Lena Willemark’s När som gräset det vajar, Ale Möller Band’s Bodjal, and Maria Kalaniemi Trio’s Tokyo Concert

cover art for När som gräset det vajarI’ve seen Lena Willemark play with Frifot more times than I can remember. Frifot is Willemark on voice and fiddle, Per Gudmundson on fiddle and bagpipe, and Ale Möller on mandola, hammered dulcimer, and flutes. Their music is some of what I play quite often in the deep of winter. Now, understand that deciding when an album is Frifot and when it’s not is somewhat open to conjecture. All three of the Frifot musicians are here on När som gräset det vajar, along with a number of other talented folk, all of whom are fiddlers: Bjorn Stabbi, Kalle Almlof and Verf Lena Egard. The album was originally released in 1989, a year or so before the first Frifot CD (the one titled Frifot by Möller, Willemark and Gudmundsen), so perhaps what we have here is a sort of proto-Frifot. As I said in the review I wrote of a number of Frifot’s CDs, ‘The Hollow Ear Web site noted, ‘All three musicians are in the top ranks of Swedish music; traditional folk, jazz and the more avant garde aspect of what in Europe is becoming known as ‘newly composed folk music.’ All three have spent the last two decades making sure that the preservation of their heritage is not a museum piece, but rather an exploration of the past that leads inexorably to a new future.’

Frifot, to my ear, has a lighter, less dark sound than Garmarna does. If Garmarna is the winter music for the Nordic gods, then Frifot is their summer music. There’s a jazzy feel to Frifot, much as one finds in Mylliart or Kalabara. And on all of their recordings there is an emphasis on the vocals, so one can always read the lyrics. And Lena Willemark screams so very, very well. If she were Irish, she’d have been a Banshee! No, Lena on CD is not quite as amazing as she is live, but she’s still impressive. Like the lead vocalists for Nordic groups Garmarna (Emma Härdelin) and Gjallarhorn (Jenny Willhelms), she really does sound like a goddess. And the fiddles only reinforce that feel. There’s an intertwining between the two, voice and fiddle, that has to be heard to be believed!

Roots World (see link to the article below) has a nice quote by Möller on Lena Willemark: ‘To listen to Willemark, one would think she was a jazz singer first, and then came to folk music later. Not so. Lena and I have been working for a long time. When I first met her she was strictly in the tradition, and she was very good. But now she is working more and more towards freedom, towards a personal sound, a personal expression.’ Möller said that the vocal tradition in Sweden has never been as strong as the fiddle, leaving singers to make a more personal mark on their work. There has possibly been a little more room for inspiration from jazz. He’s right — Frifot, the Nordan Project, and this CD do have a jazzy feel to them. Anyone who likes most of the Northside catalog will be pleased with this disc. The emphasis here is less on the instruments than on the voice. I’ve said before that I consider Frifot to be music fit for those long, dark days of Winter — this CD’s no exception to that. I’ve heard more Nordic neo-traditional CDs than I care to think of, and I can say that this is one of the very best I’ve heard!

cover art for bodjalNordic music of the sort we are discussing here is, like the traditional Swedish smorgasbord, comprised of traditional elements (the instruments in particular) and not so traditional material (much of the music is younger than a newborn bairn) coming together to produce something rather tasty. Sometimes, however, the results can be a bit less than fully palatable. An example of the latter is the Ale Möller Band’s Bodjal. Now, it’s not that Möller’s capable of doing a bad performance, but the light content of Scandinavian material surprised me. Rootsworld, in that interview with Möller, quotes him as saying, ‘I am always looking for a sound where one note tells a story. One must find the right note, and play it.’ He is an acknowledged master of more instruments than a small ensemble might play on a given night — he plays bouzouki, birch bark horns, wooden flutes, mandola, harp and hammer dulcimer. And he’s a genius on putting together musicians to play in ensembles. And this release is no exception to that.

So why am I disappointed? Have you ever gone to one of those all-you-can-digest buffets? Where the roast pork is served alongside the seafood, which in turn is next to the stuffed grape leaves? And where the whole buffet looks like it’s lacking focus? Interested in hearing Greek vocals? They’re here. As are West African and Indian vocals! More than anything, Bodjal resembles a teleseries Donal Lunny once did called “Sult: Spirit of the Music,” which mixed Irish trad music with all sorts of other Celtic influences. Some results were quite fine, but some were just plain weird — or worse yet, just boring, such as ‘On Raglan Road’ as interpreted by Mark Knopfler. (No emails please — I like Dire Straits. But Celtic music is not Mark’s strong suit.)

