Several years ago in an interview with Karin Brennesvik, Norwegian dance teacher, she spoke fondly of her region’s great hardingfele player, Knut Buen. In passing, I happened to mention a student of Knut’s brother Hauk, the young Annbjørg Lien. I had heard a track of hers on the Henry Kaiser and David Lindley compilation of Norwegian music, The Sweet Sunny North. Karin responded with a smile, “Knut calls her a very good beginner.”
Now, with several recordings to her credit and many national prizes for her playing and composition, Annbjørg is no longer that “very good beginner”, but a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and composer with a very promising future. She is not afraid to take risks with a tradition that at one time frowned upon fiddlers who played music from outside their own region. She not only plays and composes music influenced by many different regions in Norway, but also combines Swedish, Norwegian, and Sámi traditions. (The Sámi people inhabit the northern most parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Northern Russia. Although they were called Laplanders in the past, this is considered a derogatory term). Annbjørg apparently grew up in a region that did not have its own folk tradition, so she has borrowed from other areas as well as gone beyond the genre of purely “traditional” music often adding jazz, rock and other elements to her music. To add to that, she not only plays the hardingfele, Norway’s national instrument, but she also plays the nyckelharpa, which is considered Sweden’s national instrument.
Thehardingfele, or hardangar fiddle differs from the violin in several ways, the main one being that the hardingfele, has four or five sympathetic strings that resonate when the melody strings are played. It is also characteristically very ornate, having designs drawn in ink (called rosemaulling) and mother-of-pearl inlays. The hardingfele derives its name from the most ancient of these instruments found near the Hardangar fjord in Norway. In the hands of great players such as Johannes Sundsvalen from Telemark, Halvard T. Bjørgum of Setesdal, and Harald Røine from Valdres, the hardingfele is an instrument of enormous depth and beauty. Normally, within the tradition the fiddler plays solo, using only his feet to mark the rhythm of the old dance tunes (bygdedans) such as the gangar, springar, and halling.
The nyckelharpa or keyed-fiddle of Sweden is also a bowed instrument but has 16 strings—3 melody strings, one drone string, and 12 sympathetic strings. Unlike the violin, it is not played under the chin but rather played either on the lap or suspended from a strap around the neck and played at about waist-level. It has similarities to the vielle à roue or hurdy-gurdy but instead of using a crank that turns a wheel as with the hurdy-gurdy, the nyckelharpa is bowed using a bow shorter than that of the violin. The notes are created by wooden keys that slide under the melody strings and reach up to “stop” the string to create the notes when the player presses them. The most noted players responsible for the revival of the nyckelharpa are Eric Sahlstrom, Viksta Lasse, and Byss-Calle. They were not only great players but also noteworthy composers of music for the instrument. Eric Sahlstrom not only popularized this instrument in his region Uppland but throughout Sweden. He was also a builder of this instrument and was responsible for making changes in the design, thus “modernizing it. If one is interested in hearing some of the current great players of the nyckleharpa then a search for Johan Heddin, Olav Johansson (of Vasën), Peter ‘Puma’ Hedlund, and Niklas Roswall is well worth it.
Except for perhaps in the Småland region of Sweden and in Sámilandland, percussion instruments are not traditional in Scandinavian music. Like many modern Scandinavian groups such as Väsen, Annbjørg adds percussion to her music. Of course, here that common boundary between Annbjørg’s band and Väsen’s doesn’t end, for both groups have the multi-talented Roger Tallroth as guitarist.
Alien’s Alive begins with Annbjørg on solo hardingfele with the slow, ethereal mood piece, “The Rose”. This first track segues perfectly into “Loki”. Loki in Scandinavian legend was the trickster responsible for the death of the much beloved god, Baldur. Annbjørg in her liner notes to her CD Baba Yaga says “Loki confronts us with our own ignorance.” The band sets the mood with synthesizer, drums, and vocal sampling, then Annbjørg comes in on nyckelharpa playing what sounds almost like a traditional rheinlander (dance in 2/4 known as a schottische in Sweden) but was written by Annbjørg and her keyboard player Bjorn Ole Rasch. At the end of the piece, the audience claps enthusiastically and we are pulled out of our trance and reminded that this is after all a “live” album.
No matter, we are under her spell again with her next piece, a medley of five tunes she calls “Origins”. She co-wrote three of the five tunes, one is a traditional halling and the other titled “Homage” was written by Bjorn Ole Rasch. The medley begins with a spirited Lien/Rasch tune titled “Tidr” then goes into a wonderful and energetic traditional halling titled “Nordfjordhalling”. Like the legenyes of Hungary, the halling is a male “rite of passage” dance traditionally done solo. In a halling, the dancer walks/dances around in a large circle to the 2/4 rhythm of the music doing a variety of acrobatic moves, slaps, turns, and twists. There is always a young girl standing on a chair holding a long stick with a hat at the top end of the stick. The point of the dance is that the male dancer must leap in the air, kick the hat off the stick and then land back on his feet still dancing. The young girl tries to trick him by raising and or lowering the stick. When this move is successfully accomplished, it is quite thrilling for the audience as well as the dancer.
At the end of “Nordfjordhalling”, Ailu Gaup, a young Sámi, joiks “Oainnahus”. Joiking is not exactly “singing” per se, but more akin to Native American chanting. It is a call to the “other world” and is basically done to keep the Sámi shaman from falling too deeply into a trance. Ailu proves that he is a master of his art. His resonant growls are almost reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing. As he yips, hoots, caws, whistles, growls and imitates a variety of animals, Annbjørg plays her hardingfele in the background. The last piece in the medley “Phoenix” is more reminiscent of a Bulgarian ruchenitza than a Scandinavian dance but it is well played and serves as a rousing end to the piece.
“The Water Lilly” is a lovely waltz with Annbjørg on hardingfele. The mood is humorously changed with the extremely short “Morning Mood” a sort of homage to Edward Grieg with Annbjørg playing the melody by plucking the sympathetic strings on her hardingfele. She quickly moves into another traditional halling with just Roger Tallroth backing her on guitar. Throughout the rest of the CD, Annbjørg and her band prove their virtuosity and ability to create a live recording that is exciting and fresh in its combination of traditions without diluting any of their impact.
Alien’s Alive was recorded while on tour in Norway and it is apparent from the beginning that the audience is ready to accept and appreciate these young musicians and their creative energy.
Scandinavia has a rich and vital tradition that is being carried on by many great players and groups such as Annbjørg and her band. Fortunately, a label like Northside has made much of this incredible music available outside of Scandinavia. They put out samplers quite often that are very inexpensive and serve as a great introduction to not only what their label has to offer; but also what is happening in Norway, Sweden, Sámilandland, and Finland.