Travel: Islanders who sing with one voice

Maybe it's because they have nothing else to do, but the Faroese are the world's greatest musical magpies.
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The Independent Culture
Sigrid bounds on-stage with messianic glee. She has that sleek- to-the-point-of-underfed, gazelle look common to a generation of post- Celine chanteuses. She briefly basks in the adulation wafting up from the crowd. Then, gesturing towards the choir of 30 or so singers already tiered at the back of the stage, she proudly proclaims: "United Voices is in the House!"

And the crowd goes wild.

Woodstock revisited? Well, er, no. A Faroese church choir.

If there's one thing the Faroese take more seriously than football, it's music. Give 'em half a chance and they'll start to croon. Give 'em a whole chance and a guitar will appear out of nowhere. There are church choirs, school choirs, men's choirs, town choirs, countless bands and even a full orchestra. All in a country of fewer than 44,000 people.

Some say it is because the main cultural anchor of the Faroese is the Ring Dance, a mesmerising circle dance that dates from the Middle Ages. The dance can last for days and is accompanied by a cappella ballads that spin tales of ancient battles and love.

Once upon a time, much of western Europe danced the Ring Dance, but now the only place where the ghosts of the ballads come back to life is this tiny, windswept outpost in the North Atlantic.

Or maybe they sing so much because there's really not much else to do out here.

Whatever the reason, the Faroese sing their hearts out - in any style imaginable, and in every nook and cranny of their absurdly remote islands. They'll sing rock in beer clubs, blues in church, heavy metal in sports halls and just about anything at private parties.

The big annual showcase of home-spawned talent is the Faroe Islands' Jazz, Folk and Blues Festival. All the main currents of Faroese youth culture are represented.

The big excitement this year revolved around United Voices. You see, the Faroese also take their religion very seriously (they have a lot of spare time). Around 25 per cent of the population belongs to one of the endlessly schisming fundamentalist Christian sects. And this year, some of the youth representing choirs from differing sects put their religious differences aside to form United Voices. This union was additionally blessed by getting Sigrid, a veritable Faroese mega-star - by virtue of being in a Norwegian girl band - to front it.

A capacity crowd turned out to see the group's inaugural show, an upbeat "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" spectacular. Sigrid's slinky dress alone put the put the "Ya!" back in "Halleluya!" and played its part in converting at least half of the audience. Think of the blonde girl from Abba doing gospel.

United Voice's last "Let Us Magnify Him, For He's Holy, Holy" had barely faded away when they were replaced on stage by what is unquestionably the best goth-rap-metal-funk band the Faroes ever produced (if only by lack of competition). MC Har is made up of the Bad Boys of Faroese popular music. Both of them. They are surrounded by an anarcho-collective of surprisingly talented musicians and singers that will do things such as play a beautiful trumpet solo in the midst of a thumping ode to sperm.

Ah, youth today.

That Faroese knack of taking a standard form of music, from gospel to metal, and tweaking it just so to give it that special North Atlantic feel was superbly demonstrated on the last day of the festival by a local boy, Teitur Lassen.

Teitur, in his early twenties, had made a David Cassidy-esque name for himself as a Faroese teen heart-throb, performing in a rock band called Mark No Limits.

Then he went off to Denmark, and strange things happen there. He re-emerged at the Festival as a mature, smoky-voiced jazz singer, conjuring up ghosts of Duke Ellington and Harlem and Satchmo. But, being Faroese, he found that wasn't enough. He had to give it that something extra. So he did a show where he set the words of classic Faroese poems to New York jazz riffs. And it was great.

It may be the Ring Dance, it may be the lack of good television, it may be the endless rounds of multi-generational house parties, it may even be all the time they spend rearing sheep.

Whatever it is, it has produced a small corner of the world where people have the time and the skill to mix and meld the whole gamut of Western musical tradition, from medieval chants to Metallica. The Faroese can make gospel sexy, metal melodic and jazz even more poetic. And that's just this year's concoctions.

Musical innovation is alive and well and living in the Faroe Islands. Who would have thought it?

It is pretty hard to avoid live music in the Faroe Islands. Organised events such as the Festival usually take place in the summer and autumn. This autumn, Frandur, one of the best-known bands in the Faroes, are to perform the country's first rock opera with the Faroese Symphony Orchestra.

If you can't wait until then, Mark No Limits and another popular Faroese rock band, KJOLAR, both have CDs out. MC Har not only have a CD; they have also set up their own website at