ACOUSTIC WORLD MUSIC FROM NORWAY

by El-Aleph



While both Finnish and Swedish musicians mixing traditional Scandinavian music with elements from jazz and rock have received high praise in the international music press during the 90's, the many Norwegians working in the same field have received little attention. With the exception of releases from Mari Boine Persen and Annbjorg Lien, international audiences have had few opportunities to sample Norway's contribution to the so-called world music. Most local record companies working in this field do not have a budget that enables them to market their records abroad and their distribution nets outside Norway leave a lot to be desired.

Things seem to be changing, however. Kirkelig Kulturverksted, a label responsible for several excellent releases in the world music genre, now has it's catalogue on-line at: http://www.kkv.no/ . Thus, the time seems right for a quick round-up of some their most important releases of the last decade.

Useful Addresses:

Kirkelig Kulturverksted
Nordraaks gate 14
PB 3204 Elisenberg
N-0208 Oslo
NORWAY
E-mail: kkv@kkv.no
Phone: +47 22 43 00 60
Fax: +47 22 43 61 40

The Norwegian Music Club
Todd Mestad
P. O. Box 144
Marine On St. Croix 55047
USA
E-mail: Tnorwegian@aol.com


Jan Garbarek and Agnes Buen Garnas: "Rosensfole" FXCD 83 (1989)

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It would be unfair to claim that this record alone was responsible for giving contemporary Norwegian world music its distinct identity, since that would mean ignoring offerings from many lesser known artists. Excellent folk-rock bands and traditional musicians had already demonstrated how the wealth of tonal color in traditional Scandinavian folk songs could be combined with elements from other musical genres. In addition, several well-known classical composers had also based their work on themes from folk music.

However, Garbarek definitely did bring a new approach to the field. As a musician starting out in free-jazz he had long been exploring themes from traditional and ethnic music in collaboration with Keith Jarret or his own quartets. Likewise, as one of the architects behind the so-called ECM-school of jazz, his cool, abstract saxophone playing had long been thought to draw inspiration from Scandinavian folk music. When he decided to make a recording based solely on medieval Norwegian ballads it turned out to be an album of dazzling originality and beauty - an album that became one of the most influential discs of the early 90's. It alerted a lot of younger Norwegian jazz musicians to their own musical heritage and showed them a completely new way to reinvent old ballads and folk-themes.

The album is justly co-credited to traditional singer Agnes Buen Garnas who sings on all tracks. She was also responsible for unearthing the songs partly from written sources, partly from her own fieldwork and, in the case of the opening track "Innferd", even from her own mother.

Garbarek and co-producer Manfred Eicher gave the songs the full ECM treatment with a lot of space between the instruments and an almost New-Age like instrumentation. The result is a meditative sound that is neither folk nor jazz. The trademark saxophone is here of course, but it is far less dominant than on Garbarek's jazz releases. Instead he concentrates on synthesizers, hand drums and various wind instruments and creates a strange, almost surreal setting for the songs, while the bell-clear voice of Garnas carries the melody, employing a variety of traditional vocal techniques from straight ballad singing to cattle calls. This is highly evocative music rich in dark moods and otherworldly harmonies. It is being distributed internationally by ECM and should be available from any American or European record store.


Arild Andersen : "Sagn" FXCD 100 (1990)
Arild Andersen: "Arv" FXCD 133 (1994)



Like Garbarek, bass player Arild Andersen started out in free-jazz. He is internationally known through collaborations with people like George Russell, Don Cherry and the aforementioned Garbarek. He has also led his own, highly acclaimed jazz combo "Masqualero". These two releases, recorded with a band including folk singer Kirsten Braaten Berg, who also plays jew's harp and Langeleik (which is a Norwegian zither), and supremely talented percussionist Nana Vasconcelos both contain music based on themes from Norwegian folk music.

