- April 02, 2021
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
With Spring blooming around us, it may seem strange to move to the Northern climates of Europe for this month’s Bandcamp Friday roundup, but any month is a good month to be listening to new Nordic music! Back in the late 1990s there was a great record label called Nordic Roots that used to put out compilation albums for under $5 that they called “cheaper than food.” I know many folks discovered Nordic Roots around that time, picking up one of those comps at the local record store and falling in love with the music of Sorten Muld, or Garmarna, or Väsen. I know I did, and I’ve tried to keep up with Nordic music today, and not just the music of Sweden and Norway. Danish music gets short shrift in Scandinavian music circles, despite a rich heritage and a welcoming scene. And the roots music of Iceland or the Faroe Islands or even Greenland is even less known. Dive in to some new music from the Nordic world and you’ll see that these old traditions are alive and well today and getting pushed in some very new and exciting directions!
Thanks to both Jonathan Een Newton and John Stenerson (of Norwegian festival/conference Folkelarm) for some of the suggestions here. Also to Folk Spot Denmark for bringing out American journalists and music biz folks to discover Danish music at the Tønder Festival.
The wild Faroe Islands are home to some of the least known and most beautiful Scandinavian musical traditions. Traveling through Denmark I heard all kinds of stories about how crazy the food is in the Faroe Islands and how incredibly beautiful and stark the landscapes are for visitors. The islands themselves are far out in the ocean, and the life out there is closely tied to the sea. Young folk duo Raske Drenge are one of my favorite groups interpreting this music today, though only one half of the duo, guitarist and vocalist Ragnar Finsson, comes from the Faroes. Fiddler and composer Oscar Beerten is Belgian in origin, though he’s been studying Scandinavian traditions for years and specializes in the many-stringed hardanger fiddle from Norway. Much of the music on their debut album is original, including tunes and compositions from Beerten and a surprising version of a few Appalachian stringband tunes. The songs are Faroese in origin, including a song from the fisherman Harry Birtilíð, a song from the 19th century Faroese lawyer Christian Pløyen, and a traditional Kvæði (the old Faroese ballads that used to be accompanied by dancing). With all these influences, Raske Drenge are creating a new trans-Atlantic sound that taps into the sea-blown spirit of the Faroe Islands while sounding fresh and new.
I got to see the Danish band Dreamer’s Circus at the 2018 Tønder Festival in Denmark and they fit the glorious opulence of that festival’s old spiegeltent perfectly. Instrumental compositions drawing from a dizzying whirlwind of influences, master musicianship, and that “good clean living” vibe that Danes have; it was a heady package. On their new album, this trio of instrumentalists (Nikolaj Busk on piano/accordion, Ale Carr on cittern, and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen on fiddle) dance happily between genres, working in classical influences (“Pentamine” is a spectacular demonstration) as easily as old Danish traditions (the opening track “North of Trondheim”). They even have an ode to the instrumental music of the famed Hayao Miyazaki Studio Ghibli films (“Waltz for Miyazaki” nails that kind of half world between Japanese video game music and pop composition)! I might be biased, but I still do love the more traditional elements of their music. “Brestiskvæði” is a gorgeous take on an old Faroese ballad, one of those danced ballads that Raske Drenge was playing (check out the original!).
BONUS: Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen from Dreamer’s Circus is also in the British trio Inver (playing accordion though) who have an intriguing take on a cross British/Nordic fusion album.
There’s a big movement in Scandinavian music circles towards experimental minimalism. Maybe it’s part of the Nordic Noir art movement in general, but likely it’s tied to the schools teaching folk traditions getting closer and closer to jazz and experimental classical worlds. It makes for intriguing, mysterious, and just generally beautiful music. Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli is a perfect example of this. Raised on traditional music, he’s trained extensively in classical music (including accordion concertos!?!) and has worked across many cultures and genres. His Avant Folk project is a great look at Scandinavian experimental trad, but with a big band. With so many artists coming from different directions in the band, Haltli anchored each track around learning a melody by ear in the folk tradition, then expanding from there. The last track, “I Østen som i Vesten (All Over the Place)”, which clocks in at 11+ minutes is an absolute tour de force, mixing accordion maqams and improvisation with a winding journey through the whole band. The horns sound at times like Maghrebian shawms, Breton sonneurs, or car alarms, and the free jazz experimentations the band spins through are exhilarating.
