LION DANCE IN UMEÅ by Ottiliana Rolandsson Umeå2014

Little did I know that Umeå, the “capital” of Northern Sweden, is the home of the nation’s foremost Kung Fu school. Umeå Hung Gar is hidden behind a neighborhood store (Charlies Kiosk) with its entrance at the docking platform. The building is tagged by punk and rock bands rehearsing in the eight or so studios in the basement. I approach the place curious yet have no idé what to expect.

Umeå Hung Gar School practices one of the seven major Kung Fu styles, which each has formed and developed by a specific Chinese family. This club, with its students, under the mastership of Mattias Lindh, has dominated Swedish Kung Fu the last decade. For the 2014 Swedish Championship they sent 7 competitors and took home 10 medals. In 2013 their 5 competitors scored 8 medals and in 2012, 5 competitors won 6 medals. Quite a record to show! Such is their reputation that the school has been invited to the birthplace of Kung Fu in Hong Kong to train and compete. For several years they have won medals at this foremost ranking place. Indeed, this club are trained directly by the Chinese Hung Kuen master in Hong Kong. Mattias travels there at least once a year to continue to learn and evolve. It is his responsibility as Sifu to bring back more advanced and refined mastery of the style.

“Hung Kuen is a pillar of Southern Chinese martial arts and one of the most respected and widespread systems of Kung Fu in the world today.” writes Lam Chun Fai in the book Hung Kuen Fundamentals that focuses on the Lam Family Hung Kuen with a Kung Fu linage dating back to Master Lam Cho. Martial arts in Southern China can be confirmed at least 2000 years back, but sources indicate that it may be much older, preceding their written history. It is during the turbulent 100 years, from late 18th century to the end of the 19th century, that the Hung Kuen style was formed. The training was used to protect oneself in the dangerous streets. While it is a rigors, disciplined and traditional martial art it is also rogue fighting. Perhaps this is why some are drawn to the style: its long history, disciplined form, yet can readily be translated to actual protection.

I am invited by one of the club’s members, Torbjörn Olsson, to observe a training session. Drumbeat and guitar licks from the garage bands in the basement vibrate the soft training floor of the school. But the Kung Fu students do not seem bothered, instead heavy metal is blasting from their own boom box as they are warming up. The eclectic and inviting feeling is prevalent throughout the entire environment. The entrance leads directly into a small lobby also furnished as a livingroom including a counter for food and steeping Chinese tea. Tens of red lanterns are suspended from the red metal ceiling. Lucky charms, martial arts banners and glittering medals decorate the room in a chaotic yet cared-for way. The training studio is an extension of this appreciated mish-mash of banners, lanterns, masks, swords, spears, drums and regular exercise tools. Not before long I find myself cuddled up in a sofa with a warm cup of exquisite tea in my hands.

In contrast to my preconceived notion of zealous Kung Fu fighters and a strict master, Sifu Mattias’ calm and engaged voice direct the students who all exude joy and lightness of being. Individually they warm up, followed by practicing the Lion Dance. In this fascinating and artistic dance the practitioners are dressed in a large lion costume fitting two people. There’s a complex and beautiful series of steps and maneuvers to bring the dragon-lion alive. It is captivating and intriguing. This dance developed in Southern China when the government forbid the practice of martial arts. In order to continue to train as well as to be able to protect themselves the Lion Dance was invented as a celebration which also allowed them to advance their skills under the radar of the authorities.

Sifu Mattias drumming out the rhythm ends and so too the Lion Dance. Costumes off and the group rejoins in an organized grid doing a series of forms traditional to their style’s family linage. It is meditative to watch them all move together. One moment I see what reminds me of an abstract dance, in the next, a concrete fighting strike and in another, the shape of an animal. Yet again, they shift mode. Now the swords, sables and spears are brought out. It looks dangerous, hardcore and very exciting. Still, in the same joyful and light attitude the training continues. They all seem safe with each other, the camaraderie abundant.

What might have been the most powerful moment for me as an observer was the combined breathing and controlled ending of Tit Sin – the Iron Wire ritual. So focused and intense that it seemed it shifted the entire energy field in the room. Suddenly, I could not do anything but to be still, emptying my mind and bringing it into a laser beam of concentration.

I am looking forward to their Lion Dance demonstration during Kulturnatta in Umeå. Saturday May 22 at 11:45 outside the library on Rådhusesplanaden.

If you are interested to visit or join the school you can contact Mattias Lindh at umea@lejondans.se or 070-222130.

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THE ELECTRIFYING LIFE OF GUITARS

In the USA, during the Golden Decade of electric guitars two brands, Fender and Gibson/Les Paul were breaking the ground for a new era of guitar making while legendary musicians like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton let the strings rip and riff in ways unheard of. At the same time, two little twin brothers in a town in the north of Sweden were building their own instruments out of cardboard and thin rope imitating the sound and moves of the giants. With the wide-eyed fascination and passion of a child the brothers Michael and Samuel Åhdén embarked on a life-long love-affair with American guitars from the 1950s and early 60s. 

Half a century later the two guitar aficionados exude the same pure child-like delight owning one of the world’s largest private guitar collection – some 500 prized guitars, basses and amplifiers. In a manner typical of many in the north of Sweden they express a humble tenderness in regard to their accomplishments. They are neither interested in putting a monetary value to their vast collection nor will they sell any of their guitars. In contrast to many collectors they actually use all of their instruments: “A guitar is meant to be played.” 

Still, when visiting the newly opened Guitars – the Museum one can’t help but reflect on the enormous historical, artistic, cultural and financial value that is on display. Behind rooms and rows of pleasantly and brightly lit glas monitors 100s upon 100s of electric guitars are revealed. Michael showed me the guitar opening the exhibit, a Fender Broadcaster, the first truly successful electrical guitar ever made. The year was 1950. This guitar was soon renamed Telecaster and the few guitars produced in the overlap were simply called Nocaster. The Broadcaster was only made in around 200 exemplars, perhaps 100 still exist. The price back then was $140, today the collectors pay a quarter of a million dollars. Talking about investment! Factors playing into the appreciation in value include rarity, exquisite craftsmanship, ingenious mechanical and technological solutions, as well as international icons creating history by strumming certain instruments. Take, for example, Jimi Hendrix inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis’ wild performance in 1958. Playing Great Balls on Fire Lewis put his white Steinway grand piano into flames. In measurable passion Hendrix set fire on his white Stratocaster guitar. The burnt remains later sold for nearly 1 million dollars. On and on the stories go about the hand-made guitars created in the USA between 1950 and 1966. So intriguing are Michael and Samuel’s collection that the BBC are currently producing a one-hour documentary about the two Umeå-twins and their stringed dedication. Fender and Gibson knighted the twins’ acquisition the most impressive internationally.  

Guitars – the Museum is located downtown Umeå, “the capital” of the Northland (Norrland). Strategically tucked in-between the Norrlandsoperan (the only professional opera house in the vast northern Sweden) and the renowned cultural center, Umeå Folkets Hus (holding international festivals of jazz, folk music, etc.). At this creative core an old school built in brick (Vasaskolan, 1917) has been turned into a hub of what has longed been claimed the cutting-edge music scene of Sweden (Scharinska), a music store (4sound), vintage record store (Garageland), restaurant, bar and of course the world-class guitar collection and museum. Approaching the building one is struck by its architectural style of national romanticism. Upon entering, the massive stone floors and stairs invite the gaze to windows reaching up to the high ceiling. The bar is modern against red brick walls bringing the mind to hip places on Manhattan. In the gastrobar the chef Peter Gustavsson serves American-inspired food on rustic plates of wood and cast iron. A new music stage and club has been built. It honors the hugely important Straight Edge and Hardcore movements with bands like Refused that burst forth in Umeå while also hosting a constellation of many other genres. Around the corner of the corridor one finds the music store with its organized chaos of speakers, amplifiers, drum sets, keyboards, music tools and, well, yes, guitars. In the middle of the store towers wooden stairs in a steep angle two stories up. The museum is located all the way on the top floor. A bit sweaty I finally ascend the last step. 

Charmingly and almost shyly I am greeted by the twins. Immediately I am struck by the welcoming feeling. Michael and Samuel are genuinely happy to share their passion for these strung beasts and beauties living in the so very recently created museum.  When Michael took me on a tour through the white washed rooms he pointed to the lofty ceiling framed by a higher and a lower molding. He explained that when together with his brother and their friend, the industrial designer Magnus Melkersson, they were watching the construction workers tear down the then much lower ceiling revealing its original classical design. These classrooms were also fashioned with a gird paneling along the walls below the windows. The designer chose to keep and to incorporate the older more stately style which is now off-set by the enormous amount of glas coupled with modern cast-iron candelabras (Buster + Punch) suspended from high above. Descending the stairs I notice the rockstar pics by Roger Degerman. Black and white, edgy, in your face demanding attention. The museum includes a guest exhibition hall renewing its shows every 3 months. Currently it’s hosting a raw exhibit about the Straight Edge movement and Hardcore music. In the summer it will be featuring two Finish artists who combine visual art and music in a unique way. 

The school transformed into a hip world-class scene continues to educate, not only through the electrifying life of guitars but also through the continued vibrant and living expression of music, drink, food and design. I highly recommend an extensive visit and complete experience enjoying the architecture and design, a drink at the bar, a delicious dinner, a night rocking it out in the avant-garde music club, and of course a long stay with the twins soaking in the art and history of electric guitars. 

Guitars – the Museum / Vasagatan 20 / 90229 Umeå / Sweden / +46 (0) 90 58090

info@guitarsthemuseum.com www.guitarsthemuseum.com

By Ottiliana Rolandsson / February / Umeå2014

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