What’s New for the 15th of January: A Nordic Music edition

Behind every traditional hardanger fiddle tune, there is always a story, always a fairy tale, and you actually tell the stories when you play the fiddle. — Annbjørg Lien

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There is a sharp edge in the air when you venture outside that reminds you that the dark winter months are upon us but fortunately there are always warm places in Kinrowan Hall  where one can be comfortable such as the kitchen!

With the sun shining through the windows into that hallowed space, enticing smells of baking on the air, and quite pleasant Nordic music, something I believe from Väsen’s deep catalogue, being played by a compact version of the Neverending Session including a hardanger player who have settled nicely into a cozy corner near the fireplace, so it was no wonder that the staffers kept dropping to see if they could cadge a treat and listen to the sweet music… …Me, I’ll have an mug of tea, some fresh-baked sourdough bread and a good sharp Riverrun cheese to snack on.

So this edition is all about Nordic music recordings we’ve reviewed that you should be thinking of listening to. Keep in mind that these are but a mere taste of all the Nordic recordings we’ve reviewed but it’s enough for now to keep you listening for quite some time!

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April starts us off with a look at Serras, the debut recording from the Danish band of that name: ‘Formed in the summer of 1998, Serras is comprised of members of other well-known Danish bands, including Sorten Muld, DUG, DKLokomotive and Puls. Combining straightforward fiddling with electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drums and saxophones, the band presents a unique take on traditional 18th century Danish songs. The tunes were culled from original sources dating back as early as 1760.’

She exalts that ‘The “bad boys of Swedish folk / rock” are back with their second American release — a resounding reminder of their unique blend of hard rock and folk roots. Perhaps a smidgen less frenetic than their previous Northside release, Groove, More Happy Moments with Hoven Droven is every single second vital and energetic music. From their blistering opening salvo, “Brekken,” the band gives no quarter and takes no prisoners.’

And she nowes that this band is ‘Two-thirds Hedningarna (percussionist Bjorn Tollin and lute player Halbus Totte Mattsson) and one-third Swap (guitarist and fiddler Ola Backstrom), Boot is 100% original. Their first collaborative effort, Boot, isn’t so much just a collection of tunes on a CD as an overall work meant to be viewed live, where they are joined by three dancers (two women, one man) who are as much a part of the experience as any note played by the threesome. Indeed, “virvla” means “whirl” in Swedish, and as two videos on this enhanced CD attest, the dancers, replete with luxuriant dresses and robes, do just that to the stunning array of tunes Boot provides.’

She finishes up with another choice recording: ‘As an integral part of the band Frifot (with Ale Moller and Per Gudmundson) and the Nordan project (with Ale Moller and others), as well as numerous other side projects, Lena Willemark has been a fixture on the Swedish folk scene since the late 1970s. Windogur, a set of ten original compositions commissioned by the city of Stockholm (in its role of Cultural Capital of Europe ’98), was first performed live as part of a series of concerts entitled “Ladies Next,” and only later translated to CD.’

Asher has a look at Aliens Alive, a Nordic recording that definitely stretches musical boundaries: ‘Annbjørg Lien finds, in folk music, everything from fairy tales to science fiction. Indeed, the title of her previous album, Baba Yaga, is drawn from a fairytale. Aliens Alive is a selection of live performances culled from Annbjørg Lien’s 2001 Norwegian tour. For those who don’t know, Lien is Norwegian, from Sunnmore; cites Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as a primary influence; and is fluent in the idioms of jazz, folk, new-age, and progressive rock. She’s been a hardanger fiddle player from six years of age, playing concerts abroad since her teens (Italy at 14), and released four albums in the eighties before finding international fame in the nineties. She also plays nyckelharpa and violin, and has an orchestral background with folk and classical training.’

Barb exclaims that ‘If there are superstars to be named on the Swedish music scene, I would like this opportunity to nominate Lena Willemark (vocal, fiddle, viola, whistle, drone whistle), Per Gudmundson (fiddle, viola, bagpipes, vocal), and Ale Möller (octave mandola, overtone flute, cow’s horn, drone whistle, folk harp, shawm, harmonica, vocal), otherwise known as Frifot. The group’s CD Sluring is most certainly a masterpiece.’

