by Big Mama Montse
At the end of January Carme Barrera and I decided to go on an adventure and travel to Notodden, a town in Telemark county in southern Norway. The low temperatures didn’t put us off because we knew blues warmed up the town and good friends were waiting for us there. So we were prepared to take plane, bus or train to Notodden to enjoy the inauguration of the imposing cultural center baptized Bok og Blueshuset, meaning “The Book and Blues House”. One of those responsible is Espen Fjelle, musician and driving force of the early Notodden Blues Festivals, and director of the Europas Blues Senter.
We knew him from the Blues Market at the European Blues Union in Toulouse, and I had the great pleasure of singing with him and sharing memorable moments at the “Festival Connexions” in Barcelona. The big heart of this man was immediately clear when he came to collect us at Konsberg train station, 23 km from Notodden, in the middle of the night over snow-covered roads. Jostein Forsberg, artistic director of the Notodden Blues Festival as well as musician and record producer (Bluestown Records), also braved the snowy Nordic roads to meet us. We celebrated our reunion with a good Norwegian style toast to the health of all present. We felt really happy to be with the two main representatives of the Blues in Notodden. Next morning Espen Fjelle was waiting for us in his office at the Book and Blues House. Historic posters of the city’s first blues festivals decorated the walls. He eagerly showed us guitars signed by Buddy Guy, B.B. King, ZZ Top and Peter Green that are waiting to be displayed in the Bluseum. He also showed us an original photo of the R&B Express group which Espen and Jostein played in, and that illustrated the disc they recorded together in 1988 produced by Patrick Ford (one of Roben Ford’s brothers). Then our host led us to the festival offices, where we greeted Jostein Forsberg again who proudly showed us his office, and Anlaugh Landsverk and Nina Hegna who were beaming and elated to see us again (we already knew each other from European Blues Challenges in Berlin and Toulouse). It should be said that it took fifteen years of effort by the blues community of Notodden to build this center dedicated to the blues. And on this same day, 31 January 2014 at 18.00h, they would turn their great dream into reality with the official inauguration by the country’s authorities. And we were there to take part in the fiesta! Joy overflowed all round as you’d expect …Our visit continued on to the magnificent library on two floors, led by Ragnhild Kraugerud, a strong woman who personifies one of the pillars of the Book and Blues House. She told us how she had worn out several pairs of shoes trekking to the Ministry of Culture in Oslo to raise funds to bring this cultural treasure of the first order to her city. Probably so many years fighting for a common ideal should have exhausted her, but her optimism and determination when we spoke with her showed us a free spirit with great humanity. Despite being the main architect in realizing such a magnificent project, her principles are based on simplicity and the love of little things. We were moved to see that she does not want recognition or a leading role. She told us that the library has 50,000 books which can be loaned out or read in various spaces, with very welcoming corners for children and adults. You can also access specific information about local culture and the hundred years of modern industry in Notodden based mainly on hydroelectric energy. The library also houses a blues treasury which exhibits a beautiful key to the city of Clarksdale Mississippi offered to the Notodden Blues Festival in 1996. Espen Fjelle and Jostein Forsberg travelled there to fraternize with its inhabitants, and were welcomed by the journalist Panny Mayfield, principal promoter of the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival. Carefully framed newspaper cuttings from those days illustrate the first journey of the two friends to the Mississippi Delta tracing the origins of the blues. We also appreciated a big showcase with various objects among which the KBA prize stood out, awarded to the Europas Blues Senter in 2004 for its work in spreading the blues. In the same area you can examine books, journals, vinyl records, CDs, posters, or see the original manuscript of the lyrics for the Rolling Stones’ “Beat of Burden”, as well as a microphone which belonged to Brian Jones. Our visit continued to a large concert hall flooded with natural light coming through ample windows, giving a beautiful view to the lake on the banks of which there’s a stage for open-air concerts. The space is impressive. The walls of this hall are conditioned with absorbent material panels painted by the artist Marius Martinussen, preserving the acoustic absorption properties as well as creating an environment full of color and radiance. In the ceiling the bars supporting the floodlights which project onto the stage also hold beautiful crystal lamps which when lit change color and contribute an elegant tone to the place. The excellent acoustics of the hall have also been achieved by a “bass trap” of canvas tubes which stops reverberation. The parquet floor brings harmony to the ambience. Next we visited the two cinemas which also form part of the educational and cultural complex, with capacity for 120 and 160 people respectively, and have big screens and comfortable upholstered