Olov Johansson and André Ferrari have performed and recorded together many times over the years, mostly as members of the Swedish folk band Väsen. For much of its existence since 1989 Väsen consisted of Johansson on nyckelharpa, Mikael Marin on viola, and Roger Tallroth on guitar, with Ferrari occasionally joining them on percussion in the studio and on tour. The members have been involved in various side projects over the years, but always remained a core trio – then in 2020 Tallroth departed the group, leaving Marin and Johansson as a duo. But also in 2020 Johansson and Ferrari started exploring the idea of playing and recording together, and this disc emerged in the summer of 2021 as the result.
The two have played together in ensembles before – on Väsen’s *Linnaeus Väsen* for instance and the American funk-rock big band Snarky Puppy’s *Family Dinner Vol 2*. (André is now a member of Bokanté, led by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League with members from different countries.)
Johansson is a charismatic and entertaining performer who has turned the nyckelharpa – a zither played with a short bow and using keys instead of fingers on a fretboard to change the notes – from a regional curiosity on the order of the hurdy-gurdy into a sexy and dynamic instrument. Well, to this reviewer, anyway. And Ferrari is an intensively creative percussionist who seems to create complex polyrhythmic schemes as easily as you or I breathe. Playing nothing but the nyckelharpa, percussion and some electronic synthesizers, they’ve made a program of highly engaging music rooted in tradition but thoroughly modern.
Take for example the opening tune and first single “Skevschottis,” which is Swedish for a skewed schottische – that being a folk dance in six beats. Doomy electronics and boomy percussion open the tune, and when Olov’s nyckelharpa enters he’s droning while bowing a shambolic dance in alternating bars of six and five beats. It’s a long piece at more than seven minutes with lots of synth bass and pedal effects on the nyckelharpa. It’s also, with all the electronics, a statement of what’s to come, so you’re not expecting anything very traditional.
Which is not to say every track features synths or electronic enhancement. To my ear only a few of the 11 tracks do. The most electronics appear on “Dusch (Shower), which sounds to me like a variation on a polska, which ends up having the nyckelharpa being played with mallet like a dulcimer over a backing of lots of synthesized sounds. But there are lots of tracks with synth bass, which definitely adds some needed bottom to some tunes, such as “Torpet,” which I think is a word for a croft or hut. The tune sounds heavily influenced by folk dance but it’s played over a loping, uneven polyrhythmic base and the percussion is way forward in the mix. That bass actually doubles the funky nyckelharpa melody on “Torn,” and at other times in that tune bubbles behind like the fretless bass used in lots of ’80s pop jazz with rootsy overtones – think Chuck Mangione. Effects are added to the cinematic “Eriksdal,” making it sound like you’re listening to it on a bad phone connection or a radio as reception comes and goes.
I’m not saying much about the percussion, but it’s at least 50 percent of this music. André is a very lively and intuitive player, using lots of cymbal and other percussive instruments in addition to actual drums. At least a couple of these tunes (“Långharpan” and “Viller”) sound at least partially improvised by both players – let me revise that. I’m fairly certain that most of what André plays is improvised, although most of the tunes Olov plays are composed but I suspect neither of them play anything quite the same way twice. In the case of “Jösse”, a very uptempo tune, André plays a rhythmic line that is just as notable for what it leaves out as what it includes. In other words, he’s not emphasizing the “beat” but playing around it much of the time. He plays a beat that’s part martial and part hip-hop on “Vossingen,” a stutter-step polska with a cool, meandering melodic line on the nyckelharpa.
Of particular note is the penultimate track “Intekonsekvenskt.” This one needs to be listened to many times to figure out just what’s going on. It sounds like the nyckelharpa and the percussion are playing two different pieces, the melody in an uneven rhythm, perhaps seven beats, the percussion an inconsistent series of beats – or maybe he’s just playing on everything but the beats again. This one ends with the cries of what sounds like a loon, and leads without break into the final track “Viller.” It’s a nice way to go out, a slow haunting tune to which André adds deep notes on kickdrum and toms and the swish of brushed cymbals.
Some of my favorite music of the past few years has been made by Nordic musicians who draw on Scandinavian and Finnish folk traditions but blend them with modern touches from the worlds of jazz and experimental music. Add Ferrari and Johansson’s In Beat Ween Rhythm to that list. Learn more and purchase on Johansson’s website.
(Olov Johansson Music, 2021)