Birch Horn
I am always looking for a sound where one note tells a story. One must find the right note, and play it." - Ale Möller, 1997


Sweden's Ale Moller
Searching for the Right Note

by Cliff Furnald
Photos by CF and David Scwartz

"My first love was American music. I played the guitar like everyone else, but I played the trumpet mostly," said Ale Möller as he sat cramped in the little reading room we were using as a makeshift studio at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, Connecticut. He had come to the U.S., along with his fellow musicians in The Nordan Quartet, violinist/singer Lena Willemark, drone-fiddle pioneer Mats Edén, and percussionist Tina Johansson, to play five concerts in six days on both coasts and the midwest. Settled in an easy chair, surrounded by books, we started with the early years. "Jazz was my first real love story in music, swing music and be-bop music. Clifford Brown was my hero." But when was in his early twenties, he met Christos Mitrencis, a Greek musician living in Malmö, Sweden, where Möller grew up. He listened to him playing the bouzouki and the course of Swedish folk music suffered a mild tremor, a warning shock of things to come. "I really, really liked the sound. I asked him if he would teach me to play the bouzouki... I spent a lot of time learning the music, rembetika music especially." So much so that he was regularly visiting Greece, and spent three years playing with Neo Minore's orchestra, an ensemble that was often joined by famed composer Mikis Theodorakis.

What Möller learned from this experience was more than written music and instrumental finesse. "After a long time [in Greece] I realized that the strength of that music, to the Greek people, doesn't have to do with melodies or notes; it is primarily about identity and through music, a connection to your own history. Slowly I was realizing that for my own story I had to go back and try to understand where we come from, we crazy Scandinavians."

ale again He went back to Sweden and began to study his own music, his own identity that is entwined in the history and melody of Sweden. It wasn't an easy task. The folk music of the various regions of Sweden was not only unknown to the other areas, but was almost missing from the very places it sprang from. Modern and urban life had made the folk music of Sweden as rare in the 1970s as anywhere else in the world. The revival was waiting to happen.

It was the late 70s and Möller moved to Darlana, a region particularly strong in the fiddling traditions of Sweden. He started what was to be a ten year journey, studying the music, learning not only the tunes, but the people behind the tunes, and fighting all along the way against one small prejudice. "I was told I had to play the fiddle, the instrument of that tradition. But I refused. I knew from all the other kinds of music I played that the instrument is just a voice. The music, the style, is the language. I tried to translate it into my instrument, the bouzouki. I found that it could be done."

But to do so required changing the instrument. The notes and tunings were obviously not the same, and he had a long series of instruments built, trying to find not only an instrument that could play the same scales as the music of Sweden, but also, as he put it, "an instrument that would have the right sound, the right feel." He finally settled upon a mandola, an octave mandolin, that with frets added could play the quarter notes he needed to truly play the fiddle tunes properly.

Becoming One of
The Fiddling People

Mats and fiddle
Möller on Mats Edén
Edén is one of the country’s most renowned musicians. He is a folk musician, a songwriter and a classical composer, as well. Möller had high praise for this innovative drone fiddler, crediting him often with leading Sweden’s folk revival. “He has created a freedom that is very unique to fiddle players. He has millions of ideas always coming out.”
In the beginning, the fiddlers were all a bit suspicious, wondering, "What is this guy going to do to our music?" The traditions of Sweden were strict and localized. The idea of transferring the music of Darlana to a Greek instrument played by a man from Malmö certainly aroused suspicion. But all over Sweden at the time, there were other musicians trying to do similar things, making the old traditions come to life on their own instruments, with their own ideas. Möller pointed particularly to Mats Edén, the fiddler with his current musical ensemble, the Nordan Project, as another of the truly innovative artists of this 80s revival period. He also noted that the horns, especially saxophone, were finding their way into the new folk tradition.

"The reed instruments have that jazz sound," said Möller. He remarked that musicians like saxophonist Roland Keijser, who did pioneering recordingings with fiddler Anders Rosen, were working their magic on Swedish fiddle tunes.

"The first folk music I played was with Filarfolket, which means 'The Fiddling People.' I didn't know much of the music yet, so I just picked up the tunes one by one." By playing with the band and recording five albums, and by working on his own solo project, Bouzoukispellman, Möller created a new voice for the old tunes, one that was in harmony to the old ways while creating a new sense of style. With Filarfolket, they broke down some of the age old musical barriers, bringing together not only different regional traditions, but a certain sense of worldly playfulness that allowed Brazilian birimbau to take its place next to drone fiddles and Afro-rhythms to find a comfortable relationship with the Swedish polskas and hallings. He continued to modify his main instrument, having bouzoukis and mandolas altered as he learned the deeper intricacies of the music, but, most importantly, he was learning more and more songs.

ale again "To become a folk musician in our tradition you have to learn hundreds of tunes, to really learn the language before you can play it your own way...I have been working with two things at the same time. One is to create band music out of a solo tradition. The other is to find a way to play duets with traditional fiddlers, to really understand the different styles, the different versions, there are millions of things you have to know to really understand the music."

But all through this period he was also stretching out, experimenting. The results of this were a peculiar album of tunes called Kompassmusik, with the performance billed as Ale Möller's Happy One Man Band. "During my time in Malmö, in the south, I worked a lot with theater, with poetry and cabarets. So when I moved up north to Darlana, there was nobody there to play that music, so I had to make up this one man band, to be all the strange characters I wanted to be, all by myself. The 'boys' in the band represent different sides of my own personality. I was having a story in my mind and was composing music for a certain [non-existent] movie."

