Vasen Street(NorthSide), the new recording by Swedish contemporary folk music band Väsen is out today in North America. Väsen Street is a playful global byway that traverses the planet’s folk scene, passionately laid down by three friends from the Uppland region of Sweden.
The Swedish trio brings together a smorgasbord of personal tributes and Swedish folk gems that reflect the band’s international scope and impact and that honor the group’s many connections to friends and fans around the world, from cheeky Japanese managers ("Yoko") to Swedish-Italian percussionists ("Asko Pasko Polska") to bosom Bay Area botanist buddies ("Botanisten"). It even gives a shout out to fans in Indiana who spurred a local campaign to get a street in their town named after the group ("Väsen Street").
"It makes me feel happy and kind of humble, when people play our music," smiles nyckelharper or nyckelharpa player Olov Johansson. "One of the most memorable times we encountered this was after a show a few years ago in Tokyo. We walked into a basement and there were a bunch of Japanese musicians playing our music, but with an Irish accent to it."
Väsen has elicited a similar rave response from master roots musicians in various corners of the world, such as innovative bluegrass fiddler and classical violinist Darol Anger and mandolin master Mike Marshall who were so blown away by the trio’s music, they invited them to a session in Santa Cruz filled with several of the Americana virtuosi. Anger and Marshall appear on one track on Vasen Street and will be joining Väsen for several of their September 2009 USA tour dates. "When I first heard them, it was as if a whole new part of the world opened up to me," Anger reflects. "They illuminated a landscape I had never seen before, but which had been in front of my face all my life. I can’t imagine a world without that sound now!"
his landscape may have global resonance, but is based on Johansson and viola player Mikael Marin’s home turf: the villages and village musicians of eastern Sweden where they first dug into traditional tunes as teenagers. In the towns and farms around Uppsala , Swedish legends like the wild and woolly farmer-fiddler Viksta Lasse shaped young musicians with his famous dance tunes like "Eklundapolska Nr. 3" and "Polska Till Wik" and his madcap stage presence. "He was just a farmer, living in his own little world, but when he played the fiddle, he was fantastic," Johansson recalls. "He had this big expression when he played, jumping up and down and laughing all the time. It was his life. He was such a good fiddler… he couldn’t have been a very good farmer."
In places like Uppland, instruments like the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle ripe with overtones, have long held sway, capturing both musicians’ hearts and space in the medieval equivalent of the police blotter. A 17th-century court record tells the tale of an angry minstrel who beat a careless handler of his beloved instrument to death with his damaged nyckelharpa. "He smashed it to the guy’s head and he died instantly. That was one of the first written proofs of the instrument," Johansson explains. "Maybe they invented the nyckelharpa helmet at that time, too."
Despite its striking sound and its bonus applications as a deadly weapon or what guitarist Roger Tallroth jokingly calls a "one-time portable barbeque" with strings perfect for grilling, the nyckelharpa is only part of Väsen’s appeal, which is about a lot more than funky Swedish fiddles. Tallroth’s guitar is a distinct departure from tradition, and adds an innovative, piquant third line to the traditional intertwining duos at the heart of Swedish instrumental music.
Tallroth’s tuning of A/D/A/D/A/D, based on his experiments with an oud (fretless lute) he found in Turkey , expands his instrument’s range and merges perfectly into Väsen’s preferred modes. "Roger had to invent all his own fingering and how to play chords and everything. But if you think of it, it is like a common traditional tuning on fiddles but just two of those stacked on each other," Johansson explains. "It’s very natural to play a second voicing for tunes, and you get all these ringing open strings. Most of the music we play is modal, based on a scale and a drone. From there, Roger developed a very interesting way of playing the guitar."
The artful balance between heritage and innovation have turned Väsen numbers like Mördar Cajsas Polska" into such instant classics, musicians and listeners alike believe them to be actual traditional tunes. "It’s very flattering," Johansson laughs, "but I’ve been playing this tune since I was 18. We had to reclaim it a bit by finally putting it on an album." The tune, which means Killer Cajsas Polska, was named after fiddling friend Cajsa Ekstav. During a hot summer fiddle session, Cajsa became so irritated with a swarm of wasps that she killed them all by smashing her beer glass onto nearby glass windows, as if possessed by demons. "It was quite a mess," remembers Johansson with a laugh.
The creative spark the trio brings to centuries-old Swedish sounds has evolved over the group’s two decades playing together, improvising melodies, and kicking around beloved tunes, new and old. "Väsen is three soloists really, playing at the same time, but never dominating the others. Each of us is still very much considering what the others are doing," Johansson muses. "Very often, we keep three different lines going in and out of each other. We’re simply telling the same story in different words."
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