Members: Iva Bittová (composer /violin/vocals), Nils Henrik Asheim (composer/organ/leader of the orchestra), Stine Janvin Motland (vocals), Marcela Dreveňáková (vocals), Jozef Dreveňák (vocals/guitar), Peter Mižigar (guitar), Gjertrud Økland (violin), Patrik Žiga (violin), Roman Harvan (cello), etter Frost Fadnes (saxophones), Johan Egdetveit (accordion), Ståle Birkeland (drums/percussion)
Interviewees: Petter Frost Fadnes, Nils Henrik Asheim
Nationality: Norwegian, Slovak
Occupation: Composers, performers; Angrusori is an ensemble formed specifically to "create exciting, ingenious, improvised music drawing directly from, or inspired by traditional Roma folk tunes."
Current release: Live at Tou is out on Hudson Records.
If this Angrusori interview piqued your interest, visit them on their Hudson Records label page.
In 2016, Phuterdo Øre/Angrusori was born. Can you tell me a bit about how the connection between the Kitchen Orchestra and the Slovak musicians was established? What made the fusion of improvised music from Norway and the ancient Roma songs seem like a good match to begin with?
P: The story behind Angrusori goes all the way back to 2010 actually, and involves the two cultural factories Tabacka (in Kosice, Slovakia), and Tou (in Stavanger). The two venues collaborate through the great European organisation Trans Europe Halles https://teh.net/. Lukas Berberich (who then worked for Tabacka) came up to Stavanger for a TEH-seminar at Tou and I met him over a few beers in the evening, and I think that's the first time he suggested we should do something with Stavanger musicians and Roma musicians from the Kosice area.
After that Ståle (drums) and I kept in touch with Lukas on a regular basis, and he booked several tours for us with our trio The Geordie Approach (with Chris Sharkey). Lukas then brought the ethnomusicologist Jana Belisova into the picture, based on her work with setting up the NGO Zudro (http://www.zudro.sk/), which gathers and promotes Roma music. Nils Henrik Asheim (composer/organ-player), Ståle and me then actually drove around parts of Eastern Slovakia with Jana and Lukas and listened to various musicians within her network. Here we met Marcela Dreveňáková (vocals) Jozef Dreveňák (vocals/guitar), and really fell for them, how they perform as a team, and kind of built the rest around them. Jana then asked other musicians she knew, Roman Harvan (cello), Peter Mižigar (guitar) and Patrik Žiga (violin) if they would join our gang. At that particular trip we also did a trio gig (Ståle, Nils Henrik and me) at a Dominican monastery in Kosice, playing improvised with Iva Bittová (composer/violin/vocals), to see whether that could work as a collaboration – which of course it did, and we loved it and decided to continue.
From then on, we started the meticulous work of listening, playing, experimenting with different ways of musically interacting, involving us travelling to Kosice and them coming over to Stavanger over a period of nearly two years. Then, through all this experimenting, trying and failing, Iva and Nils Henrik put it all together as a series of pieces which became the album Live at Tou. That’s the short version of a long story … Since that initial conversation with Lukas all those years ago, I always thought it was a good idea to do this – basically to set up an exchange between two musical cultures where improvisation is an important component – but we didn’t know for sure that it was going to work … until it suddenly did.
NH: Actually, I was not at all sure that the project would create a good match. I was asked to lead the process probably because I previously had done cross-genre collaborations and also treated repertoire from other traditions than my own in a successful way. But this had mostly involved musicians, who, although from different traditions, would still have a comparably similar conservatory background. In the case of Angrusori, so much was different. Social conditions, language, the musical practice. I foresaw that the people of this band very likely would have completely divergent ideas of what it is to be on stage and play a concert. I was afraid we were being naive in imagining a "cultural meeting".
So, what convinced me to participate, was that the project was very well organised and prepared, and that I could sense a genuine engagement and energy – especially from Jana Belisova who shared with us her research material and opened up the wonderful Roma music to us. Still, I could not even remotely imagine how the thing would work, I was not able to prepare a single note or sound before travelling to Kosice and starting the first workshop, beginning to communicate and sit down on a common floor to somehow try and make music together.
The project collects songs which very few people outside of the Roma community (and even within it) will have heard. What 'different European reality', as you put it in the press release, did you find? How would you rate the importance of music for the migrant community in dealing with it?
P: As Jana points out when we discuss these things, it’s of course wrong to presume that there is one singular, continually tragic fate within the Roma population. They live different lives just like everyone else. But at the same time, it is not hard to see the level of segregation and xenophobia going on, including some very hard living-conditions for parts of the Roma population.
We went to see the Luník IX area in Kosice for example, it was mid-winter and freezing, and witnessed how the largest Roma population in Slovakia have to cope without electricity or running water in derelict buildings. If we just look around us, we see parallel societies within not just Slovakia, but in Norway and all of Europe, involving Roma, but also migrant populations and refugees. I’ll be careful to second guess how music fits into all of this, but the Roma tradition is very strong, where music functions as an important cultural glue and an emotional outlet. The lyrics show this I think, they nearly always very sad, portraying tragic fates.
