Over the past couple of years I’ve greatly enjoyed reviewing a number of offerings from the German family of labels Nordic Notes and CPL-Music. Their releases cover a much greater variety than I am capable of covering (or even aware of!), so I welcome this sterling collection of European and Nordic roots-based music. This 20-track sampler Folk and World Music Galore Vol 1 offers one song each from the labels’ most recent 20 releases.
Those releases include such a wide range of styles, from Finnish chamber jazz to Siberian overtone singing, bouncy Slavic electro-folk to tear-jerking Bosnian sevdah, somber Icelandic folk to Finnish folk metal and punked-up klezmer. “Sometimes a little overview is needed,” label head Christian Pliefke says with typical understatement.
So strap yourself in and let’s take a ride. First, a look back at the tracks from albums I’ve previously reviewed. The very first is “Topshuur” from the album Chorchok by the Siberian group New Asia, which I noted is “an homage to the traditional instrument and the style of music it plays. The song moves between overtone and regular vocal styles in a western style verse/chorus/verse structure and a three-beat time signature. Though it starts with a very pastoral setting of overtone singing accompanied by the topshuur and light synth strings, it rises to a dramatic climax that includes electric guitar with distortion pedals.” This song also showed up on the CPL-Music sampler Folk and Great Tunes From Siberia and Far East . I’d like to see other tracks from this group instead of this fine song being recycled again.
One of my favorite tracks from the Serbian folk collective Vartra’s album Basma that I reviewed earlier in 2022 was “Varta-Sena,” and it shows up early on in this disc. In my review I said: “The band makes music that’s fairly characterized as neo-Slavic doom folk, a tribal, rhythmic, shamanic blend of drone and beat, heightened by electronics, rattling percussion, didgeridoo and vocals that veer from soft chants to eerie wails. It’s easily the most dramatic music I’ve heard in many a season.”
Divanhana, the Bosnian sevdah band founded in 2009 by a group of students from the Sarajevo Music Academy, is represented by the song “Ćilim” from their 2022 album Basma. In my review, I noted: The second track “Ćilim” is just wild Balkan folk dance music at its best. Written by the band with lyrics by Bosnian singer and composer Samir Śojko, this horo is sure to get everybody up and dancing.
Reaching back a little further, I reviewed the dark Finnish chamber jazz album Lohtu by the Ilkka Heinonen Trio in 2021. They’re represented here by the song “Marie,” which figured prominently in my review. “The album’s sequencing is masterful, with a couple of more upbeat pieces interspersed as needed breaks from the post-modern gloom. The first is the second track “Marie.” It’s a lightly loping airy pop ballad dedicated to the late Marie Fredriksson, singer in the Swedish pop duo Roxette. Vocalist Maija Kauhanen’s yoik-adjacent wordless vocals sometimes double the jouhikko melody line and sometimes soar above it.”
Of the music that’s new to me, which is most of it, my hands-down favorite is “Ég veletek / Goodbye” by Meszecsinka, a Hungarian four-piece acoustic-electric folk band with a female lead vocalist and psychedelic guitars and strings. This music pushes a lot of my happy buttons.
Another fun discovery here is Suistamon Sähkö, the androgynous Finnish four-piece ethno techno folk band. Members are Anne-Mari Kivimäki, the accordionist, vocalist and the project’s originator, with singers and dancers Tuomas Juntunen and Reetta-Kaisa Iles, and beatmaker/rapper Eero Grundström. On paper that doesn’t sound like something I’d go for, well, except for the accordion, but their song “Varokaa! Hengenva” is gloriously entertaining and recognizably roots-based.
Ditto for “Ben Beklemem” by AySay, a Danish trio led by singer Luna Ersahin, who has a Danish mother and Kurdish/Turkish father. Their music reflects a melding of those heritages, a blend of Danish folk pop and Turkish psychedelia, which I find enchanting.