She has the answer to a question you probably didn’t know you had: ‘If you’ve ever asked the question “What IS Norwegian fiddling anyway?” this recording is your answer. Tron Steffen Westberg’s Bortover all vei… is just the fiddle, thank you. He is a masterful spellemann and if you listen straight through the recording without stopping you will certainly be under a spell!’

Big Earl says of Ånon that ‘Ånon Egeland is a master of the mighty hardanger fiddle (a violin with drone strings). As a collector of traditional songs from his area, Egeland is noted for keeping the traditions of the north alive. On this, his first solo album of his twenty-plus year career, he brings forth a beautiful collection of dances from Sweden and Norway, some learnt from the great masters of the idiom.’

Brendan has a choice Finish recording for us: ‘JPP — short for Järvelän Pikkupelimannit (“Little Folk Musicians of Järvelä”) — originally formed in 1983 as a local fiddle orchestra in the small town of Järvelä, Finland. Formed around the nucleus of 3 fiddlers, including leader Arto Järvelä, a harmonium player, and a bass player, they spent most of the Eighties and early Nineties gathering a devoted following in Finland and across the world and the reputation of being particularly inventive interpreters of Finland’s rich folk heritage. With the publication of Kaustinen Rhapsody , JPP proved itself to be excellent performers of contemporary music as well. In fact, this CD, with its generous peppering of American, Finnish, and Latino styles, demonstrates some of the universal appeal that traditional musics have across the world.’

Väsen’s Linnaeus Väsen gets a thumbs up from Cat: ‘The concept for this CD is centered around the renowned 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the founder of the system of scientific nomenclature used in modern biology. Described by biographers as having no ear at all for music even though he came from a family of musicians, Linnaeus was, though not a musician, a rather good dancer of polskas. It is worth stressing that the majority of the tunes performed here have at least a minor connection to him. Would he recognize these tunes? Most likely. Indeed ‘Carl Linnaeus Polonaise’ which leads off the album was composed for him by his brother-in-law, Gabriel Höök. Cool. eh?’

Chuck looks at an offering from a well-known Nordic musician and a recording by him: ‘Mats Eden is a founder and the only original member of the Swedish contemporary folk group, Groupa. With Lackerbiten (which, I believe, translates to “Little Bits”), Eden goes solo and traditional, performing thirty — yes, thirty — tunes originating in the Varmland region, straddling the border of Sweden and Norway.’

Donna drops by this edition to bring us her thoughts on a Frifot album. She says that ‘Flyt runs nearly an hour long, and features a total of 20 tracks, vary ing in length from just over a minute to just over five minutes. On the continuum between folk and jazz that this group occupies, I would put this closer to the folk end. It’s actually quite mellow — and please don’t take that to mean it’s boring, because it’s definitely not.’

She was also appreciative of En Klang af Tidloshed (A Sound of Timelessness), the second disc by ‘Danish neo-traditional band’ Svobsk. ‘I would characterize these tunes (and one song),’ Donna writes, ‘as bright and upbeat overall… Although I can definitely hear the Nordic folk influence, I found the melodies and arrangements to be more generally European in their effect.’

She rounds out her reviewing this edition with a recording she was very happy with: ‘Väsen is Olov Johansson on 3-row chromatic nyckelharpa and kontrabasharpa, Mikael Marin on viola, 5-string viola, and pomposa, and Roger Tallroth on 12-string guitar and bosoki. Having had the opportunity over the last few years to immerse myself in many of Väsen’s recordings, see them perform live, and interview them, these musicians (unbeknownst to them) have become old friends. Just recently they were guests on A Prairie Home Companion and my ears perked up, I got all excited and rushed to turn up the radio. Hey, Väsen is on with Garrison Kiellor! This is so cool! So I’m happy to be able to tell you about this album entitled Trio.’

