Stockholm—the capital city of Sweden—always sounds like something: the honking—okay, farting—of an aquabus moving people around the harbour from one island in the city’s archapelago to another; the brass band that played Baltic jazz standards every evening in an alleyway near our Haymarket hotel even though, despite repeated efforts to follow what sounded like roaring dancefloor applause, I could never find them; the Babel—or babble—of Nordic voices, and dialects, in the largely pedestrian streets that dominate the city core; the dinging of bicycle bells in hip corridors like Sodermalm, where every dude under 35 looks like a Lego® Bon Iver; and, the week we visited, every storefront, bar and cafe shuffling the songs of Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul having passed during our time away.
Being in Stockholm was glorious enough—the Swedes are Americans to the Canadians Finnish to the Danes Brits: outgoing and friendly, especially when it comes to street life and the festival action of summer—but hearing the beauty and joy of Aretha’s music out of every portal (and porthole; she was played on the watercraft, too) imperiled our trip, or at least the writing of it, into becoming one long silly paragraph about how much goddamned fun it was.
I’ll leaven the giddiness of this piece with a sobering observation of the Swedes: they are terrible at giving directions. But otherwise, Stockholm yielded northern European awesomeness, much of it Canadacentric. The city’s annual Kulturfestival, an annual arts and culture event in the city’s core, used 2018 to celebrate music and art from the Canadian north. The first phone call made by honourary programmer Maxida Marak—an activist and Sami hip-hop artist—was to her favourite group, A Tribe Called Red, who flew in for the event along with Iqualuit’s Jerry Cans, singer Emily Claire Barlow, Ivan Coyote and a few ragtag Nunavut circuses.
The festival encamped near the downtown harbour—tight to Gamla Stan, the old, bronze-tinted medieval part of the city—with custom-built stages and tents across bridges and along canals with music and performance happening pretty much all the time. We weren’t a handful of hours on the ground before being called to a performance on the water by a local troupe of aquanauts, which was more miss than hit if still producing a moment where two dozen dancer/swimmers clung to metal webbing pulled out of the sea by a giant crane and held aloft over the city like summer bugs on a screen door. Here, other sounds were heard, too, if the kind of stock Euro-electro thrumming you might find at a Cirque du Soleil garage sale.
The festival’s main stage was built in front of the Royal Opera House in the town’s main square. The gesture put the festival’s (mostly) contemporary musicians level with the city’s symphony and operatic programs, but it also reminded visitors that, “Hey, there’s a cool building back there…” so one of the first things we did was ask our host, Annika, a local singer, if we could somehow tour the building. We were taken through it—a wonderfully ornate theatre spectacularly flourished in gold and red—by a fellow named Torbjorn who, when he found out we were Canadian, asked us how people in Toronto had reacted when the team traded “Warren” Clark for Sweden’s Mats Sundin. I corrected him, “Not ‘Warren,’ but ‘Wendel,’” and he tsked to himself, implying he’d blown his cover in front of the hockeypeople from hockeyland (the Swedes are also mad for the game).
But it was an easy mistake to make, and besides, standing in the historic heart of the city in a just-worn-enough building constructed in 1773 made verbal expression inconsequential. While guiding us down to the Royal’s ancient and enormous glass chandelier, which had been lowered for its annual cleaning—by an ancient and enormous feather-duster, I gathered—Torbjorn told us about the cold-blooded murder of King Gustav in the theatre’s foyer; the building’s closing; and its eventual reopening, despite the protestations of the family, who were soon deposed. The chandelier was luminous even though unlit, and standing before it was a little like being next to the baby from 2001: A Space Odyessy or something equally large, alien and beautiful.
There’s something about seeing Canada abroad that resonates with a proud sense of home: a little Blue Jays sticker on a door outside a cafe in rural China; a Tragically Hip shirt won by a stranger on a Delhi bus; a Celine Dion song on the radio coming out of a shoe shop in West Africa.
Annika took us everywhere in advance of the shows. She brought us across the canal to lunch at the Skeppsholmen Hotel and I asked after what looked like a small servants quarters or converted stables near the courtyard where we dined. She told me: “Benny works there!” In other places, Benny would normally just be a dude named Benny, but in Stockholm, Benny was THE Benny—the songwriter from Abba—and when I expressed disbelief, she said, “Yes, THAT Benny. He works happily there, but sometimes it is a problem because of people staring inside.” Benny, it seemed, was like Geddy Lee or Drake in that he spent a lot of time— most of his time—in the town where he grew up, a mensch and humble servant of his city’s culture, according to most people. Annika told us that she’d played with Benny once, at a party. He asked if any people wanted to sing, so Annika requested a little known Abba song—“I like the B-Sides,” she said—and they did it, then another and another, singing deep into the night. Walking to the ferry dock after lunch, I chanced a look into the studio, where a dude who was nothing like Benny stood at his keyboard waiting for instructions to be fed into his headphones, proving that, while travelling, I guess you can’t see everything. Annika led us to the aquabus and we floated back to the mainland.
Before the Tribe Called Red mainstage show, we were invited to an event at the Canadian Embassy that seemed programmed by someone who’d never been to Canada. It was billed as a “Tailgate Party” because, according to the invite and by the opening remarks from the Consul General, “Tailgate Parties are where Canadians gather before they head off to concerts and sporting events.” I wondered if this was simply a case of fooling the Swedes into believing we were Americans, and a lot of people at the party wondered aloud how this idea ever passed through whatever diplomatic committees organize this sort of thing (I’ve never been to a Tailgate party in my life). Still, the Jerry Cans did two acoustic songs for us—they could perform at the opening of a wireless booth in a mall and make you glad you were there—and we ate canapes with little Canadian flags sticking out of them. Then, en masse, we all walked down to the main stage.
There’s something about seeing Canada abroad that resonates with a proud sense of home: a little Blue Jays sticker on a door outside a cafe in rural China; a Tragically Hip shirt won by a stranger on a Delhi bus; a Celine Dion song on the radio coming out of a shoe shop in West Africa. But hearing A Tribe Called Red sink their grooves in the historic main square cheered on by 1000s of Scandanavians was a new thing—an Indigenous thing—a celebration of a culture that has been suppressed for 100s of years. Even better, it was a celebration not of pop songs or a Canadian-pretending-to-be-American or some easily malleable musical export. Rather, the show was hard-edged, challenging, political, tough and bounding with identity.
When their Buffy St Marie-led track—“Working for the Government”—snaked through the PA, the crowd seemed to surge, and the heaviness of the moment wasn’t lost on us: all of these music lovers rising to a charging song of resistance in the Scandanavian evening. It was the best of Canada, right there, and the best of times, and, for the encore, Maxida joined ATCR (they are down to two members, now) and their hoop dancer, flying about the stage like a firefly and rapping the event’s manifesto, which was more than any Embassy or brochure could tell us.