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Written in Folk Roots issue 117, 1993
Drone DROCD 004 (1992)
Olarin OMCD 43 (1992)
RockAdillo ZENCD 2032 (1992)
The nyckelharpa is the Swedish keyed fiddle. The notes are got by pressing tangents against the strings, like a hurdy-gurdy, but it doesn't have a wheel mechanism; the strings are bowed. The sound is very characteristically western Scandinavian - like that area's fiddling, its music has an edgy sheen of high harmonics. Swedish band Väsen, which comprises Olov Johansson on nyckelharpa, Mikael Marin (viola) and Roger Tallroth (guitar), has been making a lot of waves live during the past year or so. It's an instrumental band, dragging ferocious, rhythmically complex music out of acoustic instruments. The album is mainly polskas (including an audience favourite, Mördarhararna (Killer Rabbits)) with the odd march, waltz, polka and schottische. Like many dance tune albums, it's probably best listened to in chunks; otherwise, until their forms become more familiar, the tunes tend to merge in the mind into a Swedish blur. Really, the best way to understand this music is, as with many others, to be there dancing to it.
Leading Finnish traditional mandolinist Heikki Lahti's music is much less savage. He plays a Gibson curly-topped mandolin, but his style is far from north American, occasionally in its trilling reiterated notes hinting in the direction of Russian balalaika, though some tunes here, particularly the five by influential fiddler the late Otto Hotakainen, have a considerably Mexican feel (or, rather, some American waltzes and polkas sound as they are - northern European in origin). Finnish dance music is very different in form from Swedish/Norwegian, and, actually, any instrumentalist inclining to Mexican/US border music, or even an English country dance band might well find a whole bunch of new material here.
Slobo Horo are all Finns too, but you'd be hard put to tell. Mastika is an album of music from Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria. Main singer Jarkko Niemi has a voluptuous, Greek-sounding style, and the instrumentation of the 8-piece band, which identifies itself in the press release with the spirit of the Mustaphas, could be described as "modern Balkan" - clarinet, saxophone, violin, accordion, organ, electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, tapan and darabukka, played well, wild and strong. These people seem comfortable with their style. It's full-blooded and distinctive, by no means slavish copyism, and could do well in the songs' countries of origin. It's just that... well, it always seems strange to me, almost a self-denial, to be in one country and exclusively work with the music and in the language of others which aren't even close cultural or geographical neighbours. Sure, influences cross the world, but a whole album of songs, in the original languages, of which none of the band are native speakers? As far as I know, these aren't the children of exiles, trying to make sense of their roots. If they are, I take my reservations back - this is such enjoyable, quirky music I'm almost ready to regardless. In any case, it's a lot better, and more intriguingly perverse, than all those bands throughout the world who suppress their own language and culture in favour of worship at the shrine of American English pop/rock.
© 1993 Andrew Cronshaw
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