It’s not a secret that American rural music has similarities to Scandinavian folk—the fiddles are the most obvious link, and then there are the jigging polka rhythms—but I don’t often hear bands that illustrate the connection as explicitly as Frigg. The first track on Oasis is called “Jokijenkka”, and the liner notes suggest that the listener should think about Finland and a life jacket; yet for the first half-minute “Jokijenkka” might as well be nicknamed “Invitation to the square dance”. The music opens with a see-sawing melody that rises and then hesitates as if the fiddlers are waiting for a man in a hat to pat his microphone, cough, and tell everyone else inside the barn to grab their partners and step onto the floor. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the fiddles come down again and we’re off into a nimble schottische.
Frigg is a fiddle group, first and foremost, and their fiddles are not the dark fiddles or rock fiddles or mystic fiddles that you might find on other Northside releases, no, these are dancing fiddles, skipping and jumping and sliding their way through polskas and waltzes. The album hops from “Jokijenkka” into the brightness of “David Ja Minä”, only starting to slow down when it reaches “Hasse”. The notes say that Frigg arranged “Hasse” in collaboration with the Swedish folk outfit Väsen “in 2003… under a birch tree on a beautiful summer day” and during this track a suggestion of the Swedish collaborators’ classically rounded sound emerges through Frigg’s exuberance.
They’re a young group. Three of them, Alina, Esko, and Antti, are descendents of the Järveläs clan of Kaustinen in western Finland, where their family’s reputation as musicians has been established over several generations and culminated during the 1980s with the creation of JPP, a folk band of flexible virtuosity.
Two other Finns, Petri Prauda and Tuomas Logrén, come from regions farther south. They’re the only members of the seven-piece ensemble who don’t get fiddler’s credits. Logrén plays the guitar and dobra while Prauda handles the bagpipes, the mandolin, and the mandolin’s close relation, the cittern. His ‘pipes become prominent for the first time in the mad waltz “Mäenpään Heikin Välssi”, and their buzz comes as a surprise after all the fiddling leading up to it. These are Estonian bagpipes, the torupill. They’re friendlier and less strident than their more famous Scottish Highland cousins. (Anyone interested in comparing the bagpipes of different nationalities might try Arc’s double-CD budget compilation Global Bagpipes, which has a photograph of two Estonians with torupill hanging off their arms like baby aliens.)
The group is rounded out by the brothers Gjermund and Einar Olav Larsen, both Norwegian. They play two kinds of fiddle, the hardanger as well as the common one. A hardanger is furnished with a set of sympathetic strings that run under its fingerboard and help to create a resonant drone but on Oasis this is not very noticeable, for two reasons. One, the subtle differences get lost in a sea of fiddling. Two, everyone in Frigg emphasises the brisk, melodic upper tones of their instruments. Even the slow march that Gjermund Larsen composed to accompany his wedding comes across sounding perky. Their Swedish polka “Fantomen” is a superfast hoedown; and an uplifting twang runs through almost everything else.
This brightness risks becoming monochromatic but they cleverly vary their tunes so that you’re never left alone with one style for too long. Still, I sometimes missed the depths that other recent Scandinavian folk bands dip into. Frigg approach darkness only on their final track, “Peltoniemen Hintriikin Surumarssi”, or “The Sorrowful March of Hintriikki Peltoniemi”. “This sad march is played in Kaustinen whenever a pelimanni is taken to his final resting place,” explains the liner notes. “In memory of our friends Kurt Lindblad and Juho Koiranen.” During “Peltoniemen Hintriikin Surumarssi” they bring in a viola and cello to cope with the melancholy. The fiddles withdraw and the torupill comes to the fore with a long drone like the dolorous exhalation of a gigantic, miserable fly.
So Oasis, which began on a happy note, ends on a sad one. The sadness is extroverted though—it’s hard to be an introvert on bagpipes—and so is Frigg. Lively tunes are their forté. They have a willingness to experiment with different styles that is commendable but it also suggests a group that hasn’t quite found themselves yet. That’s fine. They’ve only been together for a few years, and if Oasis is anything to go by then they’ve got enough skill to mature into something wonderful.
// Notes from the Road
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