Andrew Cronshaw talks with Finlands-Svenskar band
It's extraordinary, though commercially explicable, that it's taken so long, but at last roots music from the Nordic countries is beginning to enter the consciousness of a wider-world audience. There's a lot to come, and with it fresh ideas that are likely to be widely influential..
Until now only a few Nordic roots musicians and bands have toured much abroad, and the large number of excellently recorded and packaged CDs haven't been widely available,
The marketing situation is changing, though, particularly in North America. The success of the new US all-Nordic label NorthSide's catalogue of licensed releases by the likes of Hedningarna, Hoven Droven, Den Fule, Swåp, Loituma, Troka, Tapani Varis, Wimme, Chateau Neuf Spelemannslag and Hege Rimestad is proving that there is indeed a wider audience out there.
NorthSide's current best-selling band is the nyckelharpa-led Swedish instrumental quartet Väsen, and much of its success has been the result of a series of tours in which celtic music venues feature strongly. Nordic and celtic musics are by no means the same, but there are points of similarity which an audience used to celtic music (and swelled by some of North America's large Nordic-descended population) can recognise, and so be led into new paths, particularly by a band with Väsen's energy, strong melodic and rhythmic aspect and witty onstage manner. Being acoustic, the band is easy to transport, with few technical requirements. (It's to be hoped that the fact that Väsen and many other Nordic bands play compulsive dance music will get audiences - more accustomed to sitting down and watching celtic bands play dance music, and even paying to watch others dance to it - on to their feet).
It seems likely that Finnish-Swedish band Gjallarhorn will be next on the world stage, for similar reasons but with a different approach in which song is central. Already its very impressive debut album Ranarop - Call of the Sea Witch (Warner Finlandia Innovator, distributed by Warner Classics) is selling well in Britain, on import with no promotion and even before reviews appeared, simply as a result of being played in specialist shops and catching customers' ears with its strong melodies, the assured energy in its gutty combination of fiddle, viola, didgeridoo and drums with the clear, grace-noting and microtonal poised beauty of Jenny Wilhelms' singing.
It's an essentially acoustic band, but the combination gels into the sort of primal, gutty, windswept powerful sound one normally associates with amplification, while having a lot of clear space for the ballads to speak.
The four members of Gjallarhorn are Finnish by nationality. But to the confusion of a French listener who said to them after a recent concert "I think I understand Finnish!", they sing in their native language, Swedish, and their music is Swedish in character. The members of Gjallarhorn are Finlands-Svenskar; that is, they're Swedes of Finland. Unlike the reversed word sequence of, say, "Finnish-Americans", that's written in English "Finnish-Swedish".
Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom until 1809, and still has Swedish as one of its two official languages. Areas of west-coast Finland, and the Ahvenanmaa/Åland and Turku/Åbo archipelagos which stretch across the Gulf of Bothnia from the south-west Finnish port of Turku/Åbo nearly to the Swedish coast, remain primarily Swedish-speaking, and in these areas there continues a strong element of Swedish culture and contact. In the archipelagos in particular some aspects of Swedish tradition survived longer than on the mainland, and from there came the most important source singer of Swedish ballads collected in the 20th century, Svea Jansson (1904-1980), who recorded between 600 and 700 songs for Swedish Radio's Matts Arnberg in the 1950s and 60s, and she and others have been a source both for Gjallarhorn and for Swedish tradition-rooted singers and bands.
Gjallarhorn (pronounced 'Yallarhorn') in Nordic mythology was the name of horn with which the gatekeeper god Heimdal sent messages from the gods of Asgård to the humans of Midgård; the old Norse word 'gjala' means 'to shout' or 'to sing out'.
The band's homebase is the port named in Finnish Vaasa, in Swedish Vasa, and its material comes largely from the Finnish-Swedish regions. The lineup consists of singer and fiddler Jenny Wilhelms, Christopher Öhman on viola, fiddle, mandola and backing vocals, percussionist David Lillkvist, and Tommi Mansikka-Aho on didgeridoo, an instrument whose growling, living drone fits this ringing Swedish music perfectly. As Jenny puts it, "First it's a fantastic instrument. Secondly, it gives us the drone tone existing in Scandinavia. That's what we tell people who want to know 'why?' The same thing goes for percussion - there were drums in Scandinavia".
One of the key aspects of most Nordic music is that it isn't built on chord sequences, but on rhythm and melody. "We don't have guitars or anything. We do some sort of chords with the fiddle and viola combined, but not much. Now we've got this slideridoo, too; if you play an hour or more for an audience in the same key it's very nice to change; even just one step makes a big difference." (I've never had any sensation of one-key limitation in the band's varied set; the didg doesn't play throughout, and when it does it moves around a lot, with chugging pulses, barks, and harmonic sweeps).