NH: I was startled to experience how music was a kind of state of being for the Roma people we met. In the home of Marcela and Josef, someone could start to sing a song, someone else would take over, another one would maybe start arguing about the lyrics lines, and so on. And as we sat there, the room slowly filled up with friends and relatives. In such a culture, a very vivid situation is instantly created as soon as a note is struck on the guitar. Everybody participates somehow, music is tied to the good spirit and the sharing of a good moment - or a sad moment. I imagine that music is essential for the bonds between people, for feeling hope, for surviving. It is also a way for the Roma people to show proudness and skills and can be important in terms of social validation.
What were some of the concrete goals for the project?
P: Starting out, the goal was always to see whether this could be mutually enriching for the musicians involved, and whether we could learn from each other’s backgrounds. So, it started as an artistic development project, a creative ‘lab’ for individual musicians, but ended up as a band.
For us as a group, the music came out of listening – real, open, patient listening – which in turn showed a strong sense of mutual respect of our individual backgrounds. Those factors have been very important in bringing us and keeping us together. We spent hours and days listening to each other – especially Marcela and Josef have a seemingly never-ending repertoire to draw from – then we tried to meet somewhere in the middle without mudding it up into something superficial. We wanted to avoid falling into ‘ethno grooves’ or ‘pseudo gypsy’ or toothless improv. Instead, we wanted the music to represent all of us, that you should be able to hear all the individual voices as a collaborative whole.
NH: I felt a strong need to start by talking together. Even without knowing a word of mutual language, you can have a conversation about things like: How many kids do you have, which instrument do you play etc. So that was my beginning.
Then of course during rehearsals it was completely necessary to lean on those of the Roma who could speak some English, and on Jana when she was present to translate. But still I found the best communication to happen when we could address Marcela and Josef directly, somehow. I was enormously proud when we, after our third round of workshops, could play a concert for the audience at Tabacka. I got struck by the feeling that this performance was something we owned together. It was never evident that we would get there, but I think we did. The method was to have lots of time during rehearsals, no pressure, not too much directions, just getting into a way of being together musically.
We divided the sessions between listening and learning "their" Roma songs, and improvising "our" way. Often, the improvisations were connected to the thematic content of a song, maybe keywords of the lyrics, and structured as an intro, an interlude, or a kind of soundscape accompaniment. It was always important to use small steps and aim for a mutual feeling of musical meaning. And laughs, lots of laughs.
The album has a remarkable intensitiy to it and feels very organic. What were moments were things fell into place during the recording sessions, what were potential causes for frictions?
P: We had set aside a week for recording and playing a live concert in Stavanger. Tou has been really fantastic in helping us manage the project, and we got to use their attic space for this. Tou is originally an abandoned brewery, and the attic has these old, battered wooden floors, high ceilings, and wooden beams, with a really nice vibe, and – most importantly – the room has a great sound. So, with the excellent Håkon Holmås as engineer, we recorded the whole week, patiently finishing the pieces one by one. We’d been working on these songs, tunes, pieces, ides, as different versions, different approaches for quite some time, but now had to decide on definitive versions.
This is where the composers, Iva and Nils Henrik, come in. They are both masters of form and structure, and basically placed all the ideas into a coherent whole. Can’t really remember frictions, but it was definitely an intense week, with loads of trials and discussions in what direction to take the different pieces in. Luckily, we also decided to record the concert, in front of a packed house, and those were the takes that made it to the album. The live versions were perhaps less perfect, but had an energy and a presence which the takes without an audience lacked.
NH: A key decision was to agree beforehand who would lead which songs. Someone would have to have the last word. And for the repertoire we had performed in Kosice a few months earlier, I had written down a few sheets of notes just to avoid the possible endless discussions of "how did we play this?".
Yes, there were some frictions, but mostly between our Roma friends, and certainly not of the type where people would leave the session in fury. Mainly discussions about lyrics, about playing styles om violin, how elaborate a chord progression on guitar should be, etc. etc. Fantastic to have Iva there, who added a new layer of intensity with her vocal improvisations. But when things fell into place? At the concert of course. That's when we all got fired up. I remember the atmosphere was extraordinary, people felt blessed.
There have often been claims that artists from different social groups approach music differently. How do you see that yourself and what are some of your conclusions/observations in this regard?
P: Angrusori consists of really strong individual musical characters, so the approaches are just as much between us as people as it is between Slovaks, Czech, Roma and Norwegians. Also, someone like Gjertrud Økland (violin) and Johan Egdetveit (accordion), actually brought Roma experience to the project, whereas Ståle, Stine (vocals) and I in particular had no experience whatsoever, so the competency between us is rather floating. Nils Henrik and Roman (cello) would sometimes play classical pieces together in the breaks, and some would play standards or string-swing.
That being said, of course, we come from different places, have different skill-sets and speak different languages, so we constantly have to revaluate the differences between us, make sure we don’t over- or under estimate each other, to make sure that we are all moving in the same direction.
NH: Angrusori was also a useful way for us Stavanger-based musicians to play together with new awareness. You know, we have done so many gigs together over the years that we easily get into a kind of common understanding, an unspoken agreement, always finding a way to adapt to each other. Being in the room with the Roma musicians forced us to wake up and question our own way of playing, I would say.
Myself, I find it utterly interesting to try to get under the skin of different people's music making. To grasp what moves them, what is their feeling of good and bad. In order to come to a point when we can feel solidarity. This said, when playing together it is important not to try to "be them". I don't believe in a limitless flow, music without borders. There is an edge, and sometimes it should be made very visible. For many reasons, also as a measure of honesty.