One sweltering night last July, I found myself inside a small auditorium in a Norwegian valley called Setesdal for a community concert. A young woman stood in the right aisle, dressed in the valley’s traditional bunad dress, a billowing black skirt with red and green stripes at the hem, a full-sleeved white blouse, and a kerchief that covered her hair. Her crystalline soprano voice unfurled across the room. From the other side of the auditorium, a middle-aged woman, also in full costume, sang in reply, and then a robust voice entered the conversation, a strapping young man singing a lyric that made the audience burst into laughter. Onstage, a girl replied, followed by an older man who sat to one side in traditional costume, black pants with a leather-clad rear and a vibrant green and red embroidered bib, a fiddle in his lap.
They sang in a dialect so foreign that it wouldn’t be easily understood by the average Norwegian. And their songs employed a four-line poetic form called stev that is also unique to this valley. When the brief poems are sung as they were that night, the practice is called stevjing, and it becomes a musical call-and-response, often improvisational, in which singers may celebrate, mourn, argue and tease one another.
Beyond the auditorium’s floor-to-ceiling windows, a swaying birch tree and the soaring blue mountains served as a reminder of where we were, listening to singers who descended from centuries of farmers who had tilled the local soil and grazed their livestock in summer meadows high in those mountains. My husband, who is native to a town further down the Otra River, told me that one song was a beautiful paean to their lush valley. Even without understanding the words, I could hear ethereal and haunting moods. It was easy to imagine the ancestors of these singers calling to one another about love and heartbreak across a meadow or around a crackling fire in the dark days of winter.
The songs were the opening salvo of a two-day community celebration, this year beginning July 26, that showcased Setesdal’s rich tradition of fiddle music, song, dance and costume, all of which are curiously distinct from the rest of Norway. In fact, the traditional arts here are so unusual that they’ve been shortlisted by Unesco for its international list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. A decision is expected later this year.
It is an interesting moment for Setesdal, long considered by fellow Norwegians as a fascinating but provincial region whose stubborn inhabitants spoke a difficult dialect and clung to outmoded ways. Now, the very distinctions that once prompted urbanites to mock the valley’s rural inhabitants have become sources of interest and pride. In a sign of the changing times, the Norwegian televised equivalent of “America’s Got Talent” last year awarded third place to Vetle Hoslemo, a Setesdal boy then 13, who sang traditional songs in dialect. He was one of the stars of the Friday night concert, which was directed by Kirsten Braten Berg, an internationally renowned folk singer who lives in Setesdal.
Even as there’s a rekindled interest in the old ways, though, the steep-sided valley — which embraces the upper reaches of the Otra River and is known for its stunning natural beauty — is losing inhabitants. In the last few decades, the population of Setesdal’s three core townships, Bygland, Valle and Bykle, has dropped by 20 percent, leaving fewer than 3,500 residents today. The economy has shifted from traditional agriculture and forestry, toward service jobs, tourism and hydropower, and many of the youth who leave for college don’t return.
These days, cultural survival is on everyone’s mind. They speak of “taking care” of their customs and finding ways to keep them relevant in the digital era. There are multipronged efforts to strengthen the arts, teaching stev in the schools, organizing “pop-up” concerts to find audiences in unexpected places, creating irreverent Facebook pages that mix the traditional and the contemporary.
At the same time, the older generation underscores the urgency of keeping their youth engaged and employed at a time when the internet and urban jobs are tugging them away. The result is that the historically insular valley is now opening itself to visitors, recognizing that community survival depends on diversifying its economic base and sharing Setesdal’s natural beauty and cultural wealth with outsiders.
“We have a problem. The youth are leaving and not enough are coming back,” said Leiv Rygg Langerak, the mayor of Bygland, who added that tourism is important, but economic diversity is essential. “If you take an education, you want to work in your field.” What will help, he said, are some of the very changes that also threaten traditional culture: an improved highway and widespread internet access.
The heart of the narrow valley is less than 100 miles from the southern city of Kristiansand, a thriving port and a popular summer destination for tourists. The valley’s southern end is marked by a huge fjord that abuts steep cliffs. Further north, vertical rock faces that ascend nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor draw climbers from all over Europe, one of the attractions the valley has begun to promote. Some of the best hiking trails in southern Norway, traversing routes dating back to medieval times, are in the Setesdalsheiene Mountains. Travelers can stay overnight in fully stocked tourist cabins, and the lakes are stocked with fish and open to anglers. This is the second largest protected area in Norway, and is the southernmost habitat for herds of wild reindeer.
Until recently, the valley interior and the mountains above were difficult to reach because the narrow, winding access roads were not designed for modern cars, but the last decade has seen major road improvements. We drove up from the south on a radiant summer day and found the once-treacherous road easy to navigate. North of the village of Byglandsfjord, we stopped briefly at the Ardal Church, a small octagonal structure of white wood with a classic steeple, built in 1828. The famed 19th century Norwegian folklorist Johannes Skar, who compiled eight volumes about Setesdal folk culture, is buried beneath a monument in the tiny churchyard.