In autumn 1994 fiddling jam sessions between Jenny and Christopher ('Toffe') augmented by Jakob Frankenhaeuser on didgeridoo crystallised into a band. Jakob played not only didg but djembe and other percussion, often simultaneously. By the time the band played at 1995's Kaustinen Festival drummer David had joined. "I played just 2 days of the first time they played Kaustinen. I think Jakob was relieved, he could concentrate more on the didgeridoo".
It was Jakob who played on Ranarop, but he became less and less available for gigs. Amazingly, another excellent Australian-learned Finnish-Swedish didg player was found: Tommi.
"I met David earlier doing some dance projects in Turku Conservatory. He asked me if I would be interested, when needed, to jump in for this other guy who can't be there all the time, playing didg in this band. And my reaction was 'weeell... perhaps... we'll see.' And then he gave me a demo tape, and I put it on and the first few seconds is this normal stuff, a lot of drums and so on - and then it starts! And when I started hearing how they've used the didgeridoo, with very clear rhythm, and very much fitting in with the music, then I thought, 'wow - what's this guy doing with the didgeridoo? This is interesting!' And that's when I thought 'yes, I really would like to play'. Because it's not many bands that have the courage to give the didgeridoo such a big part, but it is an instrument that really can fulfil that part. I'm so thrilled that I can play in a band that has given the didgeridoo some space".
Tommi lived for six years in Australia, and it was there that music found him, via jazz musician friends working with the Queensland Symphony and other combos. "Back then I was playing anything I could get my hands on. I even played double bass at some stage. On gigs they put me on stage and gave me an instrument, and on the double bass they said 'you play from here to here, that's your area'. So I stuck with that area, and it was great - I went 'hey, this is easy, man!' Of course they were such good musicians that they could build their music around that, they could fit me in. I started getting into a lot of the performing arts. One of my friends said 'don't worry so much at this stage about learning all the notes and the theory but just feel your thing, go for it.' And that's what I've been doing this far, and I'm actually developing that more - nothing wrong with notes, and it's something that is very useful, but sort of getting into the essence of playing and really feeling my way through. So in a way folk music, even though not consciously, was a very natural path for me, because as an intuitive, improvising musician, who mainly plays on hearing and on sounds and feels, folk music of course hit a chord right away".
The others have taken slightly more formal music-educational paths. David, like Tommi, only really encountered Nordic folk music for the first time when he joined the band. He started playing rock drumkit when he was ten, then got into Latin and jazz, West African djembe drumming, and nowadays also classical percussion, playing frequently with Turku Philharmonic "...in a tuxedo. Toffe does that stuff too..."
Toffe, who was named 'Young Fiddler of the Year' in Finland in 1994, is from Pietarsaari/Jakobstad but is currently living in Sweden and studying at Stockholm Music Academy. "I started off actually with Irish music. My whole folk music interest started with Irish music, British music. After that I went to Falun Folk Festival, and I found the Swedish tradition and also at the same time I started looking at my own folk music at home".
Jenny studies in the folk music department at Kokkola Conservatory, where her teachers include Minna Raskinen and members of Tallari. She also spends a great deal of time delving into the archive (and surfing the Internet) at the Finlands Svenska Folkmusikinstitut in Vaasa, which has been very supportive and part-sponsored the making of Ranarop. "I've just ordered these books with Icelandic songs, eight books...". The Institute's Ann-Mari Häggman tells me later "She's often still working when we're going home, so we just ask her to lock up when she's finished".
"I don't have anyone like a fiddler father or mother, but my mum was a gymnastics and dance teacher, and she taught mainly folk dances like Balkan dances, and I grew up with Swedish 70s folk music and Balkan music. My family from my mother's side are musicians. My grandma played piano at the Sibelius Academy. When I finished high school in '93 I went straight to Malung" (the Folkhögskolan at Malung in Sweden) "because I didn't want to continue with classical studies, and I wanted to find a way of playing where I could do more improvising. I'd always liked folk music, so I went there because we didn't have any Finnish-Swedish folk music education. So I was in Malung '93 and '94, and it was probably the best thing I'd done in my life at that point."
Gjallarhorn's songs include a fire-charm from Finnish runo-song tradition, a Norwegian stev, and the striking high-pitched Swedish kulning, which has now a life of its own away from the cows it originally called, but the bulk are Finnish-Swedish ballads, primarily those concerning nature and mythology rather than the more bloody heroic tales. "The boys know that I'm very stubborn about lyrics" (Cue male mutterings: "and not only about lyrics - 'I want to have hamburgers'", etc.) "I wouldn't sing something that didn't touch me somewhere. For me the most exciting things are these mythical ballads, like nature mythical ballads, because they have such great symbolism, and they're very beautiful to pronounce, to sing, the words are brilliant. So if you want some idea of what we're telling about, it's mostly nature. Fairies and things. That's quite a big part of it. For me the symbolism and the place we're living, the earth, is the most important thing to describe".
