Places as meeting points

Based on this brief introduction to styles, trends, and bands and artists in the Greenland music scene, it should be evident that this cultural field, borrowing the words of anthropologist Anna Tsing, is “shaped and transformed in long histories of regional-to-global networks of power, trade, and meaning” (Tsing 2005: 3). Tsing has labelled this interaction ‘friction’ and defines it as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2005: 4). This friction is a productive aspect of globalization and I argue that it has played a decisive role in the production of music culture in Greenland for centuries. Drum dance and song are the only musical forms that are not intelligibly affected by music cultures from south of the Inuit regions, but this does not mean that the style has not been produced by friction. Only drum dance and song stretch back so far in history that we cannot determine how this cultural form came into being.

Kalattuut and choir singing are a different story. We can pinpoint to the moments in history when trans-local meetings created the basis for these styles in Greenland, but how these styles evolved in locally-distinct ways is more difficult to account for, and this emphasizes the “unexpected and unstable aspects of global interaction” (Tsing 2005: 3). What is however key to how these styles are perceived is that they have been appropriated as local and national culture in Greenland, and thereby given a very strong symbolic value as distinct Greenlandic cultural forms. They have become part of the repertoire that identifies Greenland as a distinct place to many people.

Popular music in Greenland is the result of cultural interconnectedness as well. Performing popular music became increasingly popular simultaneous to the modernization or Danification of Greenland in the 1960s. But since the very first locally-produced recordings of popular music, there were clear evidence that place affected the productions of popular music, despite the import of globally-distributed instruments and musical forms. However, as the examples of Angu and Julie Berthelsen show, we must stay attentive to the fact that producers of music can choose to perform a sense of place in their productions, but need not necessarily do so. As ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman has observed, music is both autonomous and evocative of the identity of place (Bohlman 2011: 208).

Traditions have been invented, changed and forgotten throughout history (cf. Hobsbawm 1983: 1), and though we may suspect that this process is accelerating as a result of technological developments, we must also acknowledge that authenticity is a construction, not an essence. No culture has ever remained isolated from influence (Connell and Gibson 2003: 27-8). But because authenticity can be constructed, even when engaging with globally-distributed popular musical forms, both producers and consumers seem to often want bands and artists to perform identities that are based on place, and that can construct some notion of authenticity. However, this sometimes means that popular music is deeply engaged in arenas of conflict. In the case of Greenlandic music, I have come across questions about what gives local music Greenlandic identity. Is it the identity of the artist, the language used in the lyrics, or the sound of the frame drum that adds identity to the music? These are not questions that concern everyone, but they sometimes result in voiced judgments of who ‘gets’ to identify as a Greenlander and who does not, who stays ‘true’ to their country and who betrays it (Interview with Mik S. Christensen, 20 September 2009; Interview with participants at GiT, 1 August 2012). These debates adhere to more general discourses on place and identity. In Greenland, these discourses have resulted in a division between different places, identities and historical times into hierarchies according to their degree of ‘Greenlandicness’ (Bjørst 2008: 23-4; Sørensen et al. 2003: 25; Rygaard 2010: 232). But perhaps such (sometimes incursive) debates could be avoided by changing the very way we conceptualize place, in music and in general. If we choose to view place in popular music from Greenland as a representation of intersections between places and histories, we can perhaps avoid making popular music (and perhaps even identities of places in general) an arena for conflict, while acknowledging that a piece of music can represent a unique sense of place in the form of a unique meeting place.

Geographer Doreen Massey has proposed such a conceptualization of place, which she labels a ‘global sense of place’ due to its focus on local to global interconnectedness. By introducing this way of conceptualizing place, Massey challenges a tendency to view local communities and places as coterminous, a view she suggests is based on a (wrong) conceptualization of places as simple, pure and easily defined geographical areas inhabited by particular peoples with particular cultures and internalized histories. Rather than adhering to such a view on places, Massey suggests that we should think of places as intersections between human relations, as “articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings…” (Massey 1994: 146-56). If we could do the same in our conceptualization of connections between place and music in popular music, it would perhaps be possible to avoid conflicts over what music is Greenlandic and what is not, while accepting that a sense of place, a sense of meeting place, can be experienced as a distinct sound and narrative in music.

One way to achieve this is by imagining a typology of the musical construction of place within a given piece of music, through which place as a relational intersection is highlighted. Such a typology could be imagined for the track “Kisimiinneq” (‘Loneliness’) by the band Nanook (The bear above all other bears) in order to illustrate its character (cf. fig. 17). Nanook is one of the more recent bands from Greenland that makes use of elements from frame drum performance. On this track, the sound of the frame drum can be heard in the first verse along with the wording ‘Ajaijaa’. The lyrics are in Greenlandic and several elements from the established repertoire for performing a Greenland place in popular music are then performed in the song. The text is however about the more universal feeling of loneliness. In the first verse this feeling is described in figurative language, through an empty urban scenario and sounds of a storm. This scenario could really take place anywhere, but was probably originally inspired by an urban setting in Denmark, since this was where the songwriter Frederik Elsner lived, and where he perhaps longed for his friends and family in Greenland, when he wrote the song. The refrain of the song speaks more directly about feelings of loneliness, while in the second verse, the song’s protagonist seems to go on a spiritual journey, and we thus return to a theme that we might connect to a Greenlandic place, albeit a mythical one. However, the style of this track is a form of pop or rock music, which of course has a particular history in Greenland. But popular musical forms are often associated with the west and perhaps considered relatively placeless, even though as musical styles, pop and rock derive from rock‘n’roll that emerged from blues and country music in the southern United States. In turn, this was heavily influenced by the music of slaves that were originally brought to the region primarily from West Africa, mainly by European slavers (Connell and Gibson 2003: 55, 66). The style has evolved in other places like the U.K., but the most commonly-used instrument in this style is the guitar, which emerged from a family of stringed instruments. The earliest depiction of these is a more than 3000-year-old stone carving of a Hittite bard found in the Black Sea region of Turkey. Thus, if we want to make just a cursory map of the representations of place in this recording of “Kisimiinneq” and imagine a typology illustrating the places and histories intersecting in this particular meeting point, we have to draw routes that run through a significant part of the world and far back in time. If we would and could dig deeper into these styles and instruments and their histories, our typology could be further expanded illustrating the complexities through which this musical performance of place has come into being. What is truly the unique sense of place in this piece of music is the intersection, the meeting place of all these relations over time performed through a song.

Fig. 17: ”Kisimiinneq” (’Loneliness’) by Nanook (2009).