reclining seats. The sound is impeccable and reproduced by 65 cine-loudspeakers arranged in the walls to offer surround sound. Espen Fjelle told us that both cinemas are intended for polyvalent use and as auditoriums for small-format intimate performances. Completely fascinated by the Book and Blues House, we continued our tour of the building and arrived at the doors of the Blueseum. You enter this by acquiring a ticket which a bar code reader detects and then activates an automated opening. Espen Fjelle suggested we continued without him, inviting us to receive the sensations of the museum which he and a group of enthusiasts had conceived with great devotion to the blues. We were greeted by the sound of a guitar, and saw a film of the musician Kenny Brown playing in the Ground Zero club in Clarksdale. Morgan Freeman appeared on the screen, and spoke of the importance of the blues as root music from which many other modern musical forms emerged, and without which the musical panorama would be very different. Freeman continued his talk, bringing emotion to the subject from the start, speaking of mutual respect and human values … We continued and discovered a second room dedicated to the origins of the blues with maps and films, and a third in which Charlie Musselwhite told stories about himself which illustrated the expansion of the blues through the USA, etc … But we’re not going to reveal too much about every part of the Blueseum! You have to visit it … Let’s just say in it we discovered the first Norwegian Rock’n’Roll musician, Willy Strandli, who brought a first seed of blues to his country, or that Otis Redding sang in Norway in 1967 (shortly before dying in a fatal flying accident), or that Sam and Dave performed in Oslo that same year, or that the Norwegian public adored soul and the Stax sound. Another beautiful aspect of the museum is the recognition it brings to its artists, giving information about self-taught blues musicians like Kåre Virud, Trond Ytterbø, Knud Reiersrud, or the sadly deceased Kristin Berglund among others. We also discovered the origins and causes of the first Notodden Blues Festival which were very well explained in the showcases. According to them everything started in 1988 because of the closure of the Tinfos Ironworks and the departure of Norsk Hydro within about three months, putting a large part of the population out of work. A small group of musicians (among them Espen Fjelle) decided to use their savings to organize a blues festival and bring a little happiness to the people, even though nobody thought that this would become an event of such magnitude and relevance. The tremendous turnout by the public motivated more sponsors to keep it going, and this year 2014 will see the 27th edition between 31 July and 3 August with the support of the public administration, other sponsors and their citizens. So in this municipality of 12,500 inhabitants with a large industrial tradition, 600 volunteers participate and cooperate in the organization of their festival, sharing tasks, enjoying the concerts and enriching themselves with the experience. Almost at the end of the Blueseum we were fascinated by a wall full of diverse objects presided over by Solomon Burke’s chair. Some of the items are: a bottle of cognac signed by Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite’s first harmonica, Vidar Busk’s red jacket, a dress of Kristin Berglund, washboards, record players, discs, guitars, hats, a beer can, a King Biscuit flour packet, etc … an iconographic tribute to blues artists. On exiting we arrived at the antechamber of the Juke Joint Studio, where you can enter the control room and the recording room. Espen rejoined us and wanted to know our impressions of the museum, which were total admiration. We entered the studio together and my enthusiasm was more than evident on seeing the Audiotronix sound mixing board that was the property of Stax Records in Memphis, and with which they recorded some of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin’s discs. All material used to process the signal is analogue, from the Fairchild 660 mono tube compressor and the two RCA BA6A (both original), to the 24 track recording system and the spectacular and totally vintage RCA microphones. Apparently this material belonged to the North American musician Steve World, later known as “Seasick” Steve, who owned this select instrumentation in his recording studio, Moon Music in Olympia, Washington. In 2001 he decided to move and live with his Norwegian wife in Notodden, baptizing the new studio Juke Joint Studio. Years later “Seasick” Steve sold it to Europas Blues Senter which moved it to the Book and Blues House. The technical manager is Njål Frode Lie, also a musician, who answered our questions gladly. We discovered him to be a passionate connoisseur of every aspect related to sound, with a profound background experience. He seemed to us someone who enormously enjoys his work as well as being a good “listener” who knows how to connect with musicians. He stressed the importance of the recording room, explaining how they had contracted the acoustic design to a company. It seems that the result is even better than expected. He told us some of his secrets, like for example how he prefers to use a metal “anti-pop” instead of textile ones to improve voice recording, and his way of arranging drum microphones to capture a global sound while at the same time maintaining the