Recently, one of my FB pals from Holland, folk singer Linde Nijland, wrote about how much she was enjoying a folk festival, Ransäterstämman, that she was attending in Värmland. I was surprised. A festival I’d never heard of!
I asked a few friends and no one else had heard of it either. But then I asked my pal, Astrid, and she knew exactly what I was talking about. And she wasn’t surprised that no one knew about it. It’s a “spelmannsstämma” and it was taking place at a “bygdegård”. It wasn’t the kind of event that normal members of the public would know about. The majority of those present would be “spelmän”.
Linde’s reaction and seeing what excellent folk bands were playing at the event (Ranarim, Groupa, Väsen Duo, ) made me very curious to know more. And I soon realised that there were a lot of Swedish words about the whole folk music subculture that I did not understand. And when I did understand them, I realised that they were infernally difficult to translate. There’s something about the folk music scene in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries which is very different to the UK.
But what a rich, exciting, mysterious, evocative, funky, joyous, terrifying world it is.
The instruments: nyckelharpa, Hardanger fiddle, kantele, a whole range of different accordions, tussefløyte….
The remarkable songbooks: from scary medieval ballads to exhilarating dance tunes.
The respect for the roots combined with a desire to experiment. Many bands exist so that the locals can dance. Other artists, like Finnish accordionist, Kimmo Pohjonen, are excitingly avant -garde.
Some extremely gifted musicians and some wonderfully idiosyncratic voices.
And there are so many Nordic folk artists whose music I really enjoy (Garmarna, Lena Willemark, Ale Möller, Triakel, Majorstuen, Värtinnä, Valkyrien Allstars, Sofia Karlsson, Mari Boine, Maria Kalamniemi, Chateau Neuf Spelemanslag, Ranarim, Väsen etc etc), it seemed like a good chance to find out more.
Folk music is dear to the heart of Scandinavians. Ulrika, my partner has happy memories of going to the local “bygdegård” (community centre? Folk museum?) as a child and doing all the old-time dances. Pianist, Jan Johanssen, one of Sweden’s most highly regarded jazz musicians, is best known for the wonderful “Jazz på Svenska”, an album where he reworked traditional folk songs. When Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek started to make a name for himself in the ECM world, he was touring and recording with folk singers Mari Boine (who sings in the Same language) and Agnes Buen Garnås (an expert on medieval ballads. Last but not least, when ABBA ame to an end, Benny Andersson went off to play accordion with traditional folk dance band, Orsa Spelmän. That’s rather like Paul McCartney joining Waterson-Carthy after the Beatles had split up.
Anyway, for the past week or so, to remind me of all the wonders of this rather unexplored corner of Nordic music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Swedish and pan-Scandinavian folk music.
My timing is perfect. In a day’s time it’s Midsummer and many Swedish folk musicians will be dressing up in “folkdräkt”, the national costume of the area they come from, and preparing to play at the local dance.
On the big holidays of the year, even members of the Scandinavian royal families dress up in national costume like everyone else. Oslo on 17th May is a sight to behold. Swedish Queen Silvia whose mum was from Brazil, dresses up like a farmer’s wife from Skåne. Can you imagine any of the British royal family doing this? Prince Charles as a Morris dancer? I don’t think so.
One thing that should be mentioned is that there are thousands of amateur Swedish folk musicians. It’s very much a “folkrörelse”, a popular movement with an “everyone can join in” attitude. There are a lot of similarities with the non-profit gym club, Friskis and Svettis, which was a milestone for me, when I arrived in Stockholm. “Yes, Fatso, even you are welcome! No pressure. Just have fun!” And of course the many local choirs. Swedes love to sing together. A very admirable trait.
Let’s go back to that Ransätterstämmen. A “spelmanstämma” is a gathering of musicians, in the UK they now refer to a “fiddlers’ meet”. It is very different from a normal music festival ,as, although there many performances by professional musicians, one important part of the event is “buskspel”. I had big problems understanding what this was. (I got a bit confused. A “buskis” is a kind of traditional, rural, slapstick comedy, usually performed outdoors in the summer. Hapless yokels and buxom wenches.)
Duuuh! I should have researched ”buskspel”. Literally it means “bush concert” and it refers to spontaneous jam sessions, where anyone can join in. These are based on tunes that everyone will know. One of the musicians, often the accordion player get going on a waltz, hambo, minuet, mazurka or waltz, and everyone else, whips out their instrument and joins in.
I was talking today about “fiddlers’ meets” and “bush concerts” with the bloke in Skivhögen, one of my favourite second hand record shops. He recommended that I get along to “spelmanstämma” if I get the chance.
“They are at it all night! And there is an awful lot going on in the bushes. Ingenious improvisation. Dexterous fingerwork. Unexpected chord progressions. And those squeezeboxes get a very vigorous squeezing.”
On Friday, Midsummer Eve, Stockholm will be like a ghost town. Everyone who can leave for the countryside, does so. No traffic at all. And the only people on the streets are confused Japanese tourists, who gather together at Skansen, the very enjoyable open air museum (Sweden’s largest bygdegård?) to try and make sense of it all.
I’ll be long gone! Dancing round the maypole and singing the Small Frog Song in the hamlet of Ortala Lund.
Curious to experience this all for yourself? I cannot provide you with seven different Swedish wild flowers to put under your pillow. But I have knocked together a cracking playlist.
Sweet (Midsummer Night) Dreams!!
I toast you all with a wee Midsummer Night’s Dram!