"Sagn" is a suite of songs made to order for the Voss Jazz Festival in 1990. Recorded just a year after Garbarek and Garnas' groundbreaking "Rosensfole" it can be seen as the natural culmination of the aural experiments started on that record. As a member of Garbarek's 70's quartet, Andersen was no newcomer to folk music. He had used themes from various ethnic sources as starting point for improvisations long before the term world music was invented and had traveled roughly the same musical path as Garbarek. It was more or less a coincidence that they got interested in their Scandinavian roots at the same time. "Sagn" have much in common with "Rosensfole": The songs borrow their melodies from traditional sources and vocalist Kirsten Braaten Berg comes from a traditional folk music. But while Garbarek's music is a calm and multi-layered studio creation, Andersen's compositions have a looser feel to them. Both "Sagn" and "Arv" were written to be performed live by a working band and each musician is given lots of space to improvise. This results in several moments of pure transcendence, like when Vasconcelos' wordless scatting merges with the traditional singing of Berg on "Sjugur og Trollbrura" or the many instances when Berg's voice comes soaring forth carried along by Andersen's whomping bass. Besides Andersen, Berg and Vasconcelos, the band on "Sagn" was: Frode Alnaes (guitar), Bendik Hofseth (saxophone) and Bugge Wesseltoft (keyboards).

Like it's predecessor, "Arv" was also made to order - this time for the Bergen classical music festival in 1993. The line up had been slightly altered: Eivind Aarseth had taken over the guitar and newcomer Paolo Vinaccia shared percussion duties with Vasconcelos. The traditional melodies on "Arv" are the same folk songs used by the classical composer Edvard Grieg in some of his most famous compositions (opus 17, 66 and 72). The record offers 1990's versions that are very different, but definitely in Grieg's spirit. Needless to say it is every inch as good as "Sagn" and the fact that one can compare the arrangements with those of Grieg's makes for some fascinating genre-crossing listening experiences. I personally prefer Andersen's two releases to "Rosensfole" as I find the music more spontaneous and swinging. Garbarek concentrates on the background, building up layers of sound that wraps the traditional vocals in unfamiliar harmonies and thus give them a new freshness. Andersen's is closer to jazz with lots of breathtaking ensemble playing as well as excellent solos from each musician. While Garbarek and Garnas could be said to have started a new trend in Norwegian folk music, Andersen's releases pretty much define the genre. These two albums are almost interchangeable and both are absolute musts in any collection of contemporary folk (or jazz) music from Norway. "Sagn" is distributed internationally by ECM, while "Arv" has only been released by Kirkelig Kulturverksted.


Arild Andersen "Kristin Lavransdatter" FXCD 154 (1995)


This one was written by Andersen for a play based on Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize-winning novel. I have seen this release slandered in an on-line review as inconsequential music but I would like to argue that it actually develops the ideas from "Arv" and "Sagn" further. Not as immediately arresting as those two masterpieces, Andersen here creates a less flashy, more pastoral sound. The inspiration is drawn from medieval ballads, instrumental folk tunes and jazz. However, this all new band (Andersen and Vinaccia plus Tore Brunborg on saxophone, wooden flutes and ocarina, and Reidar Skaar on keyboards) deliver compositions where the folk element is more subtly incorporated in the music and the musicians' roots in the European free-jazz tradition much more to the front. This is especially true for tracks like "Erlends Flukt" and "Erlend" which would not have been out of place on Andersen's normal ECM releases.
If one approaches this record like a movie-soundtrack - not expecting the combination of breathtaking instrumental virtuosity and characteristic folk singing on the previous albums - one will find that the band actually has managed to create an even more homogenous fusion between folk music and jazz. Besides functioning as illustration to scenes in the play this music definitely can stand alone as a separate, highly evocative, piece of work. In addition to the band, the CD-version includes contributions from the Oslo Chamber Choir, Kjetil Bjerkestrand on organ and a string quartet.