sensation of sound pressure produced by drum beat attacks. He also pointed out the ramped shape of the ceiling to avoid static sound waves, the bass trap to eliminate the lowest bass frequencies, and stressed the importance of the angular walls (like a very stretched accordion) to disperse the first sound reflections. The acoustic cladding of the walls possessed high diffusion qualities, and you could hear every instrument clearly. It was a real pleasure to be able to penetrate the complexity of this fabulous studio thanks to the technical manager. We also noted that for recording they have a Hammond B3 with its Leslie, a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer keyboard, Steinway piano, Pearl drum kit with Gretsch snare, and several valve amplifiers, and a big deal of spectacular microphones. On leaving I was overcome with the desire to record in the Juke Joint Studio one day. The Book and Blues House also includes some of the installations of the Culture School (Kulturskolen) of Notodden, with soundproofed and well equipped rooms so that the music professors can teach their students in a comfortable environment. Another space available in the cultural complex is a restaurant which doesn’t yet have a concession but that has received offers. There is also a remarkable merchandising zone in which you can buy shirts, discs, caps and other products. The budget allocated by the public authorities to realize this project was 140 million Norwegian Crowns (16,730,000 Euros) provided by Notodden Town Hall, the Ministry of Culture, and Telemark county. When the Book and Blues House inauguration party started a considerable number of elegant people were waiting in the hall of the building ready to welcome the Norwegian Minister of Culture, Mrs. Thorhild Wivey, and all the other authorities. The mayor of Notodden, Mr. Jørn Christensen, led everyone to the concert hall, converted for the occasion into an exquisite convention room. The reception was celebrated with a succulent dinner for all the guests, among whom were the singers Rita Engedalen and Margit Bakken, the mayor of Konsberg, and the Belgian visitors Winne Penninckx (treasurer of the European Blues Union and a musician) and his wife, the director of the Swalki Blues Festival and the mayor of the Polish city, and also Carme Barrera and me from Barcelona. After dinner and speeches by the politicians and other personalities the concert started with the band Terry Lehns, with Marianne Tovsrud Knutsen, Trond Ytterbø, Knut Henning Slettemo, Tor Egil Skaar, Erling Ericksen and Paul Øymo. A good group had played together for more than two decades to celebrate life and enjoy it to the full, and they showed it on stage. The show continued with Spoonful of Blues and Espen Fjelle on the Hammond B3, with Rita Engedalen the first invitee of the night. The singer warmed up the atmosphere with two energetic songs and a calm third one in which she invited me to sing a duo with her. After her performance I took the stage with Jostein Forsberg and the rest of the musicians sharing six songs with such enthusiasm that we ended up on the dance floor with the public singing choruses. Next the seductive Lady J. appeared on stage also ready to spread her joy, and succeeded brilliantly with her two numbers. The finale was fabulous, with Jostein Forsberg directing the show flanked by Lady J. and me, supported by Espen Fjelle, Morten Omlid, Tony Caddle and Eskil Aasland, singing at full blast and with the audience going wild. At midday next day we took part in the ready-made performance of Suhre and Skevik, who used a photocopy machine to create their instant artwork, among other artistic manifestations. We also visited the sculptures of the Swedish artist Michael Johansson who under the name “Tetris” has integrated everyday objects into various parts of the Book and Blues House walls. Meanwhile, people were eating coffee and cupcakes in the same room in which we had danced until the early hours the previous night. Also notable was that Notodden Blues Festival volunteers ran the bar-cafeteria at all times, led by Nina, Anlaugh and Solveig Hortemo, wife of Jostein Forsberg who is in charge of the backstage during the festival. Neither of them hesitated to serve their co-citizens, and on the contrary, always with friendliness and courtesy.
At dusk the Jazzbanditt trio offered an elegant concert with their manouche guitars and a bass, interpreting their own numbers as well as some of Wes Montgomery’s. Espen, Carme, Solveig, Jostein and I appreciated the music and good company together. The night concluded with a delicious dinner in the Hotel Telemark restaurant, courtesy of our friends, during which we toasted the health of the new Book and Blues House. A fantastic event to celebrate the blues, culture and fraternity.The inaugural acts lasted all the following week with various activities and concerts, among which those by the young students of the Notodden Culture School stood out. The end of the fiesta was celebrated on 6th February 2014 with a homage to Kåre Virud, considered Norway’s first leading bluesman, with a long list of musicians who interpreted his songs while he listened up them. A beautiful tribute to commemorate his 70th birthday and the birth of the Book and Blues House of Notodden.
Photos by Carme Barrera
Translated by Andrew Neilson
Originally published in French on BLUES & CO nº 67 (MARCH, APRIL, MAY)
and in Spanish on BAD MUSIC BLUES BLOG