Riding the Bergen Wave
In Europe's rainiest city, the biggestsound cloud is rock music
It all starts with Dire Straits and a cup of hot coffee in the hostel’s café. I’m in Bergen, Europe’s rainiest city. It rains here 270 days out of 365 in a year, including, of course, the two days that I’ve spent in this west Norwegian city. As I glumly sip my coffee, a familiar song on the speakers rises above the sound of the incessant rain falling on glass windows.
It’s raining in the park but meantime
South of the river you stop and you hold everything,
A band is blowing Dixie double four time,
You feel alright when you hear that music ring…
As the song fades, I give up on the hope that the rain will ever stop. Buoyed, however, by the caffeine and Mark Knopfler’s guitar, I swing into action. The only way to explore Bergen, it seems, is to grab an umbrella and step out.
I’m guided by the locals to a nearby bar, Apollon Platebar and it is here that I meet Reggie. Reggie, who has a Japanese husband, tries to strangle me in the middle of a conversation. He’s trying to explain the meaning of the Norwegian word Kvelertak, which happens to be the name of his favourite rock band. He also tells me a lot about Apollon, the store. Apollon is probably Norway’s oldest independent record shop, it has been there since 1976. A few years ago, they added a bar to the store; today this offers an opportunity to get high on some 30-odd varieties of craft beer and the legendary music they play. Apollon has imprints of music all over its décor. In an era of YouTube and Spotify, Apollon Platebar continues to store its change in vinyl records harmoniously converted into bowls and collect its tips in glasses adorned with pictures of Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson. Brag about things you don’t understand, a girl and a woman, a boy and man, everything is sexually vague…. The Replacements’ song plays in the background as Reggie, taking me around the store to show the records in the stands in Apollon, throws name after name of his favourite Norwegian rock and metal bands at me—Årabrot, Haust, Enslaved, Spidergawd, Ribozyme, Gorgoroth, Taake, Turbonegro, Barren Womb. There’s an entire planet of rock out there in Bergen. Finally, after the heady intoxication of caffeine, alcohol and a few good conversations, I feel like I am getting in tune with Bergen, quite literally.
The 1990s saw a phenomenon that the music press very indulgently termed the Bergensbølgen—Bergen Wave. It was a time when record after record of rock, indie and electronica artistes from Bergen went on to be chartbusters in their genres. Several new bands like Immortal and Enslaved showed up on the horizon and became renowned in no time. While Oslo continued to be known as the city of pop, Bergen increasingly gained a reputation for its rock and metal scene.
In discussions with my new-found beer buddies and rock aficionados in Apollon, it’s suggested that I visit the club next door, Garage, to explore more of this so-called Bergen Wave.
Garage is one of those old clubs which have seen a generation (or maybe many) of local metal artistes making it big. What looks like just another bar round the corner has the reputation of holding a 150 concerts a year, almost one every other day. In one corner of the hall is a life-size board that lists the who’s who at Garage over the years. The list includes biggies like Coldplay among at least a thousand other names. The beer dispensers are adorned with trophies inscribed with the names of local artistes. To my amazement, I’m told that these are actual trophies awarded at the Spellemannprisen—the Norwegian Grammies—and dedicated back to Garage by the winners since, in all probability, this must have been where they started their careers. I go for a leak and realize even the door handles are made of the same donated trophies. Music follows you everywhere in Bergen.
Given its reputation with rock and metal, it is a little ironic that while at Garage, I meet members of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2015. None of the members seems particularly fond of rock or metal. The term Bergen Wave manages to get just a dismissive nod from them. But the conversation with them takes me back to the 1800s. The guys at the Philharmonic attribute Bergen’s music scene to greats like Ole Bull (violinist; 1810-80) and Edvard Grieg (pianist; 1843-1907). Born in Bergen, both Bull and Grieg are considered among the greatest composers of the 19th century. Grieg is considered a leading Romantic-era composer and was instrumental in putting Norway’s music on the global map. Today, Grieg’s house Troldhaugen, on the outskirts of Bergen, is a museum; a half-hour-long concert is held there at lunchtime every day for visitors.
