Väsen preview: Swedish spirit

Power folk trio’s exuberant mix of tradition, progressive artistry, and rock solid chops  breathes new life into Swedish traditional music

by DANIEL HEILA

In 1989, at a gathering in Røros, Norway, nyckelharpa player Olav Johansson met guitarist Roger Tallroth on his way to take a shower, as legend has it. The two Swedish folk musicians spent a storied evening and night jamming together, to the delight of the crowd that gathered to hear them.

So impressed was Olle Paulsson that he started a new record label, Drone Music, to record the fledgling ensemble. Johannson joined violist Mikael Marin and Tallroth to record their first CD together, Olov Johansson: Väsen. People started asking to book the group “Väsen” and the name stuck. “Väsen” means spirit or essence in Swedish (akin to Finland’s sisu) and a more appropriate name could not be found for the Swedish powerfolk trio’s vibrant sound.

Väsen performs in Portland, Ashland and Eugene