Toffe and Jenny describe the arranging process. "It depends if it's songs or instrumentals. Jenny usually finds the songs, and the lyrics, and then we all do the arrangement when we meet". "Usually I have both the melody and the lyrics. If I've found only the lyrics I compose a melody - just a riff is enough as a start for the group". "Everybody has their own freedom to present a tune, and then we all work on it together. Nobody says 'This is the way I like it, we'll play it like this'".
There's a balance between tradition and new composition. "We have three of our own pieces on the album; "Solbön/Åskan" (Prayer for the Sun/Thunder) particularly is a good example. Toffe composed "Åskan" and I composed "Solbön," and they went well together, and we found Finnish-Swedish poems and thought 'wow, these are great lyrics'. And some people, they didn't know how to write down the notes, so just the lyrics remain. So if you love what you see, you have to do it somehow. And then you compose it in a folk way. I think the most important thing is to let people know that you know where you take your material from, and when you have that respect you can start composing. If you don't have that respect, people won't respect your composing.
"I think something that's very important for this Finnish-Swedish new folk music is the idea of daring to improvise around a theme. That's something that helps it to remain in the future. What I would like to do is take the main sources and to allow freedom in performing, like jazz. I think also that in the ballad tradition there was improvising - there are hundreds of verses and I don't think they sang the same tune all the time. In the recordings of these old ladies, they don't sing in the same way, and why should we? But we have to know what they do before we start improvising".
David and Tommi see it from a complementary angle. "Folk music for me and for Tommi is quite new - but as we get to learn more about it, now we are arranging, and I think we'll start writing too. The hip-hop sort of thing at the end of the song "Ramunder" (which, it's only fair to point out to intending seekers after cross-cultural influences, is more a matter of inspiration than final effect) "we did in the studio, and Jenny was at first 'Oh no, we can't do it like that' but when we did it she liked it, and she came up a bit later on with a tune and wanted to give it a hip-hop sort of thing!".
Jenny agrees. "I believe sometimes I'm the one who wants to be the most distinct - 'this is the tradition'. It's always good when you can refer it to the lyrics. In this case you can refer to this giant mumbling around in his cave. And I think that's something we do subconsciously. If you find some lyrics that refer to, say, a tree, you perhaps compose a melody that goes somehow with a tree. The person who wrote the review for "Uusi Kansanmusiikki" (the Finnish folk magazine, in which Ranarop was recently voted Finnish folk album of 1997) "said what she liked most is that we had this kind of whole - it ended somewhere and it started somewhere. It was like a story. And that's something subconscious maybe."
The ballad "Ramunder" is a battle song, a rarity both in Finnish-Swedish tradition and in Gjallarhorn's repertoire. It describes Ramunder's onslaught on a gold-filled troll cave, and includes the lines (elegantly translated, particularly the words "dumlingen dyra", by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi):
"And Ramunder took his great sword that he called his precious tonker
Gjallarhorn's instrumentals include minuets, which are still found in Swedish-speaking areas of Ostrobothnia but rarely in Sweden. "It's something that remains mainly in Ostrobothnia. There are four places with strong minuet traditions: Lappfjärd, Vörå, Oravais and Jeppo. In the south, at Lappfjärd, they're very slow, like wedding minuets. When you go north past Vaasa to Jeppo they're much faster, very hectic", explains Jenny. "Not all of them - it's the end that's fast" Toffe clarifies.
"I think both Toffe and me went through the Swedish polska and then we noticed the minuet back home - that's the way I went anyway. And I think we all agree that we're aiming to have more instrumental pieces, particularly minuets because we notice that for instance people here in Sweden" (we're talking in Falun) "want to have more of that because it's something they don't have here". "I don't think we'd do it because people want it; we like them because they're great tunes", disagrees Toffe. "Yes, but it's something that's typical".
That's the thing about Gjallarhorn - each person has his or her own point of view, and each of them sees the band as a vehicle for greater personal expression. "I think we all like to have this little bit of freedom. I mean, OK we have very arranged music because there's only four of us, so each of us has to do a lot of things, and we have to stick to the lyrics, but I think we have some freedom inside the tunes, don't we? For instance, the first tune, I never start it the same way, I just check 'what's the feeling here, do they want to listen to a lot of improvising or not?'"
A combination of musical intensity with audience-including stagecraft has been only gradually emerging among many other Finnish roots performers, but the members of Gjallarhorn seem to radiate the confidence of experience. "I think every one of us has been on stage a lot". "But this time we're on stage on our own permission, and that's a great relief".
Här inne råder jag sade Ramunder
(This article originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Folk Roots magazine. Used with permission)
All content copyright 1998 by the writer and photographers.