By any standards, SomBy are not your typical visitors to a primary school. This northern Finnish band’s members sing in Sami, the native language of their part of Finland, and they wear brightly embroidered traditional tunics. But they are no folk singers. Their music is turbo-charged metal.
“The title of this song translates as something like… Empty Destruction,” says guitarist Oula Guttorm, launching into crunching chords.
The Friessel school in Friesland, in the Netherlands’ northernmost province, where I watched them play this weekend, is hardly a typical educational establishment. It’s one of a growing number of trilingual schools where children are taught Dutch and English and the local language, Frisian.
SomBy are in the Frisian capital, Leeuwarden, to compete at Liet International, an annual event dubbed the “minority languages Eurovision”.
Most of the 11 finalists in this year’s song contest qualified by winning regional competitions. Contestants perform in their own language and entries must be original compositions. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Liet is the outstanding quality. This is not an event for folk fundamentalists and any misconceptions of worthiness are quickly dispelled by the variety of finalists: there’s a delicate guitar piece from Friulian Lino Straulino, bubbling Scottish Gaelic power pop from Sunrise not Secular and bands from Asturias, Karelia and Latvia all firmly grounded in the 21st century.
There are rap, hip hop and dance-influenced artists, including the surrealist electronica of Zine, from France’s Occitan-speaking region, and De fofftig Penns, a trio who rap in Plattdüütsch, the traditional language of northern Germany. “This is the language our grandparents spoke to us in when we were younger,” explains De fofftig Penns’ Plietsche Torbän. “So it’s quite funny to listen to because it sounds like our grandparents are up there on stage.”
Events such as Liet serve to highlight a serious issue. There are around 46 million speakers of minority languages in Europe. Increasingly, campaigners from across the region are working together to protect and promote linguistic diversity.
Fundamental to this is an idea of Europe as a patchwork of regions rather than monochrome nation states. European Union expansion and the partial erosion of frontiers has allowed these long-marginalised cultures to assert and express themselves with new confidence.
Frisians see themselves as an example of this. As well as trilingual primary schools, the region has its own well-established local language media and a Frisian pop academy.
Frisian Culture Minister Jannewietske De Vries meanwhile has grand ambitions for the region, including Leeuwarden’s bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2018.
“When you are aware of your own identity you can be open to other cultures because you know how much it means,” she says. “We would like to encourage other people of smaller languages to achieve the same things that we have.” At Liet though it was SomBy who won the contest. Friesland may be leading the way in many areas but in music terms they still have some catching up to do.