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Cold Play

A tiny Arctic fishing town and an ensemble of rock stars unite to produce a memorable music festival

Author Rhodri Marsden Photography Jamie Quantrill (Musical Saw, Peter Buck)

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NORWAY – On a frigid afternoon, in a farmhouse on a remote Scandinavian hillside, a reindeer herder named Elle Márjá Eira wheels around trailing a green-and-crimson scarf. The woman sings as she spins, her voice rising and falling according to the conventions of yoik, a hypnotic, ululating vocal style native to the region’s Sami people. “That,” says one of her backing musicians afterward, “was one of the most incredible musical experiences of my life.”

High praise indeed, considering that it comes from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (pictured above).

Vadsø, a nondescript fishing town in the northern Norwegian county of Finnmark, does not generally get a huge number of international visitors. Rock stars are an even rarer sight. Crunching along the town’s snow-packed streets this week, however, are the likes of John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, Buck’s R.E.M. bandmate Mike Mills, and Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate.

The reason for this unusual influx of celebrities is Ice Station Vadsø, a music festival put together by British artist Michèle Noach. Participants have paid their own way here and are performing in a small venue that puts a new spin on the term “basic.” But nobody’s complaining. “This’ll never happen again,” says the English singer-songwriter Tim Keegan before the event’s headline concert begins. “So let’s make the most of it.”

Joining the ensemble onstage tonight are Eira and another yoik singer named Kai Somby, whose intense expression and long dark hair really make him look the part. As band members strike the first sonorous chord, ruddy-cheeked youngsters and craggy-faced fishermen look on with raised eyebrows and open mouths.

Later, audience members mill about brandishing albums and flyers, eager to get them signed. Later still, when the last few stragglers have filed out into the cold night, co-organizer Robert Lundgren makes an effort to capture the poetry and poignancy of the event. “When darkness falls over the Arctic,” he says, “people turn the light on inside themselves.” With this, he turns and walks face-first into a door, causing howls of laughter to fill the empty hall. 

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