BONUS: His album with Swedish nyckelharpa player Emilia Amper is also a fascinating journey and word is their set at Big Ears Festival some years back was pretty legendary.
Swedish trad band Rim hit all the points I’m looking for. They’ve got a great blend of fiddle and nyckelharpa (the marvelous Swedish keyed fiddle) and accordion with guitar. They also bring together the darker, minor key tunes from Sweden that everyone loves with the lighter, happier polka (not polska!) that usually gets left behind on the world stage. Great songs too! Made up of young traditional artists from across the country, Rim is clearly playing with the tradition, working in original elements, but still sound traditional enough that you could imagine them at a rural dancehall holding court. I’m always a sucker for bands that can combine stringed instruments with accordions, and Rim do a great job of expanding that language, with the two stringed instrumentalists arcing over the deep blown bellows of the accordion. It’s an intriguing sound from young traditionalists and a band well worth discovering.
I haven’t been able to get into Greenlandic music as much as I’d like, but this set of 55 historical recordings from Greenlandic Inuit artists should be the first entry anyone needs. The field recordings span nearly a hundred years and move all over Greenland to Canada. Inuit music, language and culture forms a somewhat circumpolar world, and there have long been cultural ties between Inuit communities in Greenland and Canada. Since Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark, ties exist to other Nordic countries as well. The music on these field recordings seems to be mostly drum dance music, often just vocals and the Inuit frame drum played by striking the rim, which was more commonly recorded by ethnomusicologists than other kinds of Inuit music. I’m a huge nerd for Inuit accordion traditions, but those were rarely recorded or documented in favor of the older traditions here. Unfortunately the label, Sub Rosa Records, in Belgium, has sold out of physical copies, since the 24 page booklet that came with this was likely really helpful. With only the digital album for sale on Bandcamp, we’re reduced to just appreciating the music without really understanding it. Still, listen to “Kayak-Song” from Ajukutôk' and it’s hard to deny the visceral power of the music, something that breaks through recorded eras, language differences, and cultural barriers to hit home today.
BONUS: It’s not that new, but I’ve been enjoying Greenland Inuit songwriter Simon Lynge’s newest album, Deep Snow. Great vocals and songs and he lives out near me in the Pacific Northwest!
The Sami are the indigenous populations of far Northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Traditionally a nomadic culture known for reindeer herding, Sami song traditions are actually more well-known on the world stage than you might think. Joik or joiking is the distinctive Sami genre of vocal improvisation and song marked by soaring vocal passages that have an unearthly beauty. You might have heard it in Frozen 2, a Disney film that worked directly with Sami artists to incorporate the music and culture into the film! Norwegian band Tundra Electro center around the joik of Sami vocalist Ingá-Máret Gaup-Juuso, a spectacular singer who also herds reindeer in her spare time. They also incorporate electronic influences and Indian classical touches as well from violinist Harpreet Bansal. It’s gorgeous music, dripping with atmospherics and sparklingly brilliant vocals. Funny enough, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album of “traditional” Sami joiks? Fusing joik with other genres of music, whether electronic, experimental or “global” is maybe the main way most folks are introduced to this tradition. In any case, Sami joik traditions are some of the most intriguing vocal traditions in the world and deserve to be much better known, even if Frozen 2 did bring them to a pretty big stage! Also check out the experimental joiks of Sami artist Torgeir Vassvik if you’d like to hear more.
