Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Riddu Riddu

You fly to Tromsø, which is two hours north of Oslo.  It's beyond the Arctic Circle, pretty cold even at the height of summer, and it never gets even remotely dark.  From there, you get a special bus to the tiny settlement of Manndalen (or, in Sami, Olmmáivággi) - another two and a half hours.  Most people are in tents dotted around the local Cultural Centre - a lucky few get a caravan.  This place is seriously remote.  Surely, you think, this can't be the site of a major indigenous festival?

But it is.  Since 1991, Riddu Riddu has happened each July, as a celebration of Sami culture, and a means of connecting it to other Arctic peoples, and to the indigenous cultures of the world.  This year a bus drove 29 hours from St Petersburg to bring a large party of indigenous Russians (including an extraordinary Siberian dance group) to the Festival.  To begin with, I thought the Siberians were Japanese - but no, there was another, even larger, group of Ainu.  There was a shaman and a storyteller from Greenland.  Buffy Sainte-Marie and her band came from Canada.  Moana and the Tribe were there from New Zealand (winning the prize for the longest journey).  My personal favourites were Sotz'il Jay - a Mayan group from Guatemala, whose performance was billed as dance, but seemed to me closer to shamanic ritual, as the entranced performers moved between human and animal identities.

It's important for us (and perhaps especially for me, as director of Origins) to recognise that the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, have an indigenous history and identity every bit as intense and significant as that of Native Americans, Australians and Polynesians.  It is salutary to be reminded that, right here in Northern Europe, children were put into residential schools, women were forcibly sterilised, language and culture were suppressed, and indigenous ethnicity was considered shameful.  many of the festival events are harsh reminders that it was only in the last 20 years or so that the Sami were able to reclaim their cultural identity with pride.  It's very touching to hear their languages clawing their way back, and to see the traditional clothes being worn.  

So it is also very powerful to watch the film Biekka Fábmu, which the Festival made about its 20th anniversary in 2011.  It was intended to show a success story - the arrival of Riddu Riddu as a central element in Norway's cultural programme, the integration of indigenous identity into a pluralist social space.  But July 22nd 2011 was the day of the bomb in Oslo and the shootings in Utøya - the day Norway was traumatised into re-assessing its image as an open, multicultural nation.  The Festival Chair's own daughter was on Utøya: she was eventually found wounded but alive.  The Festival ended early, with the concert for that night becoming an act of commemoration and mourning - and a gesture of solidarity amongst those who strive to create an accepting and diverse world.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robert Greygrass

Everyone associated with the Origins Festival will be deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Robert Greygrass, who died in a road accident on Tuesday. Robert was a leading figure in our first two festivals, appearing in "Salvage" and his own storytelling performance in 2009, and presenting the brilliant solo show "Walking on Turtle Island" in 2011. Robert also brought his traditional Lakota knowledge and ceremonial skill to the Festival, playing a leading role in our closing events on both occasions, lending the dignity of an Elder and the poetry of a songster to these very moving shared moments of global connection. There are very few people who combine such power with such gentleness. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ich bin ein Berliner

From the East Side Gallery - painted on the remains of the Berlin Wall
Last week I was back in Berlin, courtesy of Martin Barthel and his Comparative Research Network.  In some ways, for example the structure, the week was quite similar to the one I spent with them last year (here's the blog on that one) - but in other ways it was decidedly different.  That was largely down to the people who were gathered there under the EU's Grundtvig scheme, which is remarkable in its cross-sectoral approach to interculturalism.  Usually when I go to an "event" - a festival, a workshop, or even Platform meetings and Practice Exchanges - there is a sense that everybody is there for much the same reason, and that, whatever the national, ethnic and cultural differences, everybody has a similar agenda.  In Martin's workshop, the agendas were radically distinct.  There were people whose work and way of thinking were close to mine, of course - a noted actor from Romania; a dance therapist from Hungary; an intercultural youth and community worker from Mauritania via Copenhagen, who extraordinarily runs an organisation called Crossing Borders! - but there were also people from education and business, politics and grass-roots NGOs, health workers and librarians.  Actually, there were quite a few whose professions never even came up in the conversation - and probably all the better for that.  The mixture allowed Martin and his colleagues Kamilla and Ewelina to create role-plays and scenarios which took everybody out of their comfort zone, and genuinely created the tensions which occur when different cultures meet.  Or collide.

It's simulation, of course.  My one quibble with this work would be that it highlights, through its very celebration of diversity, the one area which intercultural practice has not yet embraced, namely class.  However varied our backgrounds, they were all educated, middle-class professions - the sort of jobs that sit readily with language skills and international travel.  We may have role-played refugees and starving people, but we did not encounter them - even though some of the former were right on the doorstep in Kreuzberg.  I don't blame CRN for that at all - it's just something that has been preying on my mind for a while now.

It's to do with walls.  Berlin, in many ways, is the symbol of an inclusive idealism - its notorious wall either demolished or making space for optimistic murals.  But I have also recently seen Beirut, where there are deep, extreme economic divisions that accentuate cultural difference; and I have thought about those refugees' journey from Palestine, where there is still a literal wall dividing their people from their neighbours.  I have also been in Belfast, where it was explained to me that the people are not yet ready for the "Peace Walls" to come down.  And last summer we worked with refugees from the Western Sahara, where the occupying power, Morocco, has erected the longest wall in the world - and nobody in the West even talks about it.

I'm hugely grateful for the week in Berlin: and for the way it highlighted how very far there is to go.