Knut Reiersrud: "Tramp" FXCD 129 (1993)

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Knut Reiersrud started out as a young guitarist strongly influenced by Chicago blues and his first recordings were made in that style. Over the years, while he was working as session musician on a myriad of projects, his take on acoustic and electric guitar changed considerably and his music has now become rather different from what one expects from a former Albert King disciple. Soaking up influences from all over the world, Reiersrud followed the blues back to its African roots. Somewhere along the road he also rediscovered the folk music of Norway and found that adding a cora, a Fender Telecaster or an Oud would reveal totally new qualities in a traditional Norwegian "Slatt" (dance tune).

When "Tramp", a crazy blend of acoustic blues, Norwegian folk music and African chants hit the shops in 1993 it received rave reviews even though some journalists seemed slightly bewildered about its stylistic diversity. It remains one of Reiersrud's best albums and the perfect place for the newcomer. It has never been out of print since its release. Fortunately it also gained an American release as "Footwork" (Shanachie 64055), likewise still available. "Tramp" opens and ends with self-penned melodies reminiscent of Norwegian fiddle-music played on an acoustic steel string guitar and church organ. The guitar is tuned so that it produces a sound resembling the Hardanger fiddle: Four strings are tuned way up high while the two others drone along like the resonating understrings on that instrument). Another track in a similar vein - "Fareslatten" - features a rebuild Fender Telecaster sounding like a Langeleik. This instrument is jokingly referred to as the Fender Hallingcaster after the Norwegian folkdance Hallingkast where a man leaps in the air trying to kick down a hat from a long pole held by a young woman. (Freudians may have a go at this one ...) Gambian Alagi M'bye adds a wonderful Cora (African harp) and it is a revelation how well these instruments blend together. Reiersrud and his fellow musicians have that priceless gift: An ear for exciting new sound combinations and they relentlessly seek new possibilities for presenting traditional melodies in an attention-grabbing setting. In addition to the African musicians, special mention should be made of Paolo Vinaccia on drums, percussion, kalimba and djembe.

The CD also includes a couple of excellent acoustic blues and gospel classics featuring the Five Blind Boys of Alabama on vocals. Kalimba and Church organ flesh out the sound, taking these songs back to their African homeland. Likewise, the participating African musicians bring several of their own songs (both traditional and self-penned) to the project. While this strange mix of sources may seem hard to reconcile on paper, there is an amazing unity to this album due to Reiersrud's experimental flair and his talent for bringing out the best in his collaborators. Within the same song one can discover traces of blues combined with harmonies from Norwegian or Gambian folk tunes, but the songs themselves seem to have reached a plane where they develop into something larger than their separate parts. Reiersrud himself jokingly claims it is because all the songs on the album were written for the oldest instrument in the world - the stomping foot.


Knut Reiersrud : "Klapp" FXCD 151 (1995)


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This is Reiersrud's second outing exploring human and musical physiology. (The title means "Handclap"). Once more, some of the material is original and some is adapted from traditional sources and once again the recipe is non-stop experimentation combined with deep respect for the music - if not for musical boundaries. There are more blues-derived tunes this time around and the African musicians only appear on two tracks (the lovely "Musse Jante" co-written by Reiersrud and M'Bye, and a wild, driving version of "Willie and The Hand Jive" with cora, bajo sexto, saz and electric guitar as the dominant instruments).

On "Klapp" Reiersrud experiments even further with settings and arrangements and several tracks make good use of a brass-ensemble. The music has an "oriental" feel to it, with traditional middle-eastern instruments like oud, tampura, saz and darbuka frequently employed. Symbolically, the album ends with a lovely version of the Turkish guitarist Erkan Ogur's "Agirlama" given a distinctive Norwegian feel. Other stand-out tracks are "Clap Hands" and "Klapp igjen" two highly rhythmic ensemble pieces that never looses sight of their melodies, and "Forspill" (prelude) another installment in the ongoing series of experiments with traditional fiddle tuning applied to the acoustic guitar. If not quite as overwhelming as the first album, this is still an excellent offering and a definitive must for anyone who enjoyed "Tramp".


