Oslo World festival continues to shine a spotlight on the Arab world

Back for its 26th season, the Norwegian festival features artists and panel sessions looking at the evolution of the regional music industry

Oslo World opening night concert featured a performance from the Utopian Lullabies. Courtesy Oslo World
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The Oslo World Music Festival has returned with regional artists at the forefront.

Beginning yesterday at the Norwegian capital, the music event runs until Sunday, November 3, and features over two dozen concerts held across 18 venues in the city.

Once again, the artist line-up is eclectic. It is led by the brilliant Malian blues rock group Tinariwen, Spanish flamenco star Silvia Perez Cruz, Indigenous Canadian electro group A Tribe Called Red and Nigerian-German soul singer Ayo.

However, it is Oslo World’s interest in the Arab World’s independent music scene, in addition to its associated issues, that allows it to stand out from its international competitors.

The regional artists performing and taking part in industry seminars this year are a strong bunch. They include Egyptian-British singer Natacha Atlas and Moroccan talents such as soul singer Hindi Zahra and Gnawa musician Asmaa Hamzaoui.

Their performances complement a series of panel discussions exploring the challenges facing the regional music scene and features important industry names, such as Amani Semaan, co-founder and director of the Lebanese music festival, Beirut and Beyond.

Speaking to The National, Oslo World festival director Alexandra Stolen says the event always had a keen interest in showing off talents from the Arab World.

While some of that appreciation is down to Norway's fascination with Arabic culture, their interest in Arab independent musicians came eight years ago after Oslo World embarked on an ongoing strategic partnership with Beirut and Beyond.

“At the beginning of the festival over 20 years ago, we were part of an industry that has become increasingly homogeneous in that we were all looking at what was happening in places like Europe, South America and Africa,” she explains.

“But we really took a turn to the Middle East after we collaborated with Beirut and Beyond, which meant I was traveling to Lebanon each year and finding all these great bands that I wouldn’t have never known without being on the ground.”

Stolen says this is down to a lack of industry infrastructure presently hindering the growth of artists in certain parts of the Arab world.

"I see this more in Lebanon than, say, in Egypt or Morocco, where there is a community there," she says. "This is part of the reasons why we invite Arab artists to the festival. It is not only just about performance, they take part in seminars and connect with each other."

Connect and grow as an artist

Atlas was an immediate beneficiary of that approach after the first day of the festival.

The jazz singer took part in an opening night concert on October 29, featuring an international cast of all female artists including Spanish actress and singer Rossy de Palma, Norwegian artist Ane Brun (who hails from Norway's indigenous Sami community) and Brazilian singer Liniker.

With a joint brief of singing lullabies from their respective traditions, all singers met each other for the first time on show day for rehearsals.

Atlas says events like Oslo World have become important gathering points for artists.

“I guess, before it was more of a case of coming in to perform and leave, now it is about taking that time to connect with people and even collaborate,” she says. “I have only been here a day and I meet some wonderful artists that I never heard of before. You never stop learning in this business, so it is just great to be here.”

The Arab world is a focus of major panel session

Not everyone was able to make it as planned. The anti-government protests happening across Lebanon and Chile caused singers Liliane Chlela and Mon Laferte to remain in their homes .

Chlela had to pull out due to an arm injury sustained in a Beirut protest, while Lafetre – in a video address before the opening concert – expressed a need to be at home during this tumultuous time.

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While their absence is a blow to the festival, Stolen said it would energise the seminars and panel discussions surrounding this year’s theme of Utopia.

On Saturday, November 2, a public panel session will be had exploring how that concept applies to the Arab world's artistic scene. Dubbed Arab Futurism and featuring Libyan visual artist Hadia Gana and Palestinian translator Basma Ghalayini, the session looks at how the region's present turmoil has inspired Arab artists to create works both hopeful and dystopian in nature.

“I think we always have to look at what’s happening in the world,” Stolen says.

“With this session we listen to these views as seen from the Arab world. The session will have the panel reflect on where are we now and where are we going.”

In addition to collaborations and evocative points raised throughout the festival, Stolen says a real mark of success would be for her fellow Norwegians to walk away from Oslo World feeling more connected with the world surrounding them.

“I look at Oslo World as a humanitarian event for Norwegians,” she says.

“It is not the other way around. It is about providing a cultural experience that will give them, and all of us really, a deeper dimension. You don’t have to understand the Arabic or Spanish language, as long as you feel it, that’s the main thing.”

Check out Arts and Culture to follow The National’s coverage of Oslo World. More information on the event can be found on osloworld.no