Join me on a musical odyssey through Norway, France and South Africa

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It was just before lunchtime that the wolf decided to French kiss me. In a polar park, just north of Narvik, deep in the Norwegian Arctic Circle, I was kneeling, my lower body slowly sinking into the depths of compacted snow that covered the vast enclosure; home to a pack of what turned out to be extremely sensual wolves.

The only park in the world where visitors are allowed to come face to face with these furtive, sonorous, oft-feared beasts, my guide had a unique way of encouraging members of the pack to come forth from the forest and greet us: he sang.

A strange, halting, melancholy yowl, his notes seemed to pierce the low-hanging canopy of mackerel-coloured cloud, before tail spinning into the birch trees. 

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The lilting Sami melody spread across the silent snowy landscape

An ancient song of the Sami people, the original inhabitants of this unforgiving region, the tune, as he explained to us, was not only recognised by the wolves he cares for in the park but is also, in translation, an age-old calling of welcome to creatures that, in many circumstances, would consider humans to be a snack rather than a soulmate.

When the wolves padded over to us, as me and my five fellow visitors to the pack’s territory remained utterly mute, one wolf decided to greet me by sticking her ten-inch tongue into my mouth and holding it there for at least 30 seconds. 

The warm and not entirely unpleasant sensation mixed with the lilting Sami melodies and the silence of the snow-smothered landscape, gave me a variety of sensations. One was, of course, concern with what the wolf might want next. The second was how the power of music has the ability to turn a potentially dangerous or, frankly, preposterous situation into one imbued with rhapsodic élan.

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Cape Town was no place for my Britpop cassettes

For me, music became elemental to my travels when I ran away from a factory job in Middlesbrough at the age of 21 to go and live in Cape Town, South Africa. Talking my way into a job at a local radio station, I had literally thrown away all the cassettes (yes, this was 1999) I’d brought with me from the UK within days of my stint as an occasional Sunday night presenter.

Cape Town was no place for my – even by that time – already vintage, Britpop albums of Pulp, Blur and Supergrass. Growing up on a meat-and-potatoes diet of indie pop, I had no idea I was even ready to embrace kwaito: the booming, bombastic, sound of young, black, post-Apartheid South Africa, spearheaded by Arthur Mafokate and M’du Masilela.

Then there was the mad-uncle-in-the-attic African jazz strains of kwela, an often semi-deranged melange of penny whistles, saxophones, banjos and drums that I would hear, not only through the records that were sent to the station, but also in the shebeens (unofficial drinking dens) in the townships that my new friends would take me to in Langa and Khayelitsha.

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Listening to local music turns the mundane into the monumental

Quickly, I realised how essential it was to embrace the music of where you’re at rather than where you’re from. Not only does this curiosity, naturally, lead you to meet new people and be motivated to visit new places, venues, concert halls and bars but it comes into its own when you’ve stopped travelling, too.

I don’t have a problem with someone who, on a long bus journey through Egypt, wants to have Ed Sheeran or Avicii on their headphones as a soundtrack. But listening to music played by people who live where you’re travelling through is a painless way to turn the mundane into the monumental. 

Try it sometime. Even if you’re on the most boring (and dangerous) road journey on earth, such as the N1 route from Cape Town to Johannesburg. If you have kwaito rather than Kasabian on your Spotify playlist, then even the most humble of gas stations, hard shoulders and turnpikes feel somehow less hazy. 

Music, played in its country of origin, has an ability to bring a strange, glassy clarity to the everyday sights, as well as the signposted attractions.

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On my show, Elvis Costello shared his tracks for New Orleans

Fast-forward two decades and I now present a travel and a music show on BBC Radio 6Music called The Happiness Map where I ask musicians to give me a musical travel guide of their favourite places on earth.

So far, I’ve had Elvis Costello play me his favourite tracks and tell me his own stories from decades of playing and staying in New Orleans. I’ve also had the brothers from Disclosure selecting their playlist and telling me about their own experiences of Bali.

It’s not just musicians who can eulogise about how much certain tracks inform travel, though. My chats with these stars have made me reflect on how travel can also take you to places that don’t even exist.

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Listening to my French playlist, the visual landscape seemed to change

I was a voracious reader as a teenager and, with pretentions typical of that age, I immersed myself in the lost world of Gitanes smoke, anise-flavoured pastis, black polo necks and sentences that began with lines like ‘if essence precedes existence’.

Yep, I was a teen existentialist and my heroes were Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir. Yet, by the time I got to France for the first time, that Left Bank scene of fevered intellectual debate had long gone. I went to the famed Café Flore – the favoured haunt of this trio of philosophers – and the first thing I saw was a man on an outdoor table reading The Da Vinci Code.

Sigh. But luckily, solace was at hand. I’d now done my musical research in advance. I swiftly put on my headphones and pressed play on my own retro France playlist of Juliette Gréco, Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy. Immediately, the visual landscape seemed to change.

Imbued with these smoky, sultry, sardonic voices, I was in the France that I missed out on. The department stores turned into rustic boulangeries. The passing time-pressed locals transformed into louche denizens of bookshops and locals of gin-soaked bars. And the Starbucks could (if I squinted a lot) have been the entrance to the long lost Les Halles market hall, beloved by Samuel Beckett and demolished in 1971. 

This is the power of listening to the right music when you travel. It gives you an increased joy of the present but can also take you on a deep, strange and utterly melodious holiday into the past. 

Rob Crossan presents The Happiness Map on BBC Radio 6Music. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.

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