Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.
You could argue that food or money are the true universal language, but music has to be high on that list. It wasn’t more than an hour into my trip to Norway’s biggest city, Oslo, that this point was reinforced. At the train station, it was an acoustic cover of Robyn’s “Hang With Me” that rang out from the speakers. Out on the cool city blocks in the city center, it was a street musician singing John Denver’s immortal “Country Roads” in Norwegian, its melody unmistakable in spite of the language barrier. Even before reaching the hotel, I’d heard R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” and a violin rendition of Celine Dion’s ubiquitous Titanic theme song ringing off the buildings and serenading flocks of people as they shuffled past storefronts, restaurants, and residences. Feeling at home thousands of miles from your mailing address is as easy as taking the time to listen.
Music, and particularly English language music, can be found in all corners of the worlds, and festival lineups hammer this point home on a yearly basis. But where music festivals offer their local residents the opportunity to take in international acts that might not tour their country with regularity, the exact opposite can be true for foreigners. Visit a music festival, see the world, at least in a sense.
Norway’s Øya Festival takes a particular pride in this. Sure, Kendrick Lamar, Arcade Fire, and even crossover Scandinavian pop trailblazer Lykke Li might have been the top-line artists, but Norwegian acts were placed right up next to them, given premier slots that didn’t downplay their homegrown pedigree. As is tradition, the event’s largest stage closed not with their biggest booking, but with a local hero that most Americans haven’t even heard of, Cezinando. Oya manages to be both things at once, a showcase for its local talent and a platform to draw the best from around the world. And this says a lot about the country as a whole.
Walking the streets of Oslo, you are likely to see signs in Norwegian, hear families speaking in their native tongue, and feel particularly far from America due to the sheer unfamiliarity of it all. But the second someone realizes you speak English, a switch flips instantaneously, and you’ll hear English spoken with unexpected fluency. Some of the locals even get the American accent remarkably close, to the point that they sound just like the voices they’ve heard on TV, in song, or in their travels.
It’s the mark of a people fiercely proud of where they come from, willing to expound upon their history or culture at the slightest of interest, but also deeply interested in other cultures as well. Scandinavians are known for being the best non-native English speakers in the world, thanks to prioritization in the education systems, being well-traveled, and other certain similarities — and Øya Festival reflects just that. This isn’t some mammoth event designed to attract travelers from all over the world like Coachella. Only around 15,000 tickets are sold for each day. No, their diverse lineup is more a reflection of their own interests, and its overlapping with that of other cultures is a bit of good fortune.