Living in a city with a rich history of Scandinavian immigration (Seattle), I’ve come to love the hallmarks of Nordic immigrants in my town: Sons of Norway lodges, salty fishermen, krumkakke from the Norwegian grocery, flags with crosses everywhere, and clubs for the Scandinavian signature instruments, the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle) and Norwegian hardanger fiddle. Though the nyckelharpa is of stranger construction the hardanger fiddle is a special beast indeed. A violin with four extra “sympathetic” strings running underneath the bridge, it’s a sonorous instrument with a rich full sound from the echoing harmonics of the strings. Many more Scandinavian immigrants moved to the American Midwest than Seattle, and hardanger fiddler Andrea Een has for years been one of the instrument’s main ambassadors in Minnesota. From the Valley: Norwegian Dances, Marches, and Tone Poems is a recent reissue on Bandcamp of her debut solo album of hardanger fiddle music from 2004 and it’s a lovely journey to the heart of this particularly beautiful instrument. Een’s a master hardanger fiddler, a title the state of Minnesota granted to her, and she’s won awards in Norway for her playing. As a fiddler that worked extensively with classical ensembles, Een shows the versatility in the tradition and serves as a reminder that classical composers have looked to these traditions before. The iconic first four notes of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” are the four notes, in order, of the hardanger fiddle’s sympathetic strings (Grieg himself is invoked in this album in the tune “Lofthusen”, learned for the part of Norway where Grieg composed his music). From the Valley is a mix of original and traditional compositions, with Een’s interpretation of the folk hymn “Eg Veit i Himmerik ei Borg" a particularly poignant moment. It’s an album from a master musician who’s worked her whole life to keep this unusual instrument alive in American Scandinavian communities.
Ok this one is fudging it a bit since Estonia is not technically a Nordic country. But Estonians have long held a cultural affinity to Nordic countries and a special closeness to Finland, and anyways this new album of compositions from Estonian piano accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik has the same minimalist soundscapes as we’ve come to expect from Nordic composers like Ólafur Arnalds (on the accordion!). The album is mostly instrumental, with beautiful and ethereal vocals on some tracks, and though it’s informed by old instrumental dance music (“Mälutaguse Polka” is a lot of fun), the album’s more about thoughtful melodic compositions that demonstrate the evocative power of Bartosik’s accordion playing. The perfect Nordic music to have on in the background when you’re studying? Yes it is that, but it’s also a remarkably beautiful album in its subtlety and mastery.
The Finnish kantele is a surprisingly large zither much loved among Finnish communities abroad as well. It’s a beautiful instrument that calls to mind the Arabic kanun in my mind a bit, though it’s likely more related to the Baltic, Eastern European, and Russian zither families. Composer and experimentalist Sarah Palu delights in creating huge soundscapes and epic settings for the kantele, and at times the instrument sinks below the surface a bit, but her new album is an ambitious look at how an ancient instrument can sound so new again.
The twists and turns in the rhythms of Swedish and Norwegian trad can be tricky to follow, so it’s not often you can find a band melding this music with the more straightforward rhythms of rock n roll. Skrekk & Guro more than deliver on this front, however. Interestingly, they’re inspired to fuse prog rock with trad by a much earlier example: Norwegian fiddler Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa and his collaboration with the rock band Saft. Videos of this collaboration from the early 1970s are online and are a blast. Other Scandinavian trad bands have tried to create a heavy rock sound just through traditional instruments, like SVER, but Skrekk & Guro’s use of drums and electric guitar/bass along with the fiddling just hits harder at times. Fusing rock and folk is as old as time (or as old as Elvis), but it just hits different when the powerful flow of rock n roll is being crammed into the jagged box of Scandinavian rhythms, bucking back and forth against the flow. They’re exactly the kind of band that would be amazing to dance to at festivals. Here’s hoping we can do that again soon!
FINAL BONUS: I’m a huge huge fan of the band Baltic Crossing, who fuse Danish, Finnish, and British traditions. Hearing Kristian Bugge, one of the best Danish fiddlers, melding with Northumbrian bagpiper Andy May is a real pleasure.