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Nordic Jazz Brings US, Scandinavia Together

2019-8-13

The idea that ambassadors in Washington, DC do not know how to have fun is changing, thanks in part to diplomats from Scandinavian nations.

At an event earlier this summer, musical performers from Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland gathered in the garden of the Danish ambassador’s home. They came to take part in what is becoming one of Washington’s more popular summer events: the yearly Nordic Jazz Festival. The event is now in its thirteenth year.

Olli Soikkeli seen in photo taken at the Finnish Embassy in June 2019. (VOA/N.Liu)
Olli Soikkeli seen in photo taken at the Finnish Embassy in June 2019. (VOA/N.Liu)

Lone D. Wisborg is Denmark’s ambassador to the United States. She told VOA that for Denmark, the relationship with American jazz music goes all the way back to the early 1960s. At that time, some of the world’s most well-known and widely respected jazz artists moved to the country.

Wisborg said that for many years, American artists including Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster were highly successful as cultural ambassadors to Denmark. They influenced local performers and changed “the sound of Danish Jazz” in the process.

“Diplomacy isn’t just about politics and economy,” said Wisborg. “Some relations don’t need words.”

Finland, another Nordic country, held its own Nordic jazz event. It included a group of three musicians led by 28-year-old Olli Soikkeli. He is a guitar player born in Finland who has lived in New York City for the past five years.

For Soikkeli, the event was a break from his busy schedule that keeps him on the road much of the time, both in the U.S. and other countries.

“I have been to at least 30 states,” he said. “We do at least once a year a Midwest tour, go to Ohio, Illinois and all that, then West Coast, California, Washington state, Oregon, and then down south, we’ve even been to Alaska for two weeks.”

Some of his fellow performers are from the northeastern area of the U.S. known as New England. So Soikkeli said they also play a lot in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

He notes that wherever they go, they rarely find people who have not heard of jazz. But he and his band are pleased to play kinds of jazz that may be new to Americans, such as Gypsy jazz and Choro, sometimes called “the New Orleans jazz of Brazil.”

Soikkeli says he “didn’t dig deep into American jazz” until he moved to New York five years ago. Back in Finland, Soikkeli’s main influence was Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born Romani-French jazz guitar player and songwriter. Many believe Reinhardt created the sound of Gypsy jazz in the 1930s.

“There’s definitely the before and after New York,” Soikkeli said. The Finnish native says his time in America’s largest city helped him learn about the roots of jazz.

He adds that American swing and blues music have undoubtedly affected the way he plays the guitar. New York, he says, is a place “where you’re influenced by all these great musicians and all different…music.”

At the Finnish Embassy, Soikkeli was joined by Florida-born bass player Paul Sikivie and drummer Rajiv Jayaweera, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia. “When we come together, [there is] definitely a sense of community,” he said.

Jazz is enjoyed for bringing attention to each performer’s skills and ability to improvise. When he and his fellow musicians go on stage, “we’re kind of having this conversation,” Soikkeli said. “It is like an American experience, in a way.”

If one listens carefully, it just might be possible to hear influences from traditional Finnish music in Soikkeli’s playing, he adds. But “you’ve got to look for it.”

I’m ­Pete Musto.

Natalie Liu reported this story for VOA News. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor. We want to hear from you. What kinds of music with international influences are popular in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

Scandinavianadj. describing a part of Europe that includes the countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and sometimes also Iceland and Finland

jazzn. a type of American music with lively rhythms and melodies that are often made up by musicians as they play

guitarn. a musical instrument that is held against the front of your body and that has usually six strings which are played with your fingers or with a pick

schedulen. a musical instrument that is held against the front of your body and that has usually six strings which are played with your fingers or with a pick

swingn. a style of jazz music that has a lively rhythm and that is played mostly for dancing

bluesn. a style of music that was created by African-Americans in the southern U.S. and that often expresses feelings of sadness

bassn. a kind of guitar that usually has four strings and that makes low sounds

drummern. a person who plays a set of musical instruments that are made with a thin layer of skin or plastic stretched over the end of a round frame and that are played by hitting the skin or plastic with sticks or with your hands

improvisev. to speak or perform without preparation