Knut Reiersrud & Iver Kleive: "Bla Koral (Blue Chorale)" FXCD 106 (1991)
Knut Reiersrud & Iver Kleive: "Himmelskip" FXCD 163 (1996)



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I would be hard pressed to choose between these two. Although there are five years between them, they are virtually interchangeable and both are excellent. In his liner notes to "Tramp" Reiersrud, tongue in cheek, states that the combination of Iver Kleive and a church organ is one of the coolest in contemporary music. Listening to these records one can only bow to that statement. On "Tramp", Kleive showed how an instrument mostly associated with church music could be used to good effect on an acoustic blues or a Norwegian dance tune. On these recordings he and Reiersrud came up with an even more intriguing and original concept: Lutheran hymns and religious folk songs arranged for acoustic/electric guitar and church organ.

Recorded live in a church in Denmark over the course of two evening sessions "Bla Koral" is a true revelation. A little explored facet of Scandinavian folk music, the religious songs reveal themselves to be perfect starting points for improvisation. The melodies are slow and calm but always memorable as they were written to be memorized and sung by church-goers with no knowledge of musical notation. The two musicians seem to have immersed themselves fully in the Norwegian hymn tradition and deliver slow, majestic interpretations. The listener's bafflement derives more from the highly original and expressive sounds they get out of their instruments that from any showing off of hot licks - although there are several moments of instrumental pyrotechnics to be savored. Despite the records serious content, there is also a refreshing irreverence on display throughout: On "Overmade full av nade" Reiersrud kick-starts the tune by slamming his hand against the strings and Kleive's church organ starts trotting along like a horse escaping from Bach's chariot. On "Luftslatten" the by now familiar Reiersrud-tuning is employed to full effect and on "Velt alle dine veier" the 17 th century melody is performed on a smoky combination of electric guitar and acoustic slide.

Recorded five years later, "Himmelskip" is every inch as haunting and unique. What these two records succeed in doing, is to reach back into the past and redefine a facet of Norway's cultural heritage. Thanks to the constant inventiveness and excellent musicianship of Reiersrud and Kleive, music that seemed confined to the church, suddenly comes to life as vibrant and valid contemporary music.


Iver Kleive "Kyrie" (FXCD 142) 1994



Those who enjoyed "Bla Koral" and "Himmelskip" may also want to check out Iver Kleive's solo album "Kyrie" - a natural extension of his collaborations with Reiersrud. The emphasis here is on Kleive's original compositions, with only five of the thirteen selections based on traditional chorales or folk tunes. The arrangements are built around Kleive's keyboards (church organ, Hammond B3, Grand Piano and synthesizer) with inventive percussion work from Paolo Vinaccia. Several songs also feature a choir. The result is a slightly less improvised feel. Reiersrud guests on three cuts - of special interest is the tune "Nade" (Grace) which the two wrote for the 1994 Olympic games at Lillehammer.

Knut Reiersrud: "Sub" FXCD 215 (1999)


Reiersrud's latest release is a collection of his best known tunes mixed with new songs in a strange, Beck-like style where samples from old blues classics serve as starting-point for original compositions. In addition there are several "lost" tracks. As a "Best Of" it is unfortunately rather short and disorganized. Trying to squeeze an 18-year career on to a single CD - a career that spans everything from Chicago blues to Kurdish folk music - doesn't work, and the listener is left with little more than fleeting glimpses of the many stages in Reiersrud's musical development. A double-CD would probably have been better.
Still, even if this is not the place to start, several tunes on this album are among the best Reiersrud has recorded. Leaving aside the acknowledged masterpieces from previous albums, the CD contains gems currently unavailable elsewhere. No Reiersrud collection would be complete without the spooky techno-folk of "Ghost Dance", the guitar extravaganza of "The Barber's Pulse" - a 1994 collaboration with Henry Kaiser and David Lindley included on their album "The Sweet Sunny North" - or "Anna" a lovely understated solo guitar piece recorded in an Oakland studio. All are important additions to the guitarist's Scandinavian folk guitar canon.