Striking a chord: Meet the DJ spinning up heritage
By day he’s an insurance investigator and process server. By night he’s a DJ in NYC. And he’s no amateur; Sean LaFleur has been DJing for about 15 years at a variety of venues ranging from dance clubs and fashion shows to historical societies and museums—and even the famous Rainbow Room in Manhattan and the United Nations!
Originally from Milwaukee, Wis., the DJ first moved to New York in 2003. When LaFleur and his wife—both part Norwegian—were looking to move from North Brooklyn in 2013, it was a happy coincidence that they ended up in one of America’s centers of Norwegian culture: Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood.
Culture plays an important part in LaFleur’s work as a DJ; he spins something called “heritage music.” But what exactly is that? He explains in the interview that follows.
Victoria Hofmo: You have a passion for DJing, but you do it with a twist using “heritage music.” Can you explain the term?
Sean LaFleur: To me, heritage music is what I call cultural music or ethnic music that specifically your ancestors listened to. I realize that “heritage music” could be taken to mean music that is known as native or important to a culture, but I think that is exactly what the phrases “cultural music” or “ethnic music” describe. I think the term “heritage music” is a more local form of cultural or ethnic music particular to your family’s history.
For me, the need for a more specific phrase for this type of cultural music came out of DJing so many weddings where cultural music was an important part. Couples that hired me would often specify exactly the kind of songs that their relatives coming to the wedding (or ancestors) listened to and were important to them. That’s where I saw that there was a difference, as it included a mix of styles of that culture, which meant more to them.
VH: You have explored many types of heritage music; what made you begin to explore Scandinavian heritage music?
SL: My interest in exploring Scandinavian heritage music also came from being a DJ and being part Norwegian myself. I started DJing and MCing in NYC in 2003. When you do this job, multicultural weddings and events are frequently a huge part of it. And I quickly came to love that; not only how happy it made the guests at the events to hear their music but also how it made me learn about music that I never knew much about but discovered I really liked.
Over the years, I came to do events involving so many cultures’ music. Some I didn’t know much about initially, like Korean or West Indian or Arabic. Others I knew more about, like French or German. Eventually I realized I’d done a few weddings or events for every part of my heritage (which is French, Norwegian, German, and English, with a little Irish and Polish) except for the Norwegian part! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever DJed or MCed any Norwegian or Scandinavian weddings or events. It seemed strange to be in NYC and not have encountered it after almost 15 years.
The heritage music that you tend to play for the weddings is often pop or folk music of that culture from 1920 to today. So I started to research what kind of pop or folk music Norwegians and Scandinavians were listening to from around 1920 to, say, 1980. I knew some Scandinavian music a bit already, and many of those artists, especially in the last 20 years, recorded in English.
What I found so completely amazing was it was both very exotic and very accessible pop music, as it was often done in the styles you’d be familiar with, like rock or swing or country. But it was also exotic because it was sung in foreign languages and often had delightfully different takes on the same genres of pop music. Some Scandinavian country music sounded more polka-ish, and their rock in the ’50s often sounded more like swing jazz. Plus, as I looked around online, I didn’t find anything in the U.S written about its history. I sometimes feel everything vintage that’s quirky or cool has been discovered. Well this wasn’t, and I felt like I’d found this whole great world of songs not many people know of here.
VH: You recently did a program for the residents of the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center for St. Patrick’s Day. What did you do exactly?
SL: I had always thought about using my knowledge of music at nursing homes but had been too shy to try it. Being excited to show the Scandinavian vintage pop music to crowds was what pushed me to finally ask someone about doing it. Knowing that Bay Ridge was a huge center of Norwegian culture, I approached the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center about possibly playing some Scandinavian music there, in addition to music from ethnicities of other residents. And the activities director there really liked the idea and decided to try me out for the first big event coming up next, which was St. Patrick’s Day.
It went really well. But I had to really think about how to do it right for the residents. I had to ask myself what I could do to make the event interesting to them. So what I came up with was the idea of bringing the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day into their auditorium for them through all different kinds of Irish music. And for the residents who were Italian and Scandinavian, I played a couple of songs from their cultures as well. I was glad that the activities director said that the residents liked me, and I could tell from the singing and the participation that they did. It felt great to make their day fun. I look forward to doing more events for residents at assisted living centers and nursing homes.
VH: You are now planning a program with the Scandinavian East Coast Museum to kick off the 17th of May celebrations. How does it feel to be sharing Scandinavian music for this important Norwegian tradition in the neighborhood that was the heart of the Norwegian community on the East Coast?
SL: As I discover more and more vintage Scandinavian pop music, the thing I get excited about most is being able to play it for people—to share it and get it out there. I’ve had people who aren’t at all Scandinavian tell me that they find the music enjoyable. So to play it for people who are and who might recognize it or have a connection to it through their ancestry will be a thrill. As a bonus, I’ll not only get a chance to present the music for a Norwegian holiday that’s part of my heritage but also be able to do it so close to the neighborhood I live in and for the Scandinavians who fly here for the Brooklyn celebrations.
VH: What are your future plans and hopes for your Scandinavian heritage music?
SL: First, I’d love to begin regularly playing vintage Scandinavian pop music for crowds such as Scandinavian cultural organizations, restaurants, or other businesses on the East Coast who’d appreciate it around the NYC area and perhaps as far as Boston or D.C. As I mentioned before, I’m also looking to DJ Scandinavian weddings where I can play some of this music.
Second, I’d love to actually take the music on a little tour of the Scandinavian countries and play it there. I’m thinking about writing grant proposals to Scandinavian cultural organizations and proposing adding visual displays that I play along with the music: the often artful design of the record sleeves or early color video footage of mid-century Scandinavian cities.
So much of the music is whimsical and charming but it also has a great beat or groove that makes it danceable. Vintage swing jazz parties and vintage soul music parties seem to work very well here; I think a dance party of vintage Scandinavian pop music would work great in Scandinavian cities.
Third, I’d love to DJ the music with the actual vinyl records from the time; I have a few of them in my collection, but they’re hard to find in the U.S.
Lastly, my wish is to actually DJ one of my songs with one of my favorite singers doing live vocals, either over in Scandinavia or here. I just found out that one of my favorite Scandinavian female singers—her name is Britt Damberg, from Sweden—is still around and 80 years old!
VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
SL: One thing: If there is a single song I’ve found that captures all the great qualities of the vintage Scandinavian pop I’ve come to love, it’s a tune from the late ’50s by Norway’s Nora Brockstedt called “Røkk og rull på ring.” It’s on YouTube. I think you’ll be—like I was the first time I heard it—instantly delighted.
To find out more about LaFleur’s experience as a DJ, go to his website and blog at www.djnewyorkcity.com. If you want to reach him directly or have any leads on finding vinyl records of Scandinavian music, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (718) 809-5701. To learn more about his Scandinavian heritage music, visit www.djnewyorkcity.com/swingin-rockin-groovin-scandinavian-vintage-pop-great-to-dj-at-nyc-events/.
A shortened version of this article originally appeared in the May 5, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.