An album that I intended to review very early in 2022 but just didn’t get to is Zay Freylekh by Dobranotch, a Russian band from St. Petersburg that plays Balkan and klezmer music. I’m sorry I slept on it. It’s a very entertaining disc, and their track here, “Birobidzhan,” has quite a back story. The song originally came from the 1936 Soviet film The Fortune Seekers. It was a propaganda film hoping to persuade Russian Jews to settle in Birobidhzan, a newly established autonomous region in the very far east of Russia. The song apparently was very popular among Soviet Jews, and one of Dobranotch’s members recently found the old single among his grandfather’s belongings! There’s great work from the tuba player throughout the album, including a great series of solos on this song.
Originally from the Czech Republic, Barbora Xu is a singer-songwriter living on Otava, an island in the Finnish archipelago. She plays two types of zither, the Chinese gusheng and the Finnish kantele, putting ancient poetry to music and song. Her gentle and hushed yet intense folk style is very affecting on her track here, “Lintuseni.”
The Karelian Finnish trio Celenka‘s 2021 album Villoi Varsa celebrates Karelian female singers whose songs were collected, often anonymously, in the early 20th century. Singing and playing harmonium, harmonica, kantele, and trumpet plus foot percussion, Eero Grundström, Emmi Kujanpää, and Jarkko Niemelä perform songs originally sung in Karelian, Veps, Finnish and Russian during an era of war and persecution. Their song here, “Vanusha,” builds from a solo vocal accompanied by droning harmonium and kantele to a rousing anthem with soaring multi-part harmonies, complete with a lovely coda in which solo trumpet and a capella vocals alternate. Very stirring. (I reviewed Emmi Kujanpää’s debut solo album Nani in 2020.)
The powerful Finnish vocalist Päivi Hirvonen accompanies herself on fiddle and bowed lyre. Here song here “Tuulen Tyttö” is from her new album Kallio, which I plan to review in the near future. This song with its strong emotive vocals and distinctive fiddling is representative of what I’ve heard so far. Another solo act, Maija Kauhanen, performs as a one-woman electro-folk band – singing multi-tracked harmonies and playing kantele and percussion. On this song, the catchy pop-adjacent “Linnunrata” from her 2022 album, has Varttina-like harmonies in her clear sweet soprano voice and virtuoso kantele playing.
More music on the upbeat side comes from the German folk rock cabaret ensemble Gankino Circus with the bouncy klezmer-like “Summer”; the supercharged oompa music of the German ethno-folk band Kellerkommando (“Wer waaß”); and “Kak Uladilsya Kotok” from the Russian electro-folk group Staritsa.
I find the bouncy, upbeat “Tuvalu” from the German “new folk” group Bube Dame König rather bland and uninteresting. Likewise the Nordic folk pop of “Træ” from Faroese singer-songwriter Gudrid Hansdottir. The Sámi electro-folk pop of the mother-daughter duo Solju, with its vocal style influenced by the traditional chant called yoik, is a bit over-produced and electro for my taste. All of this is heart-felt, roots-based music though, and is well-performed, so your mileage may vary.
In sharp contrast to most of the rest of the album is the dark, somber “Stóðum tvö í túni” from the Icelandic contemporary folk group UMBRA. This song, from their fourth album, 2022’s BJARGRÚNIR has chilling close harmonies and hints of jazz sensibility, particularly in a lute solo backed by upright bass and percussion in the final chorus.
The compilers wisely close out the album on a very upbeat note, the descriptively titled “Moshpit Mazurka” from the Finnish folk metal band Ritva Nero. Another song to get your feet and whole body moving, it also features a magical combination of nykelharpa and soprano sax in the final chorus, a sound that blends the ancient and modern quite effectively.
Folk and World Music Galore is one of the best world music compilation albums I’ve come across in a long time. Anyone who likes any kind of northern European folk music, from the traditional to the highly innovative, is sure to find a lot to like here. For more information on these groups, check out the the CPL-Music Bandcamp page.
(Folk Galore, 2022)