bigger still. "We were supposed to have two days' rehearsal, but the first day he was asleep. The second day, he arrived for the afternoon but decided he was hungry and asked us to play something while he ate a pizza. When it came to the gig that night, we were about to go on stage and we said, "Well, Lester, what are we going to play?" and he said, "Just relax." He went to the microphone and began making a raspberry noise with his trumpet, and then turned back to us and said "Don't worry. B flat." We started to play behind him and got into a groove. Afterwards, you understand this is genius."

What the Brazz Brothers bring to Northlands, where they play a concert and an alfresco collaboration with the Sutherland Schools Pipe Band as well as the big closing opera, is a kind of swashbuckling Viking spirit in everything they do. In Sula we have grown up in a common landscape of storms, wind and high mountains and all the people there have their own energy, because they have to be so tough," says Forde. It was easier to get to Scotland by boat than it was to get to the other side of the mountain, so no one is afraid of going out and finding new things."

Another of the festival's visiting artists, the Danish writer Carsten Jensen, who reads from his recent work accompanied by Lys in a programme entitled "Visions from the North", is slightly more sanguine about the notion of a pan-Nordic identity. "Denmark is a flat country and it's been a sleepy island outside of the rest of the world for years now," Jensen says. "Someone once said that Denmark was so boring that it was almost exotic, and I can subscribe to that."

Northlands Festival, 14-21 September (01955 606660; e-mail: