When it comes to European world music, particularly of the folk variety, Celtic reigns supreme. Huge swathes of the World Music (and New Age) bins of record stores are occupied by Celtic music. Celtic’s domination tends to overshadow all other European folk musics, and as a consequence, the other European traditions are frequently ignored.
I’m as much under the sway of Celtic as the next World Music fan, so Till the Light of Day, the new release from Swedish folk group Ranarim came as a complete revelation. Now, given my last name, you might think I wouldn’t be ignorant about things Swedish. But my family, Swedish on both sides, belong to a Swedish evangelical tradition that believed Swedish secular music—in particular dancing to the beat of the Swedish fiddle—was ungodly. My mother’s father was, in fact, a fiddle player in a dance band before he immigrated to the US, but he gave all that up when he got religion. The Swedish music I was raised on was hymns, not fiddle dances. Moreover, Swedish roots music as it is played today is the result of a revival that dates from the late ‘60s (propelled by radical politics), and only reached full bloom in the ‘80s.
The members of Ranarim are all active participants in the contemporary Swedish roots music movement. Vocalists Sofia Sandén and Ulrika Bodén sing in the classical-influenced group Rosenberg 7, and Bodén also belongs to the group Kalabra. Niklas Roswall on nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle) has cut his own solo album and is a member of the Nyckelharpa Orchestra. Jens Engelbrecht, on acoustic guitar and mandola, belongs to the band Hulling.
Despite the fact that vocalists Sandén and Bodén are accompanied by just two acoustic instruments, the sound on Till the Light of Day is always full and lush. I attribute that in part to Roswall and Engelbrecht’s vigorous skill in playing, but also to the distinctive sound of the nyckelharp, Sweden’s most well known indigenous instrument. It’s bowed like a fiddle, but the left hand plays keys, spread out along the neck, that operate tangents that press against the strings when they’re bowed. In addition, there are sympathetic strings that give off sustained rings. The tunes are mostly traditional, taken from throughout Sweden, and given sparkling contemporary arrangements. Ranarim also contribute a couple original compositions. But all sound like deep roots music, planted firmly in the Swedish soil. There are slow, solemn medieval ballads and snappy dance tunes. The subjects are by turns redolent of humor, by turns full of blood and betrayal and witchcraft. The instrumental accompaniment is variously swift, sweet, or sad, the perfect complement to the luscious voices of Sandén and Bodén. Vocals are light and delicate, or sad and weary; harmonies are sweet, drony, scintillating. And there is even sex: the dance song “Fager som en ros (Fair as a rose)” is about a girl so entranced by a handsome boy she meets at a dance that they bed down right on the dance floor. No wonder my grandpa Bertil had to give up the fiddle!
There is also a lovely ballad, “Det stod en jungfru (The maiden stood),” about a woman who has lost her husband to the sea. The tune is from Småland, the province most of family originates from, and is the first traditional Smålenske song I’ve ever heard. Since I don’t understand the lyrics, I asked my dad to translate the song for me. His comment was that the language was beautiful. I can’t really judge the overall quality of the language on Till the Light of Day, but I do believe him. In any case, the music, in all its elements, is simply gorgeous, perfectly crafted, from start to finish.
I consider Ranarim’s Till the Light of Day to be fully the equal of the best in traditional Celtic music. Irish musicians, watch out—the Swedes are coming!