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Not Just ABBA: From Pop To Death Metal, Sweden Rocks The Music World

A vast number of planet music's cash cows - including a little act named Madonna - originated on the synthesizer keyboards of Swedish songwriters, but can the country hold its high note?

Thank you for the music, Sweden
Thank you for the music, Sweden
Rinny Gremaud

STOCKHOLM — "Sometimes people wonder if there isn’t something in the water here in Sweden", says Johan Fridell. “We seem to have an innate sense of melody. I can’t explain it. Our compositions end up in everything from folk to traditional music, although God knows I never listen to that shitty stuff!”

Fridell has black-dyed hair so long it comes down to his hips. Although he’s only 37 years old, his face looks older, probably because of his hard-drinking lifestyle. To compensate, today he’s chosen an ageless outfit: threadbare T-shirt, tight-fitting jeans and ankle boots. Fridell is a Satanist who uses the professional name Nephente when performing with his death metal group Netherbird. But he’s a Satanist in the romantic sense of the word. Clearly highly intelligent, this jovial man speaks perfect English, quotes 19th century British occultist poets, and argues that the real message of Satan is the most liberal there is — an invitation to do whatever we want.

Fridell is a member of the Swedish metal scene, which invented the amazing oxymoron melodic death metal (sometimes called melodeath). “It consists of a very characteristic type of chords and chord progressions,” he says. “You can’t describe it more precisely than that. But it makes us very identifiable abroad. And envied.”

Netherbird is not a professional group in the sense that most of its members have day jobs and don’t earn their living from music. Nevertheless, they perform about 30 concerts abroad every year, mainly in eastern European countries. Their biggest fan club is in Transylvania (Romania), where guitarist Pontus Andersson says they play to delirious crowds.

The Blackest Breed - Netherbird

Transylvania! Can you believe it? It’s so great!” says Andersson — stage name Bizmark — who is the only one in the group to earn a living from music. He also plays with other groups and has his own studio where he produces varied musical styles, including a few that embarrass him. “That’s why I sign my productions under another name, and use a stage name with Netherbird. To stay credible, I have to separate the two worlds.”

When instrument lessons were compulsory

When Bizmark and Nephente are on tour abroad, they hate being reminded that their first instrument was a recorder. Until recently, instrument lessons were compulsory for Swedish schoolchildren, and it is regarded as the primary reason why there is such an abundance of musicians across all genres in Sweden.

Andersson prefers another explanation that tends, and it’s the one he gives when he tours. “I grew up in a small town in the north of Sweden. When we were in our teens, a friend and I wanted to play music, but we didn’t have any money. So we went to a city-subsidized cultural center where they had rehearsal rooms you could use for free along with instruments. There were drums, electric guitars, everything you could dream of. All we had to do was fill out a form, and the next day we were able to start playing. We could also take the instruments home with us if we wanted to. And the most incredible thing is we were also paid for this! Every hour we spent rehearsing was translated into points that we could convert into vouchers to buy stuff like picks and replacement strings. It wasn’t a lot of money, but for teenagers like us it helped a lot.”

Sweden is one of the world’s biggest music exporters. Per capita, it pays the highest royalties in the world. One might imagine that the ditties by Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid of the iconic group ABBA would account for a large slice of that, but they are far from being the only ones. When, for example, at the end of a hockey game “The Final Countdown” is played, a certain Rolf Magnus Joakim Larsson (alias Joey Tempest) earns a little bit of money. Roxette, Ace of Base, Dr. Alban, Robyn, The Cardigans and Army of Lovers are also Swedish artists and excellent export products, even today.

The Swedish Royal Military Orchestra also plays ... ABBA - Video: remyworldpeace

In the kingdom of Carl XVI Gustaf, where Eurovision is queen, pop songs are manufactured non-stop. All kinds of songs, all genres, from catchy melodies that make people want to dance to big-time show tunes, house to hip-hop, jazz to punk, the most obscure metal, you name it: The Swedes are everywhere, often very low-profile and never suspected for one instant being from a non-English-speaking country.

A music mecca

Reading the names in the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, in the Stockholm building that also houses The ABBA Museum, it's amazing to learn just how musically powerful this small country is. It’s a pop hit factory. Did you know, for example, that if Britney Spears mews “Baby One More Time,” or Katy Perry brags that “I Kissed a Girl,” they owe those successful songs to a genial Swedish lyricist-composer-producer? You may never have heard of Karl Martin Sandberg (aka Max Martin) — or of Karl Johan Schuster (aka Shellback), or Christian Karlson and Pontus Winberg, who sign their work Bloodshy & Avant. Yet these eminent Swedes produce and write for the cream of the entertainment crop, including Pink, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys, Kylie Minogue, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. A vast number of planet music’s cash cows originated on the synthesizer keyboards of Swedish songwriters.

“The Swedes have a culture of entrepreneurship you also find in music,” says Carl von Schewen, owner of Sound Pollution, a record store cum distributor and label specializing in punk and metal. The 52-year-old, with white hair and Sex Pistols T-shirt, has played mentor to many of the country’s rock groups. “To succeed, it’s not enough to have talent. You have to have the courage to let go of your moorings. If groups like Entombed and Ghost are international references in their genres today, it’s because those guys’ wives let them quit their day jobs to devote themselves entirely to promoting their work.”

Von Schewen is himself an example of entrepreneurial success. His small company founded in the mid-1980s has a dozen people on the payroll and hasn’t suffered much from the crisis devastating the record industry. “In our niche, people haven’t stopped buying CDs or vinyls in addition to having a Spotify subscription and downloading music from other places.”

A work ethic is one thing. Then there are the subsidies, the governmental and private help for touring artists and other musical projects. Elisabet Widlund is the director of Musiksverige, a Swedish umbrella organization that supports and promotes music as well as artists and other professional musicians’ unions. “We speak for them in political contexts, like a lobby, and also try to give everyone involved an overview so that we’re all reading from the same songsheet, for example, when it comes to targeting the most interesting export markets,” she says. That there are a number of para-governmental and private support organizations requiring coordination says in and of itself a great deal about the conditions of creation and export of music in Sweden.

Music appreciation compulsory from the first year of school; extracurricular music lessons that are virtually free; a network of cultural centers with not only the infrastructure but also coaching for musicians who want to become professional; and all manner of support for musical projects including touring or exporting abroad: These are the components behind the musical Sweden that makes such a huge impact.

Can Sweden hold its high note?

But will it retain its status? “Unfortunately, for several years now music has no longer been compulsory in schools,” says John Eric Eleby, 51, a professional singer (bass baritone), director of two amateur expand=1] choirs, and former singing teacher. “Today, training options to become a music teacher are disappearing. Funds allotted to cultural centers have been reduced. The government is in the process of deconstructing policies that encouraged music and had been producing excellent results since the 1950s.”

Several decades will doubtlessly be needed to know if the fine mechanics of the Swedish music box can survive these budget cuts. Unless there really is something in the water.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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