He was also making his first recordings with Lena Willemark, who, along with fiddler Per Gudmundsen, comprise the trio Frifot. They were not only playing traditional tunes, but for the first time experimenting with improvisation, in some ways laying the groundwork for their next big project.

The Nordan Project

Lena Möller on Lena Willemark

To listen to Willemark, one would think she was a jazz singer first, and then came to folk music later. Not so. “Lena and I have been working for a long time. When I first met her she was strictly in the tradition, and she was very good. But now she is working more and more towards freedom, towards a personal sound, a personal expression.” Möller said that the vocal tradition in Sweden has never been as strong as the fiddle, leaving singers to make a more personal mark on their work. There has possibly been a little more room for inspiration from jazz.

(live at TBT)
Currently, Möller is making music with singer/fiddler Lena Willemark and a number of Sweden's best musicians under the name The Nordan Project. Nordan is an attempt to reinvent the medieval ballads of Scandinavia, making them personal and innovative through a lot of creative license and improvisation. The seed for the project came while Möller was doing some work with Willemark, on an album of traditional songs. "It was rather a strict, traditional [recording] and there are so many things you shouldn't do in such music. But there was one tune, a medieval ballad, where we tried different ideas, things you normally shouldn't do, and it turned out nice. I think that was the starting point."

The structure of these songs seemed to be perfect for new ideas. Unlike the traditional dance tunes and folk songs, these pieces had a lot more space, a lot more room for improvisation and creative instrumentation. "These old songs have a longer line than an ordinary fiddle tune or short song and you can take a sort of musical journey with the help of this material."

The medieval songs were what they were looking for; strong folk roots, good stories, yet a little more artistic latitude. But the idea sat germinating for a few more years, with both artists ruminating on it. "We didn't do these medieval songs, but we were using some of the ideas, things like medleys, which are not used in our tradition." More and more Möller found himself drawn to longer chains of tunes and variations. There was also a need for more freedom. "For me, coming from jazz, musical freedom was very important. Also, in Greek music, there was a lot more freedom."

But in the traditional folk music, Möller found greater limitations, and he was looking for a more liberal strategy. He found it when he was approached by Manfred Eicher, the driving force behind ECM Records. He had heard Willemark and Möller perform, and was taken by the music. When Möller explained to him where he wanted the music to go, Eicher immediately offered to let them do it on his label.

Möller on Tina Johansson

“What Tina has done with transforming these South American and Cuban rhythms or sounds into our rhythms is fantastic. It is exciting to seem them adopted.” Drums are a minor tradition in Sweden, with frame drums and some large double headed drums being the most prominent. “Three hundred years ago they were forbidden by the king [for use] in village music because he wanted that to be a privilege for the military. Ordinary people were not allowed to play the has been out of the tradition, and it needs to come back.”
Möller and Willemark set off to make the music. "The medieval tunes could be used very freely. I could find smaller musical themes to put in between the verses, sections that could be used to build up chains of melodies, and we could try out different ideas of musical storytelling as a parallel to the ballads."

They take the concept of improvisation to its limits. While they do have a certain notion of what's going to happen, and use the actual verses of the ballads as anchors, there is no set performance for the songs. Rather, there are indications in their notes that, according to Möller, "Here's an open section, and something should happen here... We never do things like we do on a record. Things must always happen when you are there." Something always does.

Both on record and in concert, Willemark, Möller and the many musicians they work with have gone beyond folk-fusion and have entered a realm unexplored by most musicians coming from a folk tradition. A song may start with some small percussion or a solo fiddle line, Willemark improvising a melody or chanting a phrase, Möller dancing among his mandolas, harps, birch bark horns and hammer dulcimer, exploring the colors of the voices and instruments, building a mood that suddenly becomes the song. The power of this approach is that the songs become universal, the language becomes less opaque, the story clear even to those who do not know the language.

Changing Perceptions,
New Ideas

Möller and his compatriots are truly responsible for a new attitude towards folk music in Scandinavia. "The change is very obvious. When we started, back with Filarfolket, we played in very small places. But now we play in Stockholm in the biggest concert hall and every seat is sold. There's really an interest now, and a whole lot of musicians play this new kind of folk music. Young people come to listen, and new bands are popping up everywhere that are much better than we [Filarfolket] were. They have something to follow now."

A number of the more rock-oriented bands of the Swedish scene are getting recognition here in America these days. Bands like Hedningarna and Garmarna appeal to an audience hungry for a new sound that still has the hard edge. But Möller is quick to point to some younger artists to be on the alert for, like Magnus Stinnerbom (son of Groupa co-founder Leif Stinnerbom), Trio Patrekatt (a trio of two nyckelharpa and a cello), and a young mandola player from Darlana, Jon Hollmam. Möller said of him, "He studies mandola with me, and he's so good...he knows most of the tricks already, so I am scared to death! I love it. It's an exciting time."

As for Möller's own future plans? He probably needs not fear being overtaken by his young student. He has a lot of plans and sees a continued expansion of his own music. "What interests me is always longer [musical] lines. Now I have found my own tradition, and love it so much, these melodies and rhythms. What I did not like was the short space. A tune is just two minutes, but I need something longer. Since I am interested in theater, I have a dramatic interest. I am always looking for a sound where one note tells a story. One must find the right note, and play it."

There is a review of a 1997 Nordan concert that includes Real Audio sound. This is the full article as it appeared in issue #71 of Dirty Linen Magazine.

Other articles and reviews can be found on our Swedish music pages.

Many of Moller's recordings are available from cdRoots

Copyright 1997 Cliff Furnald

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