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Sivert Heyem performs inside a cave at the Traena Festival in northern Norway. The annual festival, which was started in 2003, attracts music lovers to its picturesque and out-of-the-way setting.
Sivert Heyem performs inside a cave at the Traena Festival in northern Norway. The annual festival, which was started in 2003, attracts music lovers to its picturesque and out-of-the-way setting.

Norway's Traena Festival: as remote as it gets

Located on an archipelago of island in the Arctic Circle, Traena's organiser has always thought of its remoteness as a plus.

Erlend Mogård-Larsen is a good example of what the Norwegians would call havfolket, or people of the sea. His long blonde hair is swept back into a ponytail and he is protected from the sea air by a chunky woollen sweater. His explanation for why it doesn't matter that the Traena Festival is in such a remote place - an archipelago of islands in the Arctic Circle off the north-west coast of Norway - is convincing. He states simply: "I have never thought about the remoteness in a negative way, just positive."

The rugged Viggo Mortensen lookalike started this annual festival in 2003 and it is a gathering that is unusual for many reasons. Most festivals attract rather dour superlatives such as "most muddy", "most expensive" or "most predictable". Traena, which takes place for one weekend in July, is more remarkable because it is the world's most remote music festival. As well as that - even though this is an entirely subjective claim - the organisers would be well within their rights to promote it as the world's most beautiful event of its kind.

It is the remoteness and the spectacular, harsh beauty of the place that are the key: "I knew I wanted to do a festival where people had to travel to get there. Travel is an important thing with the Traena Festival. People who are travelling for 10-12 hours to get to here are focused and completely in tune with their surroundings. You could get from Oslo to Bangkok in the same amount of time. I hate city festivals. You take the bus for 20 minutes and go into an area with nicely dressed people. The travel is 50 per cent of the festival experience," says Mogård-Larsen.

He is right, of course. It's a two-hour flight north from Oslo to Bodø, which despite being the capital city of the Nordland municipality, is barely a village by most people's standards. It marks the point on the mainline where the rail network stops. We sail out in the morning. I don't understand a word of Norwegian, but the captain's graphic use of wild gesticulation imparts three important facts: don't fall overboard; if you do fall overboard don't expect to get rescued; and they are running low on toilet paper. For the first two hours we sail down the onyx-dark waters of a fjord, with mountains jagged against an unblemished blue sky. It seems that up here in the Arctic Circle, things are sketched with a lighter touch, as if someone said: "Well, no one's going to come up here, so keep it nice and simple." The scenery looks like a childlike drawing. Mountains are huge triangles of rock sticking out of a ruler-flat horizon. Further out to sea, which is the deep blue of broken Venetian glass, a whale breaks and re-breaks the surface as people gasp and point. We pass one of Norway's biggest glaciers, which hangs in gravity-defying majesty above the mountain peaks on the shoreline.

There aren't many people on the group of islands called Traena, about 380 in total, and they all pitch in to help. Our cheerful driver, Snorre, who takes us from the harbour to our chalet, turns out to be the father of Ida Maria, one of the country's hottest musical exports and an excellent Friday night headline act. We are welcomed aboard the Vulkana, a former whaling vessel that has been converted to a sauna ship. The sun is shining bright the entire time we are there. It casts a lazy, lasso-like loop in the sky, dipping briefly behind a hill for 10 minutes every day near midnight before rising again. It never gets dark and, for most of the time, we enjoy T-shirt weather, with the occasional refreshing blast of arctic wind. The ship belongs to Mogård-Larsen and reflects the complex attitude that most Norwegians have towards their heritage industry of sea fishing. He says: "This boat killed maybe 500-600 whales, using that harpoon gun there. The body would be laid lengthways across the hull and cut open and dealt with down there."

