theartsdesk in Oslo: Pushing folk’s frontiers | New music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk in Oslo: Pushing folk’s frontiers
Traditional dance music and boundary breaking sounds happily co-exist at Folkelarm 2013
Music is one expression of Norway’s voice. On the Eventyrbroen (the fairy tale bridge), across the Akerselvn river a few steps from Folkelarm’s main venue Rikksscenen, the landward ends are topped by statues, including one of the legendary Per Gynt grappling with a reindeer (pictured right) – Edvard Grieg’s late 19th-century musical celebrations of Norway made material.
The nation's heritage is even more evident at the outdoor Norsk Folkemuseum, a 30-minute bus ride from Rikksscenen at Bygdøy, the peninsula south of central Oslo. The museum is the home to historic buildings, grouped in clusters according to the regions they were originally from. The most striking structure in this extraordinary place is the 13th-century timber Gol Church, which was brought to Bygdøy in the 1880s. This crucial period for Norway, the second half of the 19th century, also saw the rise in popularity of the Hardanger fiddle.
The cultural reclamation of around 150 years ago, which resulted in Norway’s independence from Sweden, is ultimately what sewed the seeds for Folkelarm. But despite its low population Norway is a huge country and home to an indigenous people that aren’t Norwegian. The Sami live there, and also across the north of Sweden, Finland and Russia. Musically, their most well-known figure is Mari Boine. At Folkelarm, Elin Kåven flew the flag.
On stage, Kåven is almost as much performance artist as singer. In antlers and with movements suggesting Noh Theatre, she sang in her native language. Far from a newcomer, she has been recording for close to 10 years, but this first encounter left an impression that hasn’t dimmed. Despite a sore-thumb song centring on acoustic guitar and fiddle, the rest of her set was electric. It wasn’t Dylan at Newport, but her sonic attack was more post-rock than post-folk, especially with a guitarist who doubtless has a few Sonic Youth records. Based on this taster, she has at least one classic song in “Àibbas Jaska” which, stripped of the gloss of its studio incarnation, is so catchy it still resonates. (Pictured left: Elin Kåven at Folkelarm 2013, photo by Ingvil Skeie Ljones)
Mala Fama, by contrast, were an all-acoustic trio – Hardanger fiddle, guitar and double bass – with Finnish, Norwegian and Scottish members. Although clearly folk, and hardly likely to deal in peals of feedback, they were also intent on recalibrating the familiar, especially with the symbiotic interaction between the modal open tunings of guitarist Juhani Silvola and Sarah-Jane Summers’s spare, aggressively played fiddle. A band to be swept along with.
The tremendous and long-running P. A. Røstads Orkester are more formally traditional. A comment overheard described them as “what my parents would have danced to". Two accordions, double bass, acoustic guitar and violin merged in a beautiful, compelling music which instantly got the audience up to dance in pairs, circling the floor. With guest fiddler Sven Nyhus, the veteran academic and composer, they played and played, magically evoking an era before Folkelarm, before the music was fully open to influences from other genres. (Pictured right: the P. A. Røstads Orkester with Sven Nyhus at Folkelarm 2013)
Coming across this still-vital survival from Norway's past gave rise to pondering how folk has fused with other forms of popular music here. Although the Kristian Hauger Jazzorkester’s jazz-folk “Norwegian Jazz Fantasy” was recorded in 1929 and traditional players had worked with jazz musicians in Norway from the 1960s – Ivar Medaas played with Dexter Gordon at the Molde Festival in 1964 – the cross-pollination of folk with rock in Norway only came about in 1973, when the Hardanger fiddler Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa played with the band Saft at Oslo’s Ragnarock Festival. As it had been 100 years earlier, national identity was a hot topic then. Norwegians had voted not to join the European Federation (now the European Union) in 1972.
In 1974, after Ragnarock, the TV show Spellemannsprisen wouldn’t allow Osa and Saft to play together. They were confined to separate spots on the programme. Thankfully, as was more than apparent for players and audience alike at Folkelarm, those barriers are long gone.
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