TOAST Magazine

A Journey to The Faroe Islands

TRAVEL & PLACE

Jeanette Farrell travels to the Faroe Islands and experiences their gentle culture and the magic of their music.

We arrive at the Faroe Islands by criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the flat and dusty northern tip of Denmark. Arriving in this manner is slow and dreamlike; the accompanying ebb and swell of the waters beneath encouraging a hypnotic stupor. We pass many hours simply watching the world go by from the top deck.

The landscape affects us in every which way - as the ship steers through a maze of fjords and straits we are wind-swept and almost knocked off our feet. Light bounces off the crystal water, almost blinding us by its brilliance. Sound is deadened by enclosed valleys and rushes of air, so much so that we can scarcely hear each other’s gasps. We are simultaneously captivated and rendered useless by the beauty of it all.

The Faroes are as spectacular as they are remote. An archipelago of 18 volcanic islands, in summer they are covered in a deep green moss that deems their imminent approach more luscious than anticipated out there in the silky, milky, navy sea. 

We dock at Torshavn, a city the size of a small town that hosts two thirds of the islands’ population of 50,000 in total. Iconic grass-covered roofs on top of colourful homes line the winding, uphill streets that surround this most tranquil harbour on this quiet main island of Streymoy. 

The Faroes are isolated but they aren’t lonely and they are jagged but they aren’t harsh. Communities are close and deeply connected and the weather is temperate. In fact, everything about our time here confirms that this is a gentle and soft place to live and even more so to visit.

Like many island nations, its seeming inaccessibility can be both its strength and its weakness. For Kristian Blak, a Danish composer and musician who moved to the Faroes over forty years ago and who is central to its ever-growing live music scene, music makes the very most of the intimacy engendered in hard-to reach-places.

Music, like poems and stories were handed down orally in song. ‘In the Faroe Islands it is an unbroken tradition’, he says. Cultural separation from Europe meant that, ‘there were no instruments so it was not like Scotland where you have the fiddle. It was like a refrigerator where you have the same tradition for 500 years.’ 

This rich tradition of passing down songs has continued, aided in recent years through a series of sub-sea tunnels and new roads that connect even the most far-fetched outpost. ‘This is a small country, almost, in the European sense, a village’ but it is a sea-faring one and in this manner has roots in Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and collaborators from all over the world.

Kristian runs a series of bi-weekly concerts in a sea cave on the island of Hestur. Approached in a schooner named Nordlysid (Northern Lights), upwards of 50 participate as audience members. Each performance is spellbinding. ‘It’s like a cathedral’, says Blak, ’50 metres up and 200 metres deep with a whole system of caves. A couple of weeks ago, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it was announced that it’s the biggest sea grotto in the world’. 

The draw of course, is not only the majestic surroundings but the length of sound elicited from instruments, too. The first very instrument to be played here was a trombone and the composer recalls that it was ‘ a real ear opener; I’d never heard anything like it’.

There are almost 20,000 Faroese dotted across the globe at any one time and many return home in the summer months. ‘Almost all the locals I know have been to a concert at least once, and tens of thousands have done so over the years’, says Blak. 

The returnees take with them friends and family to sit in a dinghy in a cave and listen to music from all over the world. It’s a sonic chamber, unique to their birthplace, the lapping Atlantic accompanying every piece. ‘It’s a really good way to spend five hours together, you take your lunch pack with you, and that’s it. It has its own life’.

Words and images by Jeanette Farrell.

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