You can really get to know a country by its music. And just like the islands themselves, Faroese music is surprisingly varied and eclectic. After a morning with Faroese textile artist Astrid Andreasen, we visited the legendary Tutl Records to get some insider insights into the diverse pleasures of the Faroese music scene…
Boy Bands, Chain Dancing and Doom Metal
Dinner with a Faroese family is a lively affair and the conversation flows as Oddmar Olsen and his wife Camilla brief us about about all manner of Faroese traditions including the part that music plays in life on these remote islands. While rock and pop are nowhere near as big an industry as fish and puffins, the locals are fiercely proud of their music scene. But music speaks to more than the locals; musicians from the Faroes regularly pop up in the charts of Denmark, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
“We even have a boy band,” cries Oddmar’s son Magnus, bringing out an iPad and showing me the teenage crooners. They have all the accessories of boy band-dom; the obligatory blonde flicky hair and soft focus video. What are they singing about? I ask Magnus.
“A girl.” he replies. Of course they are.
Passing the words down through generations
The boy band might be singing about women but many other musicians are putting a contemporary spin on ballads and hymns passed down through generations; thus helping to keep the traditional songs alive. Many Faroese songs are rhythmic tales of heroes and battles that came from Middle Europe. They were kept alive in the past via the chain dance; a tradition for unaccompanied singing that began in the Middle Ages. While this may have also taken place around the hearth in the days before TV and electricity, there was also a social element to the songs. Whole communities would (and still do) gather, stand in a line facing each other (or more often winding around like a snake if more than a few people turned up) and sing an extraordinary number of verses to each other while stamping their way around the room. It isn’t a performance; they are singing to each other.
Tutl Records is more than a music shop
Tutl Records is an institution in Torshavn; a music shop, venue, record label and catalytic agent for the whole Faroese music scene. The owner, Kristian Blak, is one of the Faroe Islands’ most established musicians and music publishers. His shop, Tutl, is also a tourist attraction in its own right with its summer programme of free concerts in the shop and musical education sessions for cultural tourists.
In summer you can also head out by boat to sample Faroese music played in the sea caves; but that’s not possible when we visit so instead we spend an hour or so in the record shop, getting ourselves a crash course in the diversity of Faroese music from those in the know; Kristian and his staff.
It’s a cosy little space, packed to the wall with CD’s, with refreshments for the adults and jelly beans for the kids. It’s also decked out in lace and I wonder if that’s the Faroese craft traditional coming to the fore? But no. It’s apparently the set of a wedding. One of the most famous Faorese singers, Eivor, recently got married and released a new album so all the props are in homage to her.
From hymns to ballads to doom metal
We watch and listen to a selection of Faroese promos which run a whole gamut of styles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there are shades of Bjork here, but there is a likeable eccentricity about much of it. Stuart’s favourite is the doom metal band Tyr that have stormed Germany with their testerone fuelled rendition of a traditional Faroese hymn. Women like Eivor modernise folk tunes with ease while captivating you with her hair (styled by Disney’s Little Mermaid?). Many of the tunes draw on dark and mystical folklore, the supernatural or are influenced by proximity to the landscape and forces of nature. And Teitur and Budam both have some interesting stuff going on in the vocal department. You have to hear it to appreciate it really. And there’s a great sample CD for sale to help with that.
The record shop has ambitions to make the world aware of the Faroese music scene. And it’s a valid aim; the country seems to punch above its weight in this corner of the creative arts. Tutl has a back catalogue of around 500 albums and releases some 35 new CD’s every year. The islands have their own symphony orchestra, proving quite wrong those naysayers who said the islands’ population was too small to sustain such a thing. And on Ólavsøka, the Faroese National Day (July 29th), anything between five and eight thousand people turn out to sing and perform the famous Faroese chain dance.
Of course everyone knows everyone in small island communities like this and so it is in the Faroese music scene. Which is how we come to visit the local music recording studios in Torshavn harbour to meet the owner and take a tour.
Meeting the modern Simon Le Bon
Musicians like recording in Studio Bloch. I suspect it’s partly down to the enthusiasm and knowledge of the owner and sound recordist Jonas. It’s probably the location too, on the waterfront in the capital, Torshavn, and maybe because a recording gig here comes with free use of a boat.
“I have my sailboat just outside. We might sail out for lunch, then come back in, to play a solo, you know,” Jonas smiles.
Jonas restored his part of the building himself, turning the former warehouse into a modern, well equipped sound studio that offers “something a bit different from Oslo or New York. The rest of the studios are the same the world over. Down here we have more to offer”
Built in 1886, the building’s history includes making and storing ice for the fishing boats, but it has also been home to cars, jam, coal, sweets and timber. The partly exposed stone walls, still lined with cork in places, make for a great acoustic. Jonas is currently converting another part of the building into a concert venue with a great view of the sea, where bands will be able to showcase their work. I tell him I envy him, doing what he loves in such a beautiful location.
“The perfect outskirt of the universe,” he agrees, nodding out into to the bay where the mist is descending on his yellow boat.
A little yellow boat on a big blue sea
Reluctantly we must leave the Faroes; our week here is up. As our ferry pushes out of the harbour, and the stars start to replace the fading daylight, we spot Jonas heading back in from a post work fishing trip. It takes me back to the music scene of my childhood; watching pop stars like Simon Le Bon cruise around in the sunshine on TV while the biggest excitement in my life was cheating my sister at Scrabble. I wonder if he’s caught anything today, while working on an anthem for Faroese youth?
As we say goodbye to these beautiful unspoilt islands, the only soundtrack is wind and waves. A snippet of a hymn written in 800 AD, recorded in Faroese and brought up to date by a doom metal band would be far more appropriate in my opinion. That’s what the kids are listening to on their iPods.
Island life. So beautiful, so serene, yet at heart so rock and roll.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And to Tutl Records, Studio Bloch and Visit Faroes who helped us out on the Faroes. All experiences, views and opinions are however, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.