Kaada @ Sandnes Kulturhus

Kaada Orkester @ Sandnes Kulturhus
March 27th

There is an advert for a Norwegian newspaper doing the rounds at the moment which plays on the rather closeted nature of the country by marking a map of Europe with clichéd cultural stereotypes instead of place names, the tagline being that reading this paper will broaden your horizons. Thus France is Baguette, Scotland Kilt, Sweden IKEA and so on. Over to the right, conspicuously blank yet surprisingly large and really not that far from Norway itself is a nation daubed only with the legend ‘Strawberry-pickers’: Poland. It was John Erik Kaada’s dissatisfaction with this blinkered view of a people who for much of the year live alongside Norwegians with little integration or acknowledgement that inspired his latest opus Junkyard Nostalgias, but as he freely admits his vision of, or perhaps it would be better termed tribute to, Polish workers is ironically just as culturally unenlightened as that map is – he knows little or nothing about Poland or its music. Well, not quite as unenlightened, because Kaada was able to approach his subject with a dizzying array of Eastern European instruments and a crucial surplus of goodwill.

Thus though Junkyard Nostalgias may draw on influences from far-afield, it worked charmingly in his own back yard, as he rounded up a quirky orchestra to bring the soundtrack to an imagined Poland to Sandnes Kulturhus. It turns out that Kaada does have something of a stereotype about Eastern-European culture, and judging from the stage-setup and the costumes of his talented coterie of horn-wielders and mandolin-pluckers it would seem to be grounded very much in a kind of sexed-up take on drab Soviet deprivation. Too-yellow flickering lights revealed a violinist in body-hugging black military garb, a sassy cowgirl in stockings and heels sporting a low-slung guitar and a punk pout, a mandolinist resembling a 40’s wartime mother, a similarly prim double bassist, two men in sharp but dated suits on percussion and horns respectively, and a flautist who looked like necessity drove her to fashion a dress out of the living-room curtains. And then there was Kaada himself, tall, dark, and handsome, cutting a Win Butler conductor-figure with black garb and strutting poses, flitting restlessly between grand piano, accordion, keyboards and a little red mini piano with what looked like an anachronous sticker of Rod Stewart on the back. The venue was a vast, black theatre-space, and the dynamic a little strange – crowds clearly used to bopping in low-ceilinged indie clubs were forced into comfortable seating and muted applause – and as the musicians struck up the first notes it seemed as if Kaada’s orchestra would never transcend this potentially stifling decorum, whimsical Beirut-esque melodies feeling slightly lost in the space. But such fears were swiftly allayed as the opening piece erupted into a glorious, indecorous, dramatic flourish of noise; the double-bass roughly thumped, the drums pounded, and the cowgirl looking every inch the rock chick: this was no ordinary orchestra.

Much of Kaada’s recent work has been for film soundtracks, lending his talents to several recent Norwegian hits, and there was something cinematic both about the latest sounds and the presentation. The costumes, lighting, and whimsical instruments (several saws were mournfully played over the course of the evening) recalled Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sepia-toned celluloid imaginings, particularly Delicatessen, and indeed the music was often reminiscent of that director’s most famous soundtrack collaborator Yann Tiersen, all tinkling piano and swinging accordion. The new songs were interspersed with cuts from Kaada’s recent soundtrack efforts (O’Horten and Hawaii, Oslo among those to feature), the players were backed by stuttering grainy black-and-white footage that dominated the backdrop like propaganda films, and in the unusual atmosphere the audience flexed its freedom by picking up on the similarly cinematic humour of the concert. One number was introduced by the self-effacing band-leader in quiet local dialect as questioning whether one can ever be lonely enough to appreciate the company of a mosquito – the inevitable thumps and bangs that met the high-pitched violin buzzing providing droll answer enough – and another apparently told the story of a Polish man who drags his dying cow through the mud before he and his wife die, but the cow survives. Needless to say, such picturesque introductions added both colour and involvement to what were largely solely instrumental offerings. Overall Kaada’s homecoming was a charming, transporting and vigorous presentation of inventive and often beautiful music, but for all that it was the songs that he lent his vocal talents to that proved the most powerful: the swirling blues stomp of a surging paean to obsession from the transvestite documentary Alt Om Min Far verging on orchestral shoegaze, and another yearning mournful closing vocal effort offering a similar dark punch.

Were there many Polish people in attendance? Probably not, and if there had been would they have recognised much of their culture in Kaada’s cinematic continental indie-folk excursions? It’s unlikely. But would they have enjoyed it? Why almost certainly yes, because Kaada is an unusual talent and a surprising showman. Plus this was much more fun than reading some stuffy newspaper…

 First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2009

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