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Posted on on July 1st, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

we posted about the event at…

now we get further details at…


Greenland – Feeling free
Jul 1st 2009

Celebrating semi-independence with a feast of whale

Day one
GIVEN the choice of subsisting on seal or whale I would plump for the former, without enthusiasm. A mouthful of seal flesh has little to recommend it, unless you are drawn to a slippery, dark, lamb-like meat that tastes as if it had been left to stew in a dirty aquarium. But neither is whale tempting: chewing its skin is like gnawing a strip of leather soaked in cod-liver oil. In either case, at least on the first encounter, a diner is likely to experience a faint sense of nausea. If you must have whale, cetacean biltong (whale jerky) is more palatable than the fresh stuff.

Hooray for two tonnes of flesh

Most Greenlanders, however, relish both meats when the chance arises. A recent weekend in Nuuk, the Greenlandic capital, saw a triple excuse to indulge. The summer solstice, which serves as the national day, coincided both with the replacement after 30 years of a much-disliked government and with celebrations for throwing off (sort of) three centuries of Denmark’s colonial yoke. As a result, Nuuk was in festive mood. The pretty red-and-white Greenlandic flag fluttered from every bus, official building and school-child’s hand. The town was criss-crossed by processions of men in white anoraks and jovial women in coloured beads and embroidered seal-skin outfits. Visiting dignitaries enthusiastically ripped veils from new pieces of public art: in one square revealing a statue of seals at play, while above the town beach appeared three slabs of concrete holding aloft a ball of stone.

Over a breakfast of herring and salmon in the town’s main hotel one could bump into a visiting bishop from Copenhagen bedecked in medallions; Iceland’s affable president; or one of a wide array of Danish royals. We outsiders then took turns trooping through the town’s fish market, gawping at mounds of halibut and at the bloody work of a sealmonger who obligingly butchered a carcass. On the streets the mood was restrained and good-natured, only rising to a murmur of excitement when the official distribution of whale-meat began.

The local government had claimed special dispensation to harpoon two rare Greenlandic whales. One of the pair, it was widely said, had turned out to be 200 years old, although I do not understand just how one determines such a fact: perhaps it is like counting the rings of a felled tree. Officials then handed out two tonnes of the flesh to the 56,000 or so residents of this massive territory. In Nuuk that was a simple matter: whale munchers crowded a sports hall for lunch, then strolled home with meat in bulging plastic bags. But the rest of Greenland is sparsely populated. There are tiny settlements (the smallest has a single inhabitant, a middle-aged man who refuses to move to the nearest town) and small towns spread far north of the Arctic circle and along Greenland’s remote and icy eastern coast. Delivering whale, on time, to the scattered masses looked like an immense bureaucratic task. Local television news reported it was only possible thanks to the many small, red propeller-planes of Air Greenland.

The survival of so many small settlements across the vast country is made possible by the largesse of the Greenland state, which in turn relies on billions of kroner doled out by distant Denmark. That Denmark spends the equivalent of more than $11,000 per Greenlander, each year, might explain why the locals, though delighted to be claiming more powers of self-government, are not yet rushing for complete independence. One afternoon in Nuuk, at a kaffemik, a sort of family party that involves drinking coffee, wine and beer—in this case to celebrate the school graduation of a daughter—guests said that they were thrilled by their new government. But they were also adamant that Greenland could not yet afford full independence. “Not now, it’s good as it is for now,” explained one woman. A visiting Danish journalist said wryly, while sipping a bâja pilluarit (celebration beer), “psychologically, the state is my father, you know?”

And yet people feel great pride at Greenland’s taking on more control: over police and the courts, over local government and the schools and dozens more things. Greenlandic is to become an official language, and the nation feels it is making itself noticed on the world stage. “It’s our land, our language. We have to do it ourselves, not rely on others doing it,” explains a woman in national dress wearing white seal boots and trousers. Despite their love of traditions, Greenlanders are under no illusion that they will return to a past of surviving on what they hunt. The celebrations and the food of old will come and go, but nobody will be asked to subsist on seal or whale.

