Annbjorg Lien’s Baba Yaga

Reviewing a CD is usually a relatively straightforward task. Stick it on and listen to it, then categorise, compare, contrast and criticise! It’s the category bit that provides the sticking point here. Almost all of us navigate our way through the musical landscape this way. Even the index page of Green Man (which, let’s face it, is a pretty specialist affair) contains nine different categories of recorded music, 80C3E3D8-0B8F-4795-BC48-A06D765272F1including the old hyphenated chestnuts like folk – rock.

Annbjorg Lien is a Norwegian composer, arranger, instrumentalist, and singer, who occupies an artistic space where clumsy attempts at easy definition are irrelevant. With Baba Yaga,  she’s created a music in which traditional fiddle tunes are pop songs, string quartets are folk dancers, electronic rhythms are an element of symphonic composition and the sound of human breathing is both rhythm and melody.

Appropriately, the opening track is titled “Loki,” AKA the Norse god of chaos, though as Lien points out in the booklet notes (he) has a variety of names. The music whilst initially disorienting is far from chaotic. It is confusing, but only insomuch as it manages to be complex, challenging and accessible all at once. What else does Lien have to say about Loki? He confronts us with our own ignorance. The following “Iriandia” was originally created for a play, which was performed at the Beaivvas Sami National Theatre. It’s in jig time, so think “Fjord Dance,” if you’re looking for convenient (but inadequate) reference points.

“Astra” is a slow, atmospheric track full of lush string harmonies. Next we’re in to “Aja,” described as a musical journey in time through the interplay of the two original sources of music in Norway: the Norwegian and the Sami. This journey begins with a stately hymn – like tune from the hardanger fiddle, builds to a section of fiery folk dance music and finds its startling conclusion in throat singing and the aforementioned breathing.

“Baba Yaga” is a tremendously powerful piece of music which again defies easy comparison. For a difficult one, try to imagine an instrumental folk – rock version of “I am the Walrus”, inspired by “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and performed in honour of a mythological Russian witch… “Old Larry” provides an acoustic break from the dense multi layered sound that precede it. It’s infectious folky, fiddley, fluety fun propelled along by hand percussion and bouzouki.

“January” is a slow air of almost unbearable beauty, guaranteed to slow the hardest heart, and moisten the most jaundiced eye. “Ritual” successfully combines its disparate ancient and modern elements into something moving and timeless. “Inoque,” inspired by a visit to Mozambique, is perhaps the only track where there’s an obvious feeling of fusion, (Lien’s hardanger fiddle, singing and clapping children) rather than something seamlessly organic being performed. It’s worth mentioning that this track came about because Lien is a representative of Save the Children, and the experience was hugely rewarding for her.  Among other things she learned that Norwegians move their hips as though they were made of wood!”

“Wackidoo” is just a total blast from start to finish. Want another difficult comparison?  Try Donal Lunny’s Coolfin jamming with Emerson Lake and Palmer on for size. Lien describes “Wackidoo” as a place where you can worship your favourite heroes; make weird sounds, or just play happily along. See, I told you so. The CD ends with “W,” dedicated to the memory of fiddler Hans W. Brimi…. (whose) lyrical expression has been a source of inspiration to folk musicians in Norway and will remain so for generations to come.

That heartfelt dedication contains for me the secret of Annbjorg Lien and her incredible music. She’s a folk musician, and happy to count herself as one. Don’t be distracted by all the references to minimoogs, electric guitars, drum programming and additional sound textures (Distorted Reality Vol 1 and 2.) In this respect she follows a similar path to Sharon Shannon, the young Irish woman who’s taken the button accordion into rock, reggae and house music and still sounds like a traditional Clare musician. It requires a staggering level of musical intelligence to pull something of this scope off, and Lien, like Shannon, not only manages it but makes it sound like the easiest and most natural thing to do.

Let’s go back to the beginning and take another look at that artistic space that Annbjorg Lien occupies. It’s perhaps best summed up as one where the magical is commonplace. Once the listener can take that idea on board then there really is no need to try and categorise this music. Listen and believe.

(Northside, 2000)

[Stephen Hunt]