Listening to the Nyckelharpa

Where all this started is with  Bazar Blå  (literally ‘Blue Bazaar’), who  are a 3-piece Swedish folk-band.  Their music is inspired by the Swedish spelman tradition whilst leaning slightly towards the music of other cultures, notably the Middle East.  They are Johan Hedin (Nyckelharpa), Björn Meyer (Bass) and Fredrik Gille (Percussion).

They’ve been playing and recording since the 1990’s, but I’ve been listening to 2 of their more recent albums – 2004’s ‘Nysch’ and 2009’s ‘Lost’, both of which are extremely good.  Many non-Scandinavian readers might be completely unaware of what a nyckelharpa is and explaining the details is probably going to stretch my extremely limited musical knowledge beyond its comfort zone, but I will try.

Nyckel’ is the Swedish word for key and this gives the clue to the nature of the nyckelharpa.  The instrument is roughly the size of a guitar and is generally slung round the neck and played with a bow.  The ‘neck’ of the nyckelharpa is festooned with wooden keys, which are used to change the pitch of the instrument.  This means that the nyckelharpa has more in common with the hurdy-gurdy than with the violin.  Whilst there are a number of variations, modern chromatic nyckelharpas tend to have 16 strings – 3 melody strings, 1 drone string and 12 resonance strings. 

Finnish nyckelharpa player Ärto Järvela

If you need more information, you’ll have to talk to an expert!  What interests me about the nyckelharpa is its sound, akin to a Hardanger violin, but with a fuller tone.  It’s an ideal instrument for exploring the massively rich traditions of Swedish folk music with its astringent harmonies and stately polkas, often infused with overtones of melancholy – the Swedish Blues. 

My introduction to the folk music of Sweden came about 40 years ago via a jazz album – Jan Johansson’s timeless ‘Jazz på Svenska’, (Jazz in Swedish) released in 1964.  It’s a wonderful record, only just over half an hour long, but with its stately, sombre mood and sparse arrangements for Johansson’s piano and Georg Riedel’s bass, it is an absolute classic and one of my favourite albums of all time.  Johansson plays a selection of a dozen or so classic Swedish folk tunes with extraordinary delicacy and lightness of touch,  refusing to cut loose and over-elaborate.  People will say that there are echoes of Brubeck and even (gawd ‘elp us) Jacques Loussier, but ‘Jazz på Svenska’ is far better than any such comparisons might suggest.

When I first heard this album in the 1970’s, most Swedish folk music was operating beneath the radar of utlendinger like me.  Sure, if you lived there, particularly in ‘folk-rich’ areas like Dalarna & Oppland, there was plenty going on at local level, but at a time when other cultures were actively championing the folk music traditions of their countries (Planxty & The Chieftains in Ireland, Fairport Convention et al in the UK, Alan Stivell in Brittany etc, etc) the Swedes seemed somewhat reticent.  Occasionally, something would poke its head out of the pine forests – there was an album on Sonet by some spelmanslag fiddle orchestra, but that was presented almost as an ethnographic exercise.  Organist Merit Hemmingson and her band produced a few albums of Swedish folk-meets-Jimmy Smith stuff, but no-one was really moving things along until relatively recently.  This always struck me as bizarre for a country with such a strong sense of its own traditions, but there were probably reasons and they are a trifle murky.

The revival of ‘Roots’ culture came late to Sweden.  Now there are bands like Bazar Blå, Frifot and the excellent Väsen who happily update the folk tunes of their country for modern audiences, both at home and in the midwest heartlands of Scandinavian/American Minnesota.  Hoven Droven have successfully blended Swedish folk with thunderous guitar rock;  finally, it’s all happening….

Bazar Blå on stage

So, what took the Swedes so long?  The answer is probably connected with their cultural interconnection with Nazi Germany during the 1930’s and the War Years.  In the Nazi worldview, one of the scourges of 1930’s society was what they referred to as ‘decadent art’.  This meant most jazz and dance music of the times, most ‘modern art’ and anything where any Jewish influence could be detected.  For the Nazis, a key concept was that of ‘das Volk’; not just a head-count of the German race, but an over-riding semi-mystical concept of collective memory, linking to the ancient tribes of Germany.  In this context, cities were bad news for the average German.  These healthy Aryan sons of the soil came from solid rustic roots, tied to the land and to tradition, only to be corrupted by the Jewish-inspired decadence of modern urban life.  In an effort to combat this, Hitler and the Nazi ideologues encouraged camping and hiking, trying to reconnect post-Weimar Germany with its bucolic Teutonic roots.

Predictably, the Nazis were looking for fellow-travellers and inevitably looked south to their Germanic neighbours in Austria, but also looked north, to the Norse sagas and folk traditions of Norway and Sweden. 

Swedish-German musical relations were also influenced by different views on music and politics in Sweden and Germany. For Nazi politicians, music and politics ran together and music was to give expression to Nazi ideology. In Sweden, music and politics were to be kept apart. Most Swedish composers and musicians defined their engagement with Nazi Germany as purely musical work. The Nazi government, for its part, used Nordic composers and music to confirm Nazi ideas on race biology and to spread Nazi propaganda.

‘Music & Politics’

Swedish anti-aircraft defence, 1940

Sweden remained neutral in both the World Wars of the last century and during World War 2 they did good business with Nazi Germany, shipping timber and iron ore into various Baltic ports.  However, it’s likely that the kinship went deeper than that.    In the 30’s, folk traditions were big news in Sweden as well, though they probably lacked the overtly political overtones found in Germany.  Some of this was about a reaction to the frightening pace of 20th Century life – cars, planes, electricity, bombs, factories – all of these things had rapidly and forever changed the landscapes of the pre-Industrial world.  For some, a retreat into the traditions of folk art meant a  reassuring reconnection with an era that had now largely been consumed and superseded by ‘the Modern’. 

The Swedish word folklig is still a word with mainly positive connotations—for example, meaning “natural,” “original,” and “simple.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept was often used to describe an authentic national culture that was threatened with extinction and had to be saved by collecting “folk culture,” among other things (Frykman 1993: 140, Lilja 1996: 31). Many people in Sweden during the first half of the twentieth century considered a concern for folklig musik as a remedy against “foreign mass culture,” and an effective protection for “the preservation of Swedishness” (Ling 1979: 22, Bohman 1979: 56–57).

‘Music & Politics’

Like most European countries, Sweden was infected with the virus of Fascism during the 1930’s but their tendency towards liberalism and tolerance meant that it never gained the same foothold as it did in Germany & Italy.  Swedish neutrality both before and during World War 2 was a question of brinkmanship; knowing when to resist and when to give ground to the combatants.  Once the Nazis had occupied Denmark and Norway, Sweden was trapped in its Baltic pond, heavily dependent on German goodwill for its survival.  Under the circumstances, economic and cultural interaction between Sweden and the Nazis was less of a source of controversy than any military involvement.   For their part, the Nazis enthusiastically espoused the folk art and music of their northern cousins.  Somehow, Sweden managed to maintain her neutral stance throughout the War, but the association of folk traditions with right-wing politics meant that once the Nazis had been defeated, younger Swedes were looking to American jazz and rock rather than to their own cultural heritage.  Folk music survived domestically but  inevitably diminished as its practitioners grew older and died.

After Jan Johansson came the ‘Roots’ movement of the late 1960’s, who were able to adopt the instruments and the repertoire of Swedish folk, free from the taint of wartime politics.  Since then, the tide has gradually turned, with Swedish folk bands making significant inroads internationally via labels like Northside and even ECM.  Availability of CD’s via the internet has also had a major impact as even the smallest of Swedish labels is now able to reach an international audience.  I read somewhere that there are now an estimated 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden – it would be interesting to compare that with 50 years ago.  Also,  the nyckelharpa is finally beginning to escape its parochial roots and become part of that repertory of international instruments – sitars, koras, tabla drums, uilleann pipes and the like – which are cropping up on recordings of music divorced from their immediate origins.  A case in point would be the Spanish nyckelharpa player Ana Alcaide; born in Madrid and now resident in Toledo, she won an Erasmus Scholarship to study at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. 