Day two

YOUNG voters, especially left-leaning ones, are keen on Greenland’s new prime minister, Kuupik Kleist: they swept him to power in June. The folk of Nuuk explain how happy they are to see the new government (and to see the back of the old one), by saying that “Kuupik is our Obama”. At a rock concert in a sports hall on mid-summer eve, as sleet and snowfall and the midnight sky hangs grey, his appearances draws cheers from the crowd. He gives a short speech from the stage and the audience pauses, expectant. Will he burst into song? Rumours have spread that he will belt out something, perhaps an independence anthem. Instead he waves and is gone.

Adam Roberts

A traditional singer, banging on in the traditional way
For older Greenlanders, at least, it is a disappointing moment. Fifteen years ago Mr Kleist was best known as the lead singer of a local band, whose album “Samma Samma” proved a hit in part because he sang in Greenlandic, not Danish. “He has a voice like Leonard Cohen,” claims my Greenlandic guide, and others too. Having since listened to the album, I can report that his voice is far less miserable than Mr Cohen’s.

So Greenland has a singing prime minister. Mr Kleist is not the only musical politician: one could pull together a decent band with Bill Clinton on sax, Tony Blair on guitar, Madagascar’s young DJ-turned-coup-plotter-turned-president mixing the music backstage and Kim Jong Il on the tambourine. But Mr Kleist is distinct in this way: he leads a tiny country obsessed with producing music, in which music and politics are now swirling together in a heady mix.

At the weekend I spend a couple of hours at Greenland’s main recording studio, Atlantic Music, with its owner, Ejvind Elsner, a large and jovial man who has been producing local bands for two decades. He believes that young musicians are now changing the politics of his country. Before the recent election, opposition parties helped to fund a controversial new album by a band, Liima Inui, which provoked the ire of the old government. “Republik” helped to express public anger with politicians who had been caught fiddling their expenses, and to whip up calls for self-rule.

Mr Elsner claims that he had calls from officials who threatened to close his business, or at least to block access to radio and television, unless the album was scrapped. “You’ll be finished,” warned a leading figure of the old ruling party. Most offensive, apparently, was the idea of promoting “Republik” while the Danish queen visited. Instead the album has become a theme for the celebrations of self-governance Liima Inui, an impressively large group, headlined the main rock concert on the night of the self-governance celebrations.

Perhaps because of those long, dark winters, with so little else to do, Greenlanders have developed a wide variety of music, relative to their small population. The Danes introduced oompah bands, much intoning of hymns and a rural Nordic folk habit of singing jolly stories to each other. But Greenlandic customs are more entertaining. Traditions such as throat warbling (when two young women, typically, stand nose-to-nose and produce a disconcerting wail) and singing along as a seal-skin drum is tapped with a stick, are merging with new forms of Greenlandic pop, rock and hip-hop.

Mr Elsner sees a distinct a Greenlandic sound growing up, perhaps to rival successful recent Nordic musical exports from Iceland (Bjork, for example) and Norway (Røyksopp). More important, the musicians could play a powerful social role at home. “In future the music will mean a lot more for the people. We used to sing about love; now it is about politics, nature, social problems. People are not great at talking to each other, but they can have a say with music. We have to use the music to overcome our problems.”

Local rappers are most explicit in taking on Greenland’s social difficulties, singing about suicide, sexual abuse and corrupt politicians. There are other serious problems to address: alcoholism has long plagued much of northern Europe, so the governments of Nordic countries have used high taxes and restricted sales to limit binge drinking. The indigenous people of Greenland, the Inuit, are particularly vulnerable to alcohol, but many of the local Danes are equally heavy drinkers. In a society where many rely on funds doled out from Denmark, alcohol is one way to pass the time. But this weekend is not a notably drunken affair. Visiting a couple of Nuuk’s smoky bars nothing more rowdy or aggressive is on show than one might find in London on a Friday evening.

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