Norrland and Urkult, part 1

sunset view of nämnforsen from the festival area

Hey everyone, sorry I haven’t put up the post about London yet. You’ll get to hear about it some day soon, I promise.  But for now I want to tell you a tale of the north. A tale of folk music, joiking, hippy-like swedish people, and reindeer meat. A tale of Urkult, the music festival that I went to in Näsåker, Västernorrland last weekend, and my final ‘big adventure’ in Sweden before heading to California.

Also, you should know that this post is also sorta epically long. And there will be a part 2. Sorry. But there are a lot of pictures…

The lakes in Norrland are black. I thought maybe it was because of the depth. Nämnforsen does have some steep dropoffs. But I think it must be something more. Probably something chemical. But imaginatively speaking, maybe, something magical.

Sweden north of Sundsvall feels like a completely different country. The landscape changes so drastically it is hard to believe that this Sweden, the Sweden of the North, is the same as the low-lying wheat and raps fields of Skåne, or as the island city of Stockholm, or as the green fields and björk-tree landscape of Uppsala. The North is mountainous, dark. The way to get up to Näskåker, where the festival was held, was one heck of a journey to say the least. It is a bit alarming for me to think of how long it was to get up there, how far North it really seemed… and then to look up at the map and realize that Näsåker is only about half way up Sweden. In the real, real north, in Lappland, above the polar circle there is Sarek, and there are the fjälls: the place where the trees stop and the landscape becomes unearthly. I wanted to make it up there during this trip, but it proved to be just a little bit too far and my cash just a little bit too short. Supposedly, the real, real, north looks something like this:

Well, I didn’t make it that far this time, but at least this gives me a reason to come back. Anyone up for backpacking in the North of Sweden one day?

Anyway, back to the main story.

The day started off with a 5AM train ride on the x2000 (with cheap last-minute tickets that where bought only 6 hours before) to Stockholm, followed by a commuter train to Uppsala. It turns out the the Uppsala Reggae festival was the same weekend, and I ran into my friend from Ramsjö Gård, Anna, the German farmgirl with a full head of bright blond dreadlocks, on her way to the festival grounds. It was great to see her again, and the fact that we meet just randomly in the streets is a reminder that even though Sweden is huge … it is still a small country. The hike through Uppsala continued past the Reggae festival, toward Johanna’s friend Fanny’s Co-op, which would be our home for the night. The Co-op (or kollektiv) was, well, a co-op. And all of a sudden, I felt very much at home.

The next day we arose bright and early (again) to catch the 7 AM train to Sundsvall, and were joined by the rest of our festival-going gang and several other random festival goers, their motives made clear by their hiking backpacks, coolers, and ukuleles. We got on to the train as scheduled, but it didn’t stick to schedule for long. Apparently there was something wrong with the train signals in Gävle and we had to on-and-off stop and ride slowly in what made for about 2 hours worth of delay. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. First, they made everything in the Bistro car free. That’s right: free pre-made sandwhiches, cinnamon rolls, juice, coffee, tea, salads. Awesome. Then, since we missed our Länstrafik buss from Sundsvall due to the delay, the train company ordered a charter buss that went directly to the festival. Wait, it gets better. The train company refunded 25% of the ticket cost. In my opinion, totally worth a little extra train time, especially since my sleep on the train that day was the first time I hadn’t had nightmares about finding my bike (only to awake and realize that I hadn’t found it).

On the buss ride from Sundsvall, as I watched miles upon miles of forested mountains pass by, some people in the back of the buss started singing choir songs. When they got to ‘En Vänlig grönskas rika dräkt’ I couldn’t help it any more and had to sing along. It was the first of what would be many random musical moments.

When the buss dropped us in Näsåker, I realized that the place had an unusually high population of hippie-like people. Can you imagine the strangeness of seeing so many hippie-like-people in Sweden? There was a part of me that was extremely glad (felt a bit like home). But there was also a part of me that was extremely confused at the high numbers of Swedish people in dreadlocks and colorful and often Southeast Asian-inspired clothing.  It is as if one where to discover a part of town in Berkeley with people clad exclusively in Swedish traditional dress. It was weird.

We set up camp in Sigge’s family camping (the girl who checked gave me my first opportunity to hear real Norrlandska, the northern dialect live!), and there turned out to be about 15 people in our group. Our food situation was kind of brilliant: everyone only had to help with preparing food for one meal out of the whole time–the rest of the days we just could show up and eat. Because we shared the cost of food, the major meals for the whole festival cost about 40 kronor, or 6 bucks. Not bad.

After setting up camp, it was time to swim in the lake, something that would become a daily ritual. And then it was on to the festival area to get our wristbands. Oh, the festival area. It was on top of a hill overlooking the river, and was encircled by lofty pines. Aside from the expected stages and food stalls, there where also hammocks, firepits, teepees, swings to swing on, ropes to climb on, a wooden ship, and games for children to play.

That was one of the truly wonderful things about Urkult. The festival population was made up of all sorts of people (not just the hippie-likes). There where Grandparents, parents, children, and in some cases even very little babies, all gathered to celebrate folkmusik. The music was likewise varied, and not at all confined to the scheduled performances, but rather all around, all the time. It was really fantastic to see musicians of all ages from all over Sweden (and in fact the world) gather and just play. Also, it made my secret desire to learn to play the fiddle even more urgent.

And the music didn’t stop at the just the festival area – people played in the town, in the campgrounds, in the church graveyard, by the river… everywhere and whenever possible. My favorite moment came when a woman at asked the people camped next to me for a cigarette, and subsequently got roped into a conversation. When asked where she came from, she answered she was a Sami, the people native to the North of Sweden, and that she would be more than happy to Joik for them. Joiking is the traditional form of Sami music that I first heard of during my freshman year at Berkeley. I was fascinated by the idea of a joik as a sort of musical portrait of a person or animal, and I remember thinking to myself that one day, I wanted to hear a joik live. Well, it turns out that in that field-turned-camping-ground in the middle of pretty much nowhere, I would get my chance. And so, she joiked, and I listened.

At the moment she finished I got the whim to travel immediately to Lappland, live in the Sami culture as an apprentice reindeer-herder, and learn to joik. Unfortunately, all romantic visions of such a life are quite quickly crushed by the memories of the darkness of winter and the foul, foul, smell of reindeer meat.

Yes, reindeer meat. The mingling aromas of body odor and Indian food (and something else that is sorta illegal in CA and very illegal in Sweden) is a scent that I have experienced amongst hippies in California and was well aware of. But at Urkult, you have to factor the reindeer meat tent into the festival-scent equation. Yes, there is a food tent that serves taditional Sami food…which is pretty much reindeer meat ontop of reindeer meat ontop of tunnbröd (a kind of thin bread). Every time I walked by so named tent, the smell was for some reason so disagreeable to me that I had to run a little bit. Admittedly, that didn’t stop me from wondering in the back of my head: I wonder what it tastes like. I am not sure if I am grateful or regretful that I never dared to find out…

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I talk about the actual performances during the festival. There might even have to be a part 3 in which I talk about how I managed to get back to Lund (equally, if not more, exciting).

I know you’re all on the edge of you seats.

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