Q&A with Espen Fjelle, musician and teacher at University of South-Eastern Norway, organizes a blues program

"I like music to be open and to have room for improvisation, a quality that blues and jazz has always had. Much of today’s music have a more produced and studio software based sound and arrangements where the instrumental parts are in the background or more or less absent. I hope, and work for, that young people will start playing in bands again like we did."

Espen Fjelle: The University of The Blues

Could you imagine yourself studying blues music at university level? As the only university in Europe, University of South-Eastern Norway is proud to be able to offer a blues programme at its Notodden Campus. The University of South-Eastern Norway organizes in Notodden a one-year full time University program for the Blues! The Campus is suitable for singers, band members or solo musicians. During the entire programme you will be mentored by teachers from the Little Steven’s Blues School – competent teachers with extensive experience of stage and studio, as well as master classes and mentoring by both national and international artists. The blues programme at USN offers you a unique opportunity to explore the musical and cultural universe of the blues, together with other students. Notodden is renowned as Europe’s number one blues destination. In partnership with the Notodden Blues Festival, students will have the opportunity to participate in the festival, as well as in jam sessions and concerts throughout the year.                (Espen Fjelle, 2011 / Photo by Knut Heggenes, Varden)

Notodden library has an award-winning blues collection, which includes a huge volume of blues literature and LPs and many artefacts donated by both artists and private individuals. In the fabled Juke Joint Studio, students will make recordings on legendary recording equipment, including equipment from the famous Stax Studio in Memphis. The university now opens for foreign students to apply and teaching will be performed in English language! We talked with program coordinator Espen Fjelle about the University of South-Eastern Norway, Notodden Blues Festival, and the BluesEspen is musician and teacher of Faculty of Humanities, Sports and Educational Science, Department of Visual and Performing Arts Education of Campus Notodden.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in Notodden, a typical industrial town with evident class distinctions, and although I was born and raised in a middle class family, I became in some way politically and socially aware from listening to blues music at an early age. During my formative years the music I listened to reflected the political and social issues back in the 1960-70s. Although the blues was never a political music style as such, I became aware that the blues is honest and tells it like it is. The everyday struggle that the African Americans had to live with and the cultural expressions that came out of it resonated well with the ideas and values of the Norwegian working class, which was pretty dominant in my surroundings. My adult life is much influenced by a way of seeing the world and all the injustice done to so many. I used to look upon the USA as the land of plenty, and a place that gave us all the good stuff. I have visited many places; Mississippi, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Texas, California, New York, and I was always fascinated by the vast variation across the gigantic country. But the last few years I have sort of lost my interest in going back. It seems that the whole nation have become so polarized that it may turn into another civil war.

When and how did the idea of The University of South-Eastern Norway's program for the Blues come about?

Back in 2017, when I was working for Europas Blues Senter, I initiated a research project in order to find out the status of the blues as a music genre today, having noticed over quite a few years that the people that kept it alive were getting older and older, and that the younger generations had little knowledge of, and preferences from the blues. So how could we raise and maintain a healthy interest for the blues in the future? Obviously, music does change and develop all the time, and has always done so. Also, I had always believed that the blues would never die, that is how strong and basic the blues is. But there were fewer and fewer signs of improvement, so I was concerned that the blues would actually disappear after our generation was gone. Who was there to carry the blues torch further on? So, I contacted the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN) with the idea of establishing a blues program here at the campus in Notodden. And I was very excited when I got an immediate positive feedback. They liked the approach that Notodden was the natural place to establish a blues program, given our history and position as a blues town both nationally and internationally. So, after only twelve months of planning and preparation the USN opened for its first class of blues in 2018.

"At the university blues program we focus a great deal on the socio-cultural effects throughout the blues music history, and we try to draw these lines up to current issues like Black Lives Matter. Also, we urge the students to make their own reflections on the ongoing debate around cultural appropriation." (Espen Fjelle, Notodden Blues Festival 2017 / Photo by Aigars Lapsa)

What characterize Notodden Blues Festival philosophy and mission?

When Notodden Blues Festival started in 1988 it was more or less as a result of the shut-down of the heavy industries in town, from which everyone had made a living since the early 1900s. The whole town underwent a collective depression. A lot of people had great concerns about the future. The festival gave them something positive to concentrate on and new hopes for the future. So locally the festival became an identity marker, and the blues became the preferred music for many.

Initially, the philosophy was simply to do something positive in a difficult time, and to share our love for the blues. We succeeded in bringing the whole town together by inviting everybody to be a part of the festival, from the kindergarten kids to the seniors. Ten years later, when the festival had grown big, the mission changed. The aim was to become the best blues festival in Europe.