Further on, we sidled along a steep rock wall and then entered a modern tunnel that bypasses the old road, which clung to the cliff above the fjord. We entered the village of Bygland, where we stopped at a small open-air museum beside the road and explored the dark interiors of some of the old dwellings, one with an open hearth that dates back to 1650. In an evocative mingling of old and new, a row of Tesla electric car-charging stations stood across the driveway from the old farm buildings, and a sports company was launching colorful paragliders out over the fjord from the grassy field beside the buildings, pulling them into the air by motorboat. Down by the water, a restored, 19th-century steam boat powered by birch logs offered day-trips up the fjord.
As we headed north, the narrow valley was punctuated by small farmsteads, hayfields, stone walls and grazing sheep. Dotting the countryside were the region’s characteristic small log lofts, storehouses that are raised on stilts and have grass roofs. Called stabbur, or stolpehus in the local dialect, the oldest were built before 1350, and were used to store a farm’s valuables, including the garments and silver used in traditional costumes.
As it happens, the valley’s architecture includes more buildings from the medieval period than any other district in Norway, said Anders Dalseg, a consultant for the Setesdal Museum who restores the old lofts and teaches courses in restoration. Twenty percent of Norwegian buildings constructed before 1650 are in Setesdal, including 18 built before 1350, he said.
The medieval buildings are only the most visible sign of Setesdal’s deep cultural roots. Perhaps more significant is the valley’s fiddle tradition, which encompasses some of the oldest music in Norway and has long drawn interest from musicologists and musicians from around the world. The weekend celebration we attended included a concert by two of Norway’s master fiddlers, Hallvard T. Bjorgum and Gunnar Stubseid, both of whom live in their native Setesdal villages. For the concert, an upstairs room in the Setesdal Museum, built 25 years ago as a cultural center, was packed with people sitting on the floor and standing at the fringes. Some had driven for hours to hear the men perform.
The fiddlers sat on folding chairs, casually dressed in T-shirts and conversing with the audience between numbers. Their instruments were Hardangerfeles, beautifully decorated fiddles with double sets of strings tuned in unique ways for different songs. The upper strings are fingered and bowed much like any fiddle, while the lower strings vibrate sympathetically and create a continuous, droning melody. The effect, along with thematic repetition and rhythmic intensity, is mesmerizing. (In fact, one subset of Setesdal tunes is called rammeslatt, or strong stroke, and is said to cause trances both in the fiddler and the audience.)
On this Saturday night the melodies varied from rollicking to plaintive, with percussion created by the performer’s stamping feet. Mr. Bjorgum, who was knighted in 2016 by the Norwegian King Harald V for his significance to Norwegian folk music, explained that many of the songs had been saved from extinction by a fiddler named Dreng Ose, who traveled to Minnesota’s Red River valley early in the 20th century to learn tunes that had been carried by emigrants to the United States. It was a critical rescue mission because the music could be learned only by one fiddler from another. (In a modern twist, one young Setesdal fiddler told me that he now learns tunes on Spotify and then visits his teacher for refinement and correction.)
A few days later, Mr. Stubseid gave me a tour of a small museum called Sylvartun. Located on the main road, Highway 9, it’s housed in an old sod-roofed log building once owned by Hallvard Bjorgum’s famous fiddle-playing father, Torleiv H. Bjorgum, who was a silversmith by trade. (Setesdal was known as the valley of the silversmiths.) It’s a good place for visitors to get an insider’s understanding of the traditional way of life in Setesdal.
When you enter, there’s a life-size video diorama in which costumed locals sing stevs back and forth and play fiddle music. Other exhibits showcase exquisite examples of finely detailed Hardangerfeles owned by famous fiddlers, and document how the fiddles and the valley’s famous munnharper, or mouth harps, were handcrafted in small workshops. A downstairs gathering room that overlooks the Otra River is a community center used regularly by local musicians, singers and dancers to meet and practice.
Part of Sylvartun’s raison d’être as a community center, said Mr. Stubseid, is that living culture must be performed to exist. “You can perhaps hear it on a tape recording, but that’s not the same,” he said. “That’s the problem in caring for immaterial culture. It’s a very interesting philosophical question.”
And in keeping the culture alive, everyone seems to agree that adaptation is just as urgent as preservation. The old family farms may be having a tough time economically, but some are finding new income by creating artisanal products based on local food traditions. Some have turned to the boutique farming of heritage breeds of short-tail Norwegian sheep, which provide flavorful meat that can be smoked and salted in the traditional way. The sheep’s unusual wool — which dates back to Viking times — is also prized by crafters because the outer coat is exceptionally strong and water-resistant, while the fine inner coat can be sorted for softer yarns. But the two-layered coat means it’s challenging to sort by machine.
Mr. Langerak, the Bygland mayor, keeps a small flock of heritage sheep on the farm that’s been in his family for generations, but also presses for economic and cultural diversification. “If you present a culture and say, ‘that is how this culture is,’ then that culture is dead,” he said, adding that a measure of progress is creating opportunities for the next generation. “If we don’t, it’s just a question of time before we cannot uphold our society.”
Sarah Pollock is a writer and editor who divides her time between Northern California and Norway. She is an emeritus professor of journalism at Mills College. Follow her @PollockJourno
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