Gary says Ambra is fantastic: ‘Maria Kalaniemi is perhaps the best known and certainly one of the most prolific of the new school of Finnish folk musicians who are pushing the boundaries of their music. The accordionist, a graduate of the prestigious Sibelius Academy, combines folk, classical and jazz from Europe and the New World into a concoction that is at once cosmopolitan and recognizably Nordic.’

Gary looks at Danish folk duo Haugaard & Høirup’s first release Duo for Violin & Guitar for way back in 2000, and he says it’s still one of his favorite CDs: ‘…Violinist Harald Haugaard and guitarist Morten Alfred Høirup teamed up to produce this immensely enjoyable record. The 13 tracks cover a variety of traditional and contemporary Danish folk styles: waltzes, reels, polkas and other dance forms and a ballad or two.’

Gary was similarly pleased with Haugaard & Høirup’s second collaboration, Lys. ‘These two Danish folk musicians are one of those natural combinations like Simon and Garfunkel in which the parts are good, but the sum is even better. This latest addition to the recordings of Haugaard on fiddle and Høirup on guitar (and occasional vocals) is quite simply a joy to listen to.’

The Finnish-American band Kaivama’s self-titled release also caught Gary’s fancy. ‘Like so much of the best Nordic music, Kaivama’s manages to be both bracingly cool and somehow homespun and warm.’

Gary also enjoyed the Nils Økland Band’s Kjolvatn. Økland, who plays hardangar fiddle, violin and viola, leads this ensemble in droning, jazz-inflected music informed by Norwegian folk music. ‘Fans of Nordic fiddling should seek out this recording, especially those who are on the adventurous side when it comes to some subtle jazz elements in the music,’ Gary says.

He finishes of off with a look at Short Stories, by Oslo-based chamber folk trio Slagr. ‘The music on this collection was inspired by a story On an old farmstead in Europe from Norwegian author Hans Herbjørnsrud. The eight pieces, lasting a total of 48 minutes, range from barely over a minute to three of them that clock in at around eight minutes each. It’s highly contemplative music, calming for the most part in spite of some passages of tension and dissonance.’

Ranarop (Call of the Sea Witch) is a recording that Iain really liked: ‘Gjallarhorn is a foursome from Ostrobothnia, the Swedish speaking area of Finland. They are tightly bound to both folk music traditions, and ancient mythology. Musically, the band is a mixture of fiddle, mandola, didgeridoo, and percussion, with vocals provided by Jenny Wilhelms. Ranarop is an amazing album, with a singular sound which makes the band appear to be larger than it is.’

Judith introduces us to a Finnish folk instrument in reviewing Mahla: ‘What can be done with a kantele? Hannu Saha is a master of the Finnish lap harp, or kantele. In Finland, the word for “string” is “kieli,” the same as the word for “tongue,” thus kanteles are commonly found with 5, 10, 15, or 36 tongues, each with its own unique but tunable voice. In the case of the 36-string instrument, the kantele is no longer a lap harp, but is supported on legs like a table. These are called concert or “big” (“iso” in Finnish) kanteles, and are a product of musicians deciding to play popular western music rather than kalevalic runes. You can even play “Moon River” on an Iso Kanetele while wearing a tuxedo.’

Kelly has a look at a recording by one of his favourite bands: ‘When last I heard of the Swedish folk band Ranarim, they had just performed at the 2001 Nordic Roots Festival in support of their debut album Till the Light of Day. Over the next five years, they expanded from a quartet to a sextet and recorded one album that didn’t get released outside Sweden, but had otherwise kept a low profile since 2003. As often happens with Nordic folk bands, the members of Ranarim had all sorts of other projects to work on. They have most definitely benefited from the time off, though, as their new album Morning Star is as fresh and vital as any Scandinavian album I’ve heard in quite some time.’

For a sampler, nothing beats the three CDs in the Nordic Roots series put out by Northside.  Kim says ‘There’s a pleasing dissonance in Nordic traditions, often a restraint that hints of something without ever going there, that’s found much more in Nordic music than is often the case with music from the Irish and Celtic traditions.’ We recommend you read her review for why this set is a must listen for anyone interested in this music!

