Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Norwegian Christmas album at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem

At the top of my Christmas list (or was, till I found out I could download it on Amazon.com) ... and, if any Humanities 223 students stray into this post, an example of just how far the influence of African American music has gotten, and how deep it goes.

Last year Norwegian vocalist Solveig Slettahjell and pianist Tord Gustavsen recorded a CD of mostly Norwegian traditional Christmas songs - and an African American spiritual - on Norway's Kirkelig Kulturverksted label called Natt I Bethlehem [Night in Bethlehem] at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, where the head of the Norwegian record label Kirkelig Kulturverksted arranged the Christmas concert "in the besieged town of Bethlehem" on the West Bank. The music is peaceful, meditative ... and poignant, if you think about the circumstances. Writes Eyal Hareuveni for the eZine All About Jazz:
Sletthajell performs with an intensity and devotion that create an immediate and intimate emotional impact. The warmth and depth of her voice and her emotional intelligence are both simply perfect. Gustavsen, who has accompanied other Norwegian vocalists such as Siri Gjaere, Silje Nergaard and Kristin Asbjornsen, is a trusty partner, framing the traditional songs in spare and modest yet memorable arrangements. The duo recorded the 13 songs - traditional Norwegian Christmas songs and other songs associated with the season - after the Franciscan monks retired for the night, using the exceptional acoustics of the church. Gustavsen used a 1882 Steinway piano belonging to the local conservatory, and later on trumpet player Sjur Miljeteig, a member of Slettahjell's Slow Motion Quintet, added his part.
Haveuveni adds, "The tone of most of the songs is meditative and contemplative, slow-motioned as Slettahjell prefers, allowing the sheer beauty of each utterance and note to shine forth. The songs embrace the listener with gentle tranquility and warm the soul, regardless of any particular religious conviction." Judging by the brief audio clips on the Kirkelig Kulturverksted website, he's right. Sletthajel's voice is jazzy, bluesy, passionate. The singer I know who comes close to the heartfelt intensity she brings to sacred music is Iris Dement, but I hear more jazz and funk in Sletthajel's intonation. Her version of "Poor Little Jesus," the African American spiritual, is stunning. Especially when you listen to the words and think about how embattled the Christian community in Bethlehem has been in recent years. Sletthajel is on YouTube, singing a very different song of the season:

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