Last week Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman had four employees studying homemade flash cards labeled with various denominations of Norwegian currency. They’ll need to be able to count kroner: when they arrive in Oslo with a crew of local musicians later this week, they’ll be staffing a club called Bla for a night in a most unusual form of cultural exchange. “It’s all about trying to bring a little piece of the Empty Bottle to Oslo,” Finkelman says. The musicians headed over–art-rock trio Pit Er Pat, hip-hop MC Diverse, and Lichens, the solo project of Rob Lowe from the 90 Day Men–are also club mainstays. And on September 17, five employees of Bla–plus Norwegian rock band JR Ewing and DJ Joakim Haugland–will come to the Bottle to return the favor.

Pete Toalson, who programs the Empty Bottle, has been building ties with various movers and shakers on the Oslo music scene for the last four years or so. In March 2002, while presenting the first Chicago shows by Norwegian electronica artists Kim Hiorthoy and Martin Horntveth, he struck up a friendship with Haugland, the owner of the Smalltown Supersound label, who was also on the program that night. Inspired by Pipeline 2000, a musician exchange between Chicago and Stockholm organized by John Corbett and Ken Vandermark a few years earlier, Toalson proposed doing something similar with musicians in Chicago and Oslo.

He talked further with Hoagland and met Bla booker Erica Berthelsen on his first trip to Norway later that year, but in the end it was Berthelsen and Bla who figured out a way to set up the exchange–and not just with the Empty Bottle, but with clubs in Moscow, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Goteborg, Sweden. “The reason we could do it this year and on this scale is because we’re celebrating the 100-year anniversary of our liberation from Sweden, which is a huge yearlong celebration in Norway,” says Berthelsen. Three public grants–from the Norwegian departments of cultural affairs and foreign affairs as well as a fund specifically dedicated to the centennial celebration–financed the project, the Chicago portion of which will cost more than $20,000 even with discounted airfares and hotel accommodations.

Packing the club off to remote locations isn’t new for Bla, which opened in 1998. Last year the owners took 45 musicians, 23 staff members, and two 18-wheelers’ worth of equipment more than 600 miles to the coastal Norwegian town of Molde for its annual jazz festival.

During the Chicago exchange Empty Bottle bartenders Jill Coyne and Mike Tsoulos will be behind the bar and Bob Johnson will be collecting money at the door; Toalson and Finkelman are also going over. To add some more Chicago flavor to the visit Finkelman plans to bring along bottles of Wild Turkey and tamales from the Mexican vendor who routinely hawks them at the club from a plastic cooler. In turn, the Bla staff is bringing aquavit, a potato-based spirit flavored with caraway seeds, and Jarlsberg cheese to share with Bottle patrons.

Bla’s done the exchanges with the clubs in Berlin and Moscow, and Berthelsen deems them great successes. “Nobody had ever heard the band the [Russians] brought,” she says. “The music was kind of balalaika-ish, and the DJ was really commercial, but the club was packed with Russian immigrants, and everyone was drinking a lot of vodka. Everyone was totally pissed. It was great.” She laments that since so many Norwegians speak English the Chicago exchange is unlikely to cause much cultural confusion. “There was some real charm in going into a bar and having the bartenders only speak Russian or really bad English. There were some wrong drink orders, but nothing bad.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez, Marte Helgesen.