Kim notes ‘This is the album that got the Hedningarna phenomenon going, a richly textured, darkly fascinating instrumental album by the “core” trio of Björn Tollin (frame drum, string drum, hurdy-gurdy, moraharpa), Anders Norudde (fiddle, hardanger fiddle, moraharpa, swedish bagpipe, bowed harp, jews harp, wooden and pvc bass flutes) and Hållbus Totte Mattsson (lute, baroque guitar, hurdy gurdy). On more recent albums, the group has expanded to include other players and some dynamite vocalists, most recently exploring the roots of Swedish folk traditions in Russia on Karelia Visa.’

She finishes her choices off by saying ‘Dear Reader, if you haven’t yet had the Gjallarhorn experience, you’ve missed out!’ Kim passionately declares in the last of her reviews featured this edition. Why does Gjallarhorn’s Grimborg garner such an endorsement?

Lars has what we at GMR consider to be the definitive look at the definitive collection of folk music in Sweden ever done. — ‘During the 1950s and 1960s there was a lot of field recording taking place in Sweden and the Swedish speaking parts of Finland. A generation of source singers and musicians were growing very old and the effort was directed at preserving as much of their music as possible. Many of the recordings are hidden away in the vaults of Svenskt Visarkiv (a society dedicated to preserving songs), the Swedish Radio and other establishments, where they can be accessed for singers and musicians. But quite a few have resurfaced on various LPs and in radio programmes. In the middle of the 1990s the Swedish National Radio together with Caprice, a record company owned by Rikskonserter, a government agency aimed at supporting live music, started a project with the aims to present a broad selection of these recordings, arranged thematically, on CD. Up to date 28 CDs have been released, sometimes in boxes with two or three CDs in each. The box with Yoiks is no longer available but the rest are reviewed briefly here.’ His very detailed review of the aptly named Folk Music in Sweden is well worth your time to read in full.

Gaate’s Jygri won the enthusiastic approval of Lars: ‘After listening to folk rock for more than 30 years it is easy to suspect you have heard it all — that every new record you get is merely a slight variation of some other record in your collection. And then along comes a quintet of Norwegians that completely sweeps you off your feet.’

Byss-Calle wins the approval of Naomi: The Nyckelharpa orchestra is comprised of six top musicians from the younger generation of nyckelharpa players. They are all working at preserving the nyckelharpa tradition, as well as developing it, both as an ensemble, and as solo artists. Their playing is exquisite, all six are adding in passion and talent to a ensemble which has much potential. And after listening I would have to agree that this is a tradition which should be preserved.’

Robert has another sampler, a group of five CDs from various Scandinavian labels, of which he says: ‘Nordic roots. That’s what this review is about. We tend to refer to “Nordic trad” a lot around here at GMR, but it strikes me, surveying these CDs, that “traditional” is going to get bent badly out of shape, perhaps more than even I can justify. In this selection of recent releases, we have everything from older traditions in Nordic music to a more “modern” take on traditional music to explorations of jazz and new age starting from traditional tunes.’

We mentioned the ‘Britanno-Nordic complex’.  Yes, we did. Robert has a review of a great example of that, a live recording from the String Sisters: ‘There seems to be something magical about the number “6” when you’re talking about fiddles. Maybe that many fiddlers reaches a kind of critical mass that sets off a chain reaction of some sort. At any rate, when the six fiddlers in question are six star-caliber women from across the Britanno-Nordic musical realm, what you wind up with is some really, really good music.’ You can hear them perform The Champagne Jig Goes To Columbia/ Pat & Al’s Jig. And you can watch the the whole concert here.

And for something out of the ordinary, Robert has a look at a traditional Icelandic form, ríma: ‘If linguists can postulate the existence, sometime in the distant past, of an “ur-language,” a Mother Tongue from which all other languages have descended, can there not as well be an “ur-music” from which all of our modern music derives?’