He points downwards to the deck below us, where there is a Buddha statue hanging from the wall, and the entrance to a sauna: "Now it is used for less violent, less destructive purposes." There are far fewer whalers than there used to be, but the practice still continues under much tighter supervision. And as he points out, there are bigger (or smaller) things that the ecologically concerned should be worried about: "There are 130,000 whales living by the Norwegian coastline. This summer, they shot 888 of them. I am more worried about the cod stocks and the wildlife. I'm not a big fan of the oil industry, for example, especially in Lofoten and Vesterålen, where they may have found reserves." The festival has a strong ecological conscience and it's hard not to see why. The last thing this place needs is to have a massive oil refinery built on it, pumping out smoke and polluting the otherwise clear waters.

The festival site is fairly small, with only 2,000 people in attendance. The patch of land has a stage, a music tent, a seafood restaurant and some bars and would easily fit inside one of the smaller fields at Glastonbury. The line-up is heavy on home-grown and Swedish acts, plus a few Britons. Chilling things down in the tent and adding some glamour to the proceedings is the Swedish singer/songwriter Frida Hyvönen, who brings something of the music hall and torch-song tradition to the island. Of course, Scandinavian tastes can sometimes be described as "acquired", to put it politely. Some of the acts, especially the ska stylings of Kaddmaddafakka and the festival reggae of Jodski, do little to inspire confidence. Or enjoyment.

At midday (or is it midnight? It's hard to tell) the next day, all memories of these acts are soothed away by the sublime performance of Rockettothesky. The performance is the highlight of the weekend. It is the vision of Jenny Hval, who crafts beautiful music incredibly quietly, building new ground between the childlike visions of the electronic artist Fever Ray, the northern beauty of Björk, and Kate Bush's Aerial.

On the main stage, it is as if the geek has inherited the Earth as we are treated to a brilliantly bouncy set by the slick art funketeers The Whitest Boy Alive. Massive spectacles, collegiate scarves and Farrah slacks are the order of the day as they channel the spirit of Talking Heads, Franz Ferdinand and Steely Dan. The crowd erupts when the band plays a hectic medley of Inner City's Good Life and Out of Space by The Prodigy.

Most entertaining is the unhinged sight of Slagsmalsklubben (Hardcore Fight Club) from Sweden. Six extravagantly dressed nerds lined up in front of banks and banks of vintage synths, samplers, syn-drums and laptops, leading the crowd in a preposterously upbeat happy house rave. The music ranges from Euro hi-energy, to Balearic, to funky house, to electro and back again, often within the space of one song. The emphasis is on party friendly madness and the second it starts sounding too serious, they put a donk on it like a junior Hot Chip at an all-ages rave.

On the Saturday, a speedboat takes us over to a nearby island that has a huge cave, known as Kirkhelleren. The huge limestone cavern, where the original Traena settlers lived in the Stone Age, is being used as a venue for a performance by one of Norway's biggest stars, Sivert Høyem. The former Madrugada singer is using all the massive resonant potential of the setting to great effect. Mixed in with original material are numbers by Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons, but they end on a transcendent version of Goodnight Irene, an old Leadbelly song that has every single person on the island holding their breath in silence. Ingrid Olava, Høyem's co-vocalist, crowned in a wreath of flowers, has to stand a foot away from her mic, so the echoes don't overwhelm the gentleness of the number. As we make our way back to the main island on a flotilla of fishing boats, rockets are fired from the crest of the rocks high above our heads. Back on the site, Ewan Pearson ends things in fine style, mixing up disco, house and even Radiohead in an uplifting set.

The next day, we stop off for another blissful visit to the steam ship Vulkana before leaving the island. In the sauna with Sivert, Ingrid and the drummer from the cult rock band Turbonegro, beverages are handed out. "You know, I was born to make men cry," says Ingrid. Out of the window, a whale breaks the surface in the distance. Outside, a sushi chef is preparing lunch. This place must be some kind of dream. It certainly is a dream of a festival. As Erlend says before he bids us farewell: "I want Traena to be the festival everybody has to visit one time in their life."

What a sublime wish.

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