Singing ambassadors rock Stockholm’s diplomatic scene

Move over ABBA, Stockholm's best-kept musical secret and local hit is the diplomatic corps, a group of emissaries from around the globe who meet regularly to sing Swedish folk songs.

Their name? What else, the Singing Ambassadors. And their mission, aside from merry-making – to understand the Swedish soul.

“Learning songs is to appreciate the culture of that country,” Japan’s ambassador to Sweden and the group’s driving force, Seiichiro Otsuka, told AFP.

“You learn the language and also the mentality of the people expressed in the lyrics.”

The 25 or so diplomats meet once a month to sing, drink and have a good time, with the envoys from Guatemala, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zambia among those taking part.

They’ve even been asked to give a few “command” performances, albeit locally.

Their repertoire includes songs by beloved Swedish troubadors Carl Michael Bellman, Evert Taube and Cornelis Vreeswijk as well as traditional drinking songs such as “Helan Går.”

They also sing other tunes from around the world, like “Guantanamera,” “La Bamba” and “This Land is Your Land,” but the ones by Swedish poet Dan Andersson are Otsuka’s favourites.

“Learning his songs you can really appreciate the Swedish culture. I would say it might be the essence of Swedish culture. I personally feel that Dan Andersson has come the closest to expressing the soul of Swedes, through his melancholy and lyricism,” he tells AFP.

Describing the Swedish soul as “melancholy tinged with romanticism,” he quickly thumbs his pocket calendar to find the words to one of his favourite Andersson songs, Gässen Flytta, printed on a small sheet of paper, translated into English and pasted to a page.

He pulls out his guitar and sings for AFP’s reporter.

The Singing Ambassadors started in 2004 shortly after Otsuka, now 65, took up his position in Stockholm.

“Soon after I arrived in Stockholm I was invited to a dinner at the Belgian ambassador’s residence to welcome me and my wife… After dinner there were drinks but I thought we needed to have some sort of relaxing entertainment,” he recalled.

“So I brought out my guitar from my chauffeur’s car trunk – I often carry it around just in case,” he said, adding that the other guests were “at first surprised.”

But he sang a few songs, “and then all of a sudden the ambassador of Venezuela, Horacio Arteaga, said ‘I play the guitar and sing too.’ So I said okay, it’s your turn. I think he sang the Beatles.

Then the two of us talked about the idea of getting together to form a band.”

That was three years ago, and since then the group has grown to more than 25 members, spreading by word of mouth.

The Singing Ambassadors now have six guitar players, accompanied by maracas and castanets.

“This is a good social gathering and we just have great fun being together, singing songs, exchanging jokes and generally having a good time,” Otsuka said.

And often taking a tipple of Swedish aquavit.

“I have made a lot of good friends through the Singing Ambassadors. Probably my best friends here in Stockholm,” he said.

The ambassadors are occasionally asked to perform, and in June 2005 they were invited to sing at the Swedish foreign minister’s annual reception for the diplomatic corps and senior government officials.

Spectators are often “rather surprised” by the group.

“But they’re happy to know that ‘hey, after all, those ambassadors are good humans just like us. Under diplomatic circumstances they may be dictated by strict protocol but behind the facade they’re a nice bunch of guys who love to sing songs and crack jokes’,” Otsuka said.

With Björn Ulvaeus , the singer of legendary Swedish disco group ABBA, as his neighbour in Stockholm’s posh neighbourhood of Djursholm, Japan’s top envoy to Sweden is well-placed to be a singing ambassador.

The group has even invited Björn to a dinner, where they sang ABBA’s hit “Chiquitita.” “But Björn didn’t join in. I think he hummed along.”

Otsuka will soon be leaving Sweden to return to Japan and retire from the foreign service. But Stockholm’s Singing Ambassadors will carry on.

“And some of our members have moved to Cairo and started a new group there,” he said, smiling at the thought of his idea now spreading around the world.