Scott has a choice bit of Nordic trad music for us: ‘Sven Nyhus is a veteran folk fiddler from the Rorøs region of Norway. His daughters Åshild (fiddle, viola) and Ingfrid (piano and zither) have both become accomplished folk and classical musicians in their own rights as well. While Sven has always made a point of playing his music with his daughters since they were very small, the trio have only recently started performing publicly as a group. Tre Nyhus, recorded for the Grappa label, is their debut CD. ‘

He then moves on to the 1989 -2003 recording from a group which helped define this sound — ‘Hedningarna began as a Swedish instrumental folk trio in the late 80’s. Anders Stake (now Anders Norudde) played a variety of mostly homemade fiddles, flutes, and bagpipes, Hållbus Totte Mattson played lute and hurdy-gurdy, and Björn Tollin played percussion. The group took the name Hedningarna, Swedish for ‘The Heathens,’ because a friend described their sound as having a very pagan feel to it. Their self-titled debut album came out in 1989, but shortly thereafter Hedningarna re-invented itself in two dramatic ways. First, the Swedish male musicians recruited two Finnish female singers, Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Tellu Paulasto (now Tellu Turkka). Then the band wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced electronics, creating a style which they describe as folk rave.’

This group says Scott is dramatically different than earlier lineups so it’s  not surprising that ‘iki  differs from previous Värttinä albums in some significant ways, most noticeably with the vocals. By opting to go with three singers instead of the usual four, Värttinä clearly give the group vocals and harmonies which previously defined the band’s sound a lower priority this time, focusing instead on dominant solo vocals with relatively light support on harmonies.’

Listen up as Scott introduces us to yet another group: ‘The genre of New Nordic Folk music went through a wildly creative period in the nineties, with recordings by groups like Värttinä, Hedningarna, and Väsen ranking among the essential albums in any genre for the decade. While the musical traditions of the Scandinavia remained rich and vibrant in the decade just past, there have been very few really great albums in the genre since Värttinä’s Ilmatar and Gjallarhorn’s Sjofn came out in 2000. Happily, the recently reunited group Boot have added their names to the short list of elite Nordic bands with the release of their new album Soot.’

Sophie has a look for us at a unique musical one-off: ‘Stemmenes Skygge, (“Shadow of Voices”), was initially conceived as a project for Norway’s most prolific jazz festival in Molde, a project which would join the Nordic countries in their Nordic medieval ballad tradition. Bråten Berg is the foremost figure of traditional music in Norway, having won many prizes and released many recordings to demonstrate. Her fifteen year friendship with Lena Willemark, Sweden’s ‘leading interpreter’ of traditional folk music and graduate of the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, has led to many collaborations and explorations of Nordic traditional music. Mazur, composer and regular member of the Jan Gabarek Group, adds her own distinct percussion style to the album.’

Stephen looks approvingly at Baba Yaga: ‘Annbjorg Lien is a Norwegian composer, arranger, instrumentalist, and singer, who occupies an artistic space where clumsy attempts at easy definition are irrelevant. With this CD she’s created a music in which traditional fiddle tunes are pop songs, string quartets are folk dances, electronic rhythms are an element of symphonic composition, and the sound of human breathing is both rhythm and melody.’

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Usually we have but a single piece of live music to end an edition on a musical note, but I thought I’d appropriately give you a smorgasbord of music this time.

I’ll start off with a real treat for you in the form of  ‘Mojas Katrin’,  which is from an FM broadcast of Mari Boine Persen performing in Schauburg, Bremen, Germany, May 23, 1992 — She’s yoiking  which originally referred to only one of several Sami singing styles, but in English the word is often used to refer to all types of traditional Sami singing. And she has a charming explanation in English of what the song’s about.

Hedningarna is up next with ‘Veli’ recorded at the Old Town School of Folk Music on the 24th of September, 2000. This is the more Faster Harder Louder end of the new Nordic sort of trad music with noticeable percussion. You also get to hear their lovely vocals as well!

Let’s finish off with Garmarna, a Swedish group founded in 1990 after several of them who were friends saw traditional Swedish music performed in a film. Emma Härdelin, their vocalist, would join them several years. ‘Vedergällningen is from a concert in Sweden they did around the turn of the millennium, possibly 2002.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.
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