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following in Notodden?

I think Notodden’s industrial history was an important factor, at least for everyone who was born here before 1980. Ever since 1960 there has been a vivid music scene in town, with a great number of bands and artists playing blues and rock & roll. Industrial workers spent much of their leisure time listening and dancing to blues bands at pubs and clubs around town. Luckily, that same industrial history has now been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. So hopefully Notodden will be able to carry on some kind of relation to its background for future generations.

Notodden Blues Festival has made great efforts in keeping the blues interest alive in Notodden. The festival has put on band camps for the youth every year since 1989, and the festival program always include younger artists to attract new generations. The fabled Juke Joint Studio is another factor to maintain Notodden’s blues identity. The jewel of the studio’s vast collection of analog recording gear is the mixing console that originally sat in Stax Studio in Memphis. That gives the studio a nice vintage vibe.

"It gives me great pleasure and pride to experience how the students develop their blues playing skills throughout the semesters. There are so many talented young people who come here to study. It gets me to think that there is hope for the future!" (Espen Fjelle & Peter Green, 1996 / Photo by Roger Neuman)

Which meetings in Notodden Blues Festival have been the most important experiences for you?

For me, meeting all the great artists, whom I had always admired, like Johnny Guitar Watson, Peter Green, Jimmie Witherspoon, Johnnie Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite, Charles Brown, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal were great experiences. I did not always get to actually see their shows, due to other commitments that I had to deal with as head of the festival, but the mere satisfaction from hearing how they had thrilled the audiences was a good substitute.

Are there any specific memories or highlights of Notodden Blues Festival that you would like to tell us about?!

In 1991 I had booked two shows with Jimmie Witherspoon & Robben Ford. They had not played together since the 1970s, but we managed to get them back together for a one-off reunion at Notodden Blues Festival. It never happened again after Notodden. To my big surprise I was asked to play organ with them. It was an extraterrestrial experience and something that I will never forget. Due to busy travel schedules for both of them, there was no time for a rehearsal. All we got to do before the performances was a short sound check, so it was a real “in the moment” experience. It was like the time had stood still all those years since Jimmie and Robben had played together. They just clicked. And there I was, in the middle of this historic reunion. Luckily, the shows were recorded and released on CD in 1992 by Robben’s brother, Patrick Ford, on his Blue Rock’It label. I believe it has been out of stock for quite a while, but I have a copy.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I like music to be open and to have room for improvisation, a quality that blues and jazz has always had. Much of today’s music have a more produced and studio software based sound and arrangements where the instrumental parts are in the background or more or less absent. I hope, and work for, that young people will start playing in bands again like we did. Too many make music alone, sitting in their rooms using a computer. Being in a band gives you so much extra, not only when it comes to the aesthetically and artistically side of making music, but also has an important social effect that by far outperforms social media. Magic happens when people come together IRL.

"Initially, the philosophy was simply to do something positive in a difficult time, and to share our love for the blues. We succeeded in bringing the whole town together by inviting everybody to be a part of the festival, from the kindergarten kids to the seniors. Ten years later, when the festival had grown big, the mission changed. The aim was to become the best blues festival in Europe." (Espen Fjelle, Jostein Forsberg, Morten Omlid and Big Mama Montse, Festival Connexions, 2013/ Photo by Ray Molinari)

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the Blues program of USN to affect the participants? 

At the university blues program we focus a great deal on the socio-cultural effects throughout the blues music history, and we try to draw these lines up to current issues like Black Lives Matter. Also, we urge the students to make their own reflections on the ongoing debate around cultural appropriation.

Through historical analysis and reflection, we hope to establish a broad basis for understanding African American culture in terms of both the past and the present.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience as a teacher of USN?

It gives me great pleasure and pride to experience how the students develop their blues playing skills throughout the semesters. There are so many talented young people who come here to study. It gets me to think that there is hope for the future!

We are currently working to establish the blues program at USN to be integrated in a Bachelor degree, and I hope that we will attract many students from abroad now that we are going international in 2023. A stay in Notodden will give many great experiences for every blues interested student; the Notodden Blues Festival, the Juke Joint studio, the blues library, the opportunity to meet, play, compose, record and perform with fellow students. The blues needs it.

University of South-Eastern Norway - Blues Programme

(Notodden Blues Festival - Jørn Pedersen, Espen Fjelle, Rita Jonassen and Jostein Forsberg / Photo by Øyvind Rønning)

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