Swåp: Swåp, [SIC], Du Da

Somehow, we’ve never reviewed any recordings by the Anglo-Swedish folk-roots group Swåp here at GMR. The four musicians who compose Swåp (Ola Bäckström, fiddle; Ian Carr, guitar and vocals; Carina Normansson, fiddle and vocals; and Karen Tweed, accordion and vocals) met in 1995 and, being musicians, jammed together for a bit. And then jammed some more — they had the distinct feeling they were on to something.

What they were on to is a seamless blend of Nordic and British traditions, with a few extras thrown in. This is one of those areas in which it can become very difficult to discern which is which: I’ve mentioned before the reach of the Celtic influence on European music, and as far as the North is concerned, remember that until the Conquest, Britain was part of the Northern world, with a history of cultural and political interchange going back centuries. (The irony here, of course, is that William the Conqueror sprang from a Viking dynasty.) This is something that should be too obvious to mention — where does anyone think the Anglo-Saxons came from, anyway? — but we tend to compartmentalize things a little too tightly, and so we talk about things like “the Celtic tradition” as though it were completely unsullied by any outside influence. Meh — not buying it.

And now that I’ve had my rant, the second irony of the day is that Swåp has managed a blend of traditions that makes the whole question pretty much irrelevant. Or I could take another tack and claim that they just prove my point.

The first, eponymous collection here is almost purely instrumental, and if you listen carefully you’ll realize just how amazing it is. They move from jig to polka to ballad with never a hitch, and it all becomes simply music of a high order: they have that edge that I like to find in music, that kind of momentum that carries the tunes along and us along with them, and it’s not until later that we realize what they’ve been doing and just go “wow!” Nor do they necessarily limit themselves to “Celtic” or “Nordic” sources, even if it all comes out in some combination of those idioms. Something like “Khazi” is a dance to end all dances, headlong, intense — one wants to make comparisons to Ravel’s La Valse because the energy in this tune imparts a nightmarish quality, like a dream of being trapped on a rollercoaster. (I’ve often thought that Ravel’s piece is the perfect musical portrait of the end of the ancien regime. This one comes close to that.) And yet it still fits very firmly into that “Northern” cast.

And on [SIC], they continue to ignore whatever mold we might want to fit them into by calling them “Anglo-Nordic.” That one opens with “Ice Worms/Bosse Nordins schottis,” a free-wheeling piece that doesn’t claim any particular tradition, and yet gives a nod to many. “Ice Worms” seems to set a standard for the collection: although the tunes on the whole can readily be ascribed to one idiom or another, there are bits that seemingly come out of nowhere, with no antecedents and no ancestry that we can find, just to keep us on our toes. The 26-second “Intro,” for example, which leads into “Robert,” is totally off the wall — a fine example of “electro-weird” — while “Robert” itself, a lively number somewhere between Ireland and Scandinavia in concept, incorporates vocals that speak more of jazz than anything else.

I should mention as well that there is a thread of humor that runs through this music, from something as blatant as the coupling of the traditional tune “Fattig Änka” (“Poor Widow”) with Tweed’s “Fattig Anka” (“Poor Duck”) on Du Da, to what I can only describe as general high spirits (which, when you get a bunch of fiddlers together, no matter what their origins, seems an integral part of the mix).

So, in Swåp we have a group of musicians with amazing energy, an unquenchable freshness of approach, and the kind of grounding in tradition that allows them to bend the boundaries as much as they want and get away with it. OK — I can deal with that. I can deal with that very easily.

(North Side, 1998)
(Amigo Musik, 1999)
(North Side , 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.