Ana Alcaide

Already a competent violinist, Ana adopted the nyckelharpa during her stay in Sweden and apart from playing in various Celtic bands in Spain has also recorded 2 CD’s of solo nyckelharpa material which taps into the music of Spain’s Sephardic communities alongside material originating in Sweden, Germany and Greece.  Bazar Blå, too, are blending their indigenous folk tunes with the tonalities of music from Turkey, Lebanon and further east.  Their percussionist Fredrik Gille plays a whole range of instruments, but is particularly adept with the bendir or Arabic frame drum, itself a distant cousin of the Irish bodrhán.  This is nearly as much a key component of the band’s sound as Hedin’s nyckelharpa.

At one point, it seemed as though the Nyckelharpa was destined for obscurity and even complete oblivion, but the revival of the Swedish folk tradition and the emergence of World Music means that it may well now reach a wider audience than ever before.

Recommended Playlist

Väsen – ‘Essence’ (1994) / ‘Live at the Nordic Roots Festival’  (2001)

Bazar Blå – ‘Nysch’  (2004) / ‘Lost’ (2009)

The Nyckelharpa Orchestra – ‘Byss-Calle’  (2000)

Ana Alcaide – ‘Viola de Teclas’ (2006)

Jan Johansson – Jazz på Svenska’ (1964)


2 responses to “Listening to the Nyckelharpa

  1. In Lohja and Espoo near Helsinki they fenced off the school building with barbed wire, in order to ban children the access to a school.

    Sweden was silently pursuing principles of racial purity. During 41 years some 60,000 people were sterilized as misfits.

    The Swedish government was responsible for the most iron ore the Nazis received. Kiruna-Gällivare ore fields in Northern Sweden were all important to Nazi Germany.

    These massive deliveries of iron ore and military facilities from Sweden to Nazi Germany lengthened World War II. Casualties of the war have been estimated at 20 million killed in Europe. How many of them died due to Sweden’s material support to Nazi Germany, is not known.

    The Swedish drinking toast (skal) has a rather macabre background; it originally meant ‘skull’. The word has come down from a custom practiced by the warlike and terrorist Vikings who used the dried-out skulls of their enemies as drinking mugs, with the evident advantage that the mug held a large quantity of mead and could be easily replaced.

    The Viking raids are remembered: Spanish-speaking mothers warn their children that if they do not behave, the Norwegian (el noruego) will carry them off.

  2. Hi Raimo,
    Seems like you’re not too well-disposed towards Sweden! I don’t have any particular axe to grind with any country – combatant or neutral – in World War 2 or any other war. In my view, countries aren’t evil, but individuals are capable of evil and if enough of them get into positions of power, then suddenly you have the formation of ideological groups with dangerous ideas and that’s when things get out of hand.

    I’m not well-informed enough about Sweden’s politics during the War to know how viable it would have been for them to refuse to do business with the Nazis on ideological grounds. Perhaps for them selling Germany iron ore was the price they had to pay in order to preserve their country and their neutrality.

    Having spoken to members of my own family and also to Scandinavians who lived through the War , the common thread seems to be the absolute need to do whatever was necessary to survive.

    Nonetheless, whilst billions of words have been written all over the world about World War 2, there does seem a degree of reticence among Swedes to discuss the war years. Maybe they would take the view that dealing with the Nazis was a bargain they just had to make. It would be interesting to hear some opinions on this, but of course most of that generation are now gone and most will have carried their thoughts – largely unspoken – to the grave. Thanks for your comments.

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