All Europe’s their stage

Foreground | Indigenous voices are having an uncharacteristically strong showing in the run-up to Europe’s kitchiest hour

Jon Henrik Fjällgren’s 2019 entry is a song of the white, white snow of Sápmi (📷: SVT)

Kevin McGwin

Say Eurovision to anyone in Europe and they will immediately know what you are talking about. For everyone else, there is nothing you can possibly say that fully conveys what the event entails. (Although The Lawrence Welk Show meets Sabado Gigante meets The X Factor gets you off in the right direction.)

The basic facts are simple enough. Firstly, it is an annual singing competition. (Its full name is the Eurovision Song Contest.) Secondly, while the ‘Euro’ in ‘Eurovision’ clearly refers to Europe, just where Europe ends and Asia and Africa begin is blurry. Armenia, Azerbaijan (the 2011 winner), Iceland, Russia (2008 winner) and Turkey (2003 winner), for example, take part. Though their inclusion, added through successive expansions, may irk purists, it is at least defensible. Tunisia’s past participation, and Australia’s current, defies all geographic logic. Likewise, this year’s host city is Tel Aviv, an honour earned after last year’s Israeli entry won.

Eurovision’s popularity is even more borderless. It is big in Australia (perhaps part of the reason for its invitation to sing along) and a number of Asian other countries. Its organisers have made push to get the Chinese to love it as boundlessly as Europeans.

As for the performances themselves, they are the most difficult element of all to explain, let alone understand. The basic recipe is as follows: start with a standard pop song, mix in a healthy amount of kitsch, add a dash of inclusiveness (the 2014 winner was a bearded cross-dresser), heap on the pyrotechnics and other special effects and pack it all in gentle nationalism. Prepare for the better part of a year. Serve to an audience of 200 million.

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Language has always played a big role, too. In the competition’s early years, entries had to be sung in the country’s native language. With the emergence of English as the lingua franca of the entertainment world, this rule has been eliminated (to the relief of singers otherwise forced to sing in a less mellifluous tongue). Most performers now opt for the internationalised route. The result is a text that more people can understand but is less worth listening to than one cleverly written and confidently sung.

For others, eschewing English is, at least in part, a matter of national or cultural pride. Native speakers of French are known to stick to French. (Céline Dion, a Québécoise, won in 1988 for Switzerland singing Ne partez pas sans moi’.) Spaniards and Italians do too, though to a lesser degree. Others go in the other direction, piling on the languages, in harmony with the Eurovision Song Contest’s message of national co-existence. The Danish entry this year, for example, is sung mostly in English, but it includes verses in French, German and – somewhat rare for a Danish entry – Danish.

To get to the final, the Danish song, like a lot of the other national entries, had to win in a national sing-off. The runner-up was also lesson in multi-lingualism, including verses in both English, and, even more of a rarity, Greenlandic (it has happened just once before).

Whether singing in several languages is a coincidence or part of an emerging trend towards cultural nativism cannot be known yet, but, even with the Greenlandic entry crashing out, champions of indigenous groups can already consider 2019 to be something of a high-water mark, exceeding even 2016. That year, a rule change permitted the audience to wave sub-national flags, a decision made to avoid conflict after Britain sent a Welsh singer to the final and Norway sent a Sámi performer.

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This year, Norway has done it again. On Saturday, that country’s residents, voting by text message, together with a jury of experts, selected KEiiNO as the winner of Melodi Grand Prix, the national final. But whereas the 2016 performance was sung completely in English, the 2019 entry is partly in Sámi.

This coming Saturday, the Swedes will get their own chance to vote for an indigenous performer. One of the favourites in the final round of Melodifestivalen is Jon Henrik Fjällgren, a Columbian-born orphan adopted by a Sámi family. While Mr Fjällgren, unlike KEiiNO, will not sing his entry in Sámi (it has so far been sung in Swedish, though the rules permit him to sing an English version in the Eurovision final in May, should he go through) a portion of the song is performed in a joik style, a form of Sámi non-verbal singing. To complete the Sámi connection, he wears a Sámi-inspired disco suit and, at one point, sings to a reindeer that appears on a video screen.

Like most new talents, Mr Fjällgren has been at his trade for a number of years. In 2014, he won Talang Sverige, the Swedish version of the Got Talent talent-competition franchise, with a tear-jerking joik performed in honour of a deceased friend. (Try watching it without getting misty.) He has appeared in Melodifestivalen twice before, placing second in 2015 and third in 2017. A win on Saturday would put him on the same path as the one beaten by ABBA, which, before it was a 1970s supergroup, was the 1974 winner of Melodifestivalen and Eurovison.

Repeating ABBA’s success would be no small accomplishment for a man of any description. It would be a giant leap for indigenous-kind.

When: 9 Mar
Where: Stockholm, Sweden
WWW: Melodifestivalen (Swedish); Eurovision 

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