Hedningarna’s Karelia Visa

41eeyDsHYHLIt’s an odd thing — one of the words which keeps coming to mind when I listen to this CD is “evocative.” But that raises the question, what exactly does it evoke? And I can’t really give you an answer, as I am not of Nordic origin and have never visited the area. So, it is indeed an interesting phenomenon to listen to a CD of a Swedish band travelling to the now-Russian province of Karelia, collecting the songs from that region to include on this recording, and to find it both exotic and evocative at the same time. Ah, the mysteries of music…

A previous Hedningarna CD that I had the pleasure of hearing (Kaksi!) had far more of a folk-rock feel, which I believe is more typical of the band’s style. On this album, however, they have chosen to interpret the pieces in a more traditional, acoustic style. This may be due to the respect they afford the material, which is localised to the Karelia region, on the border between Finland and Russia.

In fact, the members of Hedningarna stayed at the homes of the local people, from whom they learnt the tunes, and they have stayed reasonably true to the melodies they were given. Their arrangement skills certainly weren’t disregarded in the process, though. The result is a recording that will easily appeal to lovers of that overly-general term “world music”.

The opening track “Veli / Brother” sets the tone with its moody, mysterious feel. Yet, it also has a hopeful air about it which is apparent even without reading the lyrics (in both Swedish and English) concerning a lost brother.

The rhythms and format of these songs generally go in different directions than a Western ear may expect, which of course is part of its attraction to many people. The lyrics are also not restricted to the rhyming couplets so prevalent nowadays, with themes ranging from the joy of singing to an ode to Ukkonen (Thunder God). Even though many of the subjects are universal, the structure of the lyrics is unique enough to stand out. I particularly like the concept espoused in “Alkusanat / The Beginning Words” — “When a wise one is the singer / she knows when to end her song, too / A good song ends at the right time / A short song is a song with beauty”. Here is a band that practices what it preaches!

The combination of expected instruments such as fiddles, flute and accordion along with hurdy-gurdy, lute, Swedish bagpipe etc (even a ubiquitous didgeridoo) and the entirely suitable vocals of Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Anita Lehtola, make this a thoroughly impressive CD. What’s the best way to describe it? Hmmm… what about “evocative”?

(Northside, 1999)

About Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she’s been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it’s Her Path. She’s deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species.

Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities — like Shooglenifty or Kila — or that energizes traditional tunes with today’s political or personal issues — like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can’t tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists — always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.