Same problem here for me. I repeat once again that the performers are not the problem, but rather the material being performed. Besides Ale on strings, accordion, flutes and voice, we have Maria Stellas (Greek vocals), Mamadou Sene (West African vocals), Shirpa Nandy (Indian vocals), Kurash Sultan (Uyghur vocals), Magnus Stinnerbom (fiddles, mandolin), Sebatian Dube (bass) and Rafael Sida Hulzar (percussion). Guest performers include Jonas Knutsson (sax) and Mats Oberg (keyboards).

Sigh … There’s no feel to this CD, just a series of musical sketches that are good, but disconnected from each other. Unfortunately, I like Ale as he plays in Frifot, the Nordan Project, and in duo mode like he does with Aly Bain on Fully Rigged. That CD is the one I turn to first when I want him at his best. As I noted in the my review, it’s ‘. . . an album so good that it begs for playing over and over. Aly Bain and Ale Möller’s Fully Rigged blends the very, very best of Nordic and Scottish fiddle music together. Aly Bain (Boys of the Lough) and Ale Möller (Frifot) are two of the most splendid fiddlers one can hope to hear, and true gentlemen to boot. It’s been my good luck to hear both of them in concert — if you get a chance to see either one of them perform, don’t pass it up! Fully Rigged makes no pretension to being a ‘live’ album, but rather a carefully crafted affair that makes the best use of recording technology. It’s truly nice to see an album that’s not just another ‘Nordic thrash folk’ album, where the volume of noise disguises the lack of musical talent.’ Unfortunately, Bodjal will not be one that gets heavy rotation in this household, as this sort of pan-global music is definitely not what I or Brigid find interesting!

cover art for Tokyo ConcertIf Celtic music can be a sort of musical langage des halles, I see no reason why Nordic music can’t be, too. And so I’m not surprised that this CD by the Maria Kalaniemi Trio is titled simply Tokyo Concert. Certainly not as startling as the time I ended up on a beach in Sri Lanka listening to Bob Marley, while eating something that sort of tasted like Indian take-away, while sipping a drink consisting of arrack (heart of palm vodka — made retsina taste good) and warm coke. (That’s a tale for another time. I’ll even tell you about the brothel I ended up in by accident.) Green Man has reviewed Maria before. Gary Whitehouse said in his review of Ambra, her 2001 CD with Timo Alakotila, ‘Maria Kalaniemi is perhaps the best known and certainly one of the most prolific of the new school of Finnish folk musicians who are pushing the boundaries of their music. The accordionist, a graduate of the prestigious Sebelius Academy, combines folk, classical and jazz from Europe and the New World into a concoction that is at once cosmopolitan and recognizably Nordic.’ And our Music Review Editor, Kim Bates, thought highly of Ahma: ‘Kalaniemi and company have produced a lovely album that should appeal to fans of the Scandinavian traditions as well as accordion aficionados — it certainly comes highly recommended from me.’

Yes, Maria Kalaniemi plays an accordion. So does Karen Tweed, who has played with Timo Alakotila on May Monday. If you’re thinking of the awful shite that the American ‘musician’ named Lawrence Welk played on his accordion, you are sadly in need of having your musical tastes updated, as Welk may have the single worse player of that instrument. (Bela, our resident Balkan violinist, says that’s not quite true — he’s heard buskers in the Balkan region that were worse. Shudder!)

The incredibly sparse liner notes tell us that the Maria Kalaniemi Trio is Maria (accordion) and Timo (piano), along with Olli Varis (guitar). It was recorded in Tokyo on the 8th of December, 2001. Other than a few technical notes and an introduction to Maria (not really about the Trio, as the header would suggest), there’s nothing else here. Fortunately, the music very nicely speaks for itself. Remember that I said Frifot has a jazzy feel to it? So does this CD, as do all other CDs involving Klaniemi. Not at all surprising to me, as most modern neo-traditional Nordic music has, to me ear, a jazz feel. Is it the influence of American jazz players settling in Europe before WWII? Or is there just something in Nordic music of this sort that naturally sounds this way? I haven’t a clue. Certainly the choice of instruments by this group wouldn’t be out of place in the hands of a jazz trio, playing in some smoky Left Bank café between the wars. Like Swåp, Kalabra, or Draupner, the very essence of this jazzy music is to make you want to dance. Yes, there’s a winter’s edge to much of what Frifot does, but the Maria Kalaniemi Trio is more in keeping with a warm summer’s night. If there’s a Celtic music counterpart to this group, I’d say it’s Nightnoise at its very best, as both groups are more upbeat than much of the other music in their genres.

(Amigo, 2004)
(Amigo, 2004)
(Amigo, 2004)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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