To give me a taste of the music they’re talking about, they play a few of his symphonies on Soundcloud. “You know Soundcloud, right? His work is on Soundcloud. Here, listen to this". To my unclassical ears, they are playing the Peer Gynt Suite No.1, Op.46, a composition I’ve heard numerous times in Hollywood and Indian movie background scores. I had no clue that this common symphony had its origins in the houses of this city.
As I head back to my hostel, I realize that it’s located right in front of the Grieghallen, a 1,600-seat concert hall in Bergen named after Grieg. Outside stands a tiny sculpture of Edvard Grieg, facing the grand building of Grieghallen; he was also the director of the Bergen Philharmonic in the 19th century. Grieg’s legacy endures here as Grieghallen continues to host concerts, theatre and other forms of art on its premises. The evening, however, is reserved for something as historic as—but divergent from—the music of Grieg. As night dawns, I try to make my way through the eerily quiet park of Nygårdsparken to find a favourite local venue, Hulen-i-Bergen. Pronounced “Hyoolen", it means “cave". The entry is a corridor which has been carved to lead to a cave beneath a hill in the middle of the city. While I stand outside paying my excessive cover charge of 150 Norwegian kroner (around Rs1,200), the door at the end of the corridor opens and a massive burst of metal erupts from inside. It’s like someone is bombing the cave from within. I make my move towards ground zero. The Trondheim band Man the Machetes is playing, while a small crowd of (possibly) university students head-bangs to the pummelling of drums and screaming vocals. Later, I get to know that Hulen was, quite fittingly, a bomb shelter during World War II. Probably during the 1970s, it was converted into a music venue and ever since it has continued to dominate the local music scene with its rock, electronic and indie music nights. Hulen’s noticeboard is full of posters of forthcoming concerts.
The next day, I am at Bare Vestland, which seems like one of the poshest restaurants in Bergen and sits opposite the Unesco heritage site of Bryggen (a historic wharf) across the Bergen port. I’m meeting Karen Sofie, who handles the marketing at Brak, a not-for-profit supporting musicians and music businesses on Norway’s west coast. Sofie starts by talking about the Bergen Wave. Meanwhile, a young waiter brings us a perfect cup of cappuccino (Scandinavia has a great coffee culture). Sofie asks him what he thinks of the Bergen Wave. “There was nothing of the sort. A wave means there was a high in the music scene at some point in time and a low. But there was never a low. We continue to make music as ever." Later, I’m told the waiter is a guitarist with a band of his own. Sofie, too, raves about how artistes with humble beginnings, have been making it big even in recent times across Norway and neighbouring countries. Take, for instance, singer and songwriter Aurora, who grew up in an area close to Bergen. She started off with her first track at the age of 16 and her popularity continued to rise with every single. She has already been featured in the Fifa 16 soundtrack and had performed a cover of the Oasis song Half the World Away for a John Lewis Christmas advert.
After our meeting, I wander off into the streets of Bergen. I sit around the Sjomannsmonumentet—the sailors’ monument—in the Torgallmenningen area. The monument is a tribute to Norwegian sailors, from the times of the Vikings to the 20th century. Bergen has always been a city of sailors. Even today, the harbour echoes with the sound of ships’ horns. As I sit watching street artistes perform, a young girl stands in front of a store, singing her favourite songs in Norwegian while strumming a guitar. When she turns to English, I’m able to better admire how well she can sing. I reach out to her, put a few kroner in her guitar cover, and start chatting. She reads at the university. She shows me the diary where she has written the songs she was singing, all by herself. She asks if I read at the university too. I respond with a disheartened “no". As I depart, she gives me a hug and leaves me with a gift of this city’s sound, “You know Soundcloud? My songs are on Soundcloud."
Fly to Oslo and connect to Bergen via a domestic flight or train. Fjord Tours also runs a Norway in a nutshell® tour from Oslo to Bergen—it includes two charming railway rides, a fjord cruise and a scenic bus journey.
Cheap accommodation is tough to come by. Citybox Bergen offers value-for-money rooms, somewhere between a hotel and a hostel. Plenty of Airbnb options are available and may be cheaper in certain seasons. Bryggen hosts a few luxury hotels, Det Hanseatiske being the most notable.
Bare Vestland is a warm and chic fine-diner with an emphasis on Norwegian food. Apollon is great for a beer. The area around the harbour has several restaurants and bars, and often hosts pop-up food fests. Bryggen has some good cafés.