Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Angel of Uummannaq

Uummannaq has its own clock, and it moves on its own schedule. Even if the hour hand may be now spinning to the West, the minute hand may be very well unwinding to the East. That’s why time goes by non-uniformly, like a dog sled across a half frozen bay. There are days when it flows slowly, almost lazily, or even gets frozen on the spot; and there are days when it flies as fast as the Great Northern Diver, when everything happens momentarily, in a blink of an eye. In these very days, for no apparent reason, small, or even invisible things grow into ones the size of an iceberg, which of course, from our “old world” logic, does not have any feasible explanation.

Joel Spiegelman started to teach the kids on Tuesday night, at about 9.30 pm, and everything went wrong. The tiny glimpses of music kept squabbling like Eskimo multicolored beads gone lose from their seal skin string. Only hours earlier did we find out that Ann Andreasen had already planned and advertised a big concert on Thursday night for which the larger Ummannaq community had been officially invited. The occasion for the grand concert was the celebration of Louise Zeeb, a social worker who had served in the orphanage for half a century. Grandiose fireworks were promised after the dinner party; while Joel and Uummannaq Music were promised nothing but a grandiose fiasco.

By this time we already discovered that some of the kids had only few weeks of training, while others had several months; but none of this training had a continuity since Jonna Faeroe – the school’s fabulous, passionate and dedicated music teacher who started with these young musicians from subzero three years ago - could come here only a couple times a year. Which direction should we take? It did not matter. There was no destination in sight. The children did not comprehend Joel as a conductor, or better said they just did not see him at all. They saw through him as much more interesting things were happening behind his back.

Louise’s birthday was approaching like a fast freight train. The windows were being washed, the home bread and pastries being cooked, the smells of whale intestines and of other special delicacies were filling the air around Children’s Home; even the flowers were on their way (how on Earth can you get flowers in Greenland?) In other words, everyone was ready for the music which according to Ann’s thorough design was the highlight of the entire celebration.

I knew nothing about Louise. I only met her only once, in the kitchen of the orphanage; she gave me a generous smile. Luisa did not graduate from college, but somehow she knew exactly what the orphanage kids needed and she gave that very ‘that” to them for the last fifty years. I sat in a recliner drinking my tea and listening to Ann who was telling me some wondrous stories from Luisa’s long life.

“By the way, did you know that Luisa once fed all the Greenlandic people, the entire nation, out of her backpack?” asked Ann. No, I did not. So, this is how it goes. It happened that one time when Luisa went to Copenhagen, to the famous Tivoli Park, where once a year all Greenlandic people have a great gathering. For a trip, she packed a few snacks: some mattaaq (raw whale skin), some pieces of dried narwhale meat, and a couple of other delicacies all of which fit in her little carry-on backpack.

“I remember very clearly,” said Ann, “that there was enough food for herself, maybe for a couple other people, but obviously not enough for all the orphanage children who travelled with her to Tivoli. There were 18 in our group”. But then in Tivoli, a miracle happened. Every single Greenlander, who wanted to get a piece of this favorite delicacy, got it from Luisa’s backpack. Each, goes the legend, got a piece of mattaaq and a piece of narwhale’s dry meat. And at the end there was even some left.

How could this happen? How could Luisa feed everyone out of a small backpack? I didn‘t know the answer yet, but I had a feeling that magic and miracles were a common place in Uummannaq.

Believe it or not, what happened to Luisa that one time in Tivoli happened to us the next morning, on Wednesday, the day after our excruciating fiasco during the first music lesson at the Children’s Home of Uummannaq. It was only the night before that the flutes were rattling, that the clarinets were squeaking and the guitars produced an ugly rasping out of tune noise; and just to make things worse, it turned out that Joel forgot his baton in Princeton and now had to conduct the orchestra with a stump of an repulsive yellow pencil.

But then, there was morning, and after breakfast Ann presented Joel with a new baton which she fished out of UCH Home's art collection. This baton was as good as the one Joel left behind in Princeton, except it was just so much better. It was made out of narwhale’s tusk and was incrusted with carvings of many dog sleds and the figures of hunters chasing the Nanuk, the polar bear, the Lord of the Arctic.

This baton felt heavy and real. Joel liked it a lot. And suddenly, everything, that fell apart the night before, somehow miraculously glued itself back together. In a blink of an eye. Now the music flowed smoothly, flutes, recorders, clarinets, guitars played together, and the children finally saw Joel and followed his baton.

How did it happen? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. Was it a new baton? Was it Ann who told us a story about Luisa and a miracle in Tivoli? Or was it something else?

At 5 pm guests started filling the little theatre where the concert was scheduled to be performed. They came from all over. Some arrived by helicopter and planes. And of course, there wasn’t space for everyone. People were cramming in the hallways and on the staircase. Space there was not, but the excitement was there! I was looking through my viewfinder at many different faces in the audience, and could see clearly: people were ready for something big to come, something what I was not envisioning myself. They were ready for a miracle.

When Joel emerged from the darkness of the music storage room now dressed in tails, his little orchestra greeted him upon his arrival, it was seen as an apparition.

Against the view of the Uummannaq heart-shaped mountain in the window and sapphire icebergs floating by, his black and white figure looked surreal. Everyone was stunned. A great silence followed for a moment. And then he raised his baton and the music began.

I don’t know how long it all lasted. There was a clock on the wall; its hands seemed not to have moved at all. I was jammed in the corner with my video camera. Suddenly, I realized that finally I did not have fear any more. Finally, I was not afraid that something would go wrong, that someone would forget the music, or everything would fall apart. And indeed, everything happened as it was meant to be.

They played a A gift to Be Simple, a Shaker folk song and a All Through The Night, a Welsh song:. I found Louise in my viewfinder; she was wiping her eyes with her brown wrinkled hand.

It was at the very end of the performance, when Joel announced that he had a surprise for everyone. He had a story to tell and Ole Jorgen Hammeken volunteered to make a simultaneous translation in Greenlandic. When packing his suitcases, Joel said, a strange being sat down on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear. “Who are you?’ Joel asked. It answered: “I am the Angel of Uummannaq.”

What did the Angel whisper in Joel’s ear, it was music, of course. It sang him a melody. Joel wrote it down. And now he was ready to play this new piece for us which of course he named The Angel of Uummannaq.

Whisper, murmur, rustle, noise, sound of speech, the cracking of ice, the howling of a wolf, the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear…

As the music played, it seemed to me that I could hear the Angel of Uummannaq gliding right over me, so close that I could hear the wind ruffling its feathers…. The Angel of Uummannaq was Nipi, and Nipi was The Angel of Uummannaq. The miracle happened. And everyone knew it.

Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why. I don’t know. And I don’t have to.

After the concert we sat at the dinner table holding hands together in the prayer, silently, like in a temple, with no words spoken. We were people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religious denominations, but right now we were just people making the pilgrimage from cradle to grave. At this moment each of us was protected by the Angel of Uummannaq. This Angel, small and invisible, had enough for each.


  1. Thank you for sharing your amazing adventure and experiences with us. I am moved as I follow along with you and Joel on this incredible journey in a part of the world I had not known until now. I am learning the people are great teachers to us on how to really live life and I look forward to the next blog. Again, thank you for having the faith this journey would happen and the courage to take it for all of us.

  2. You write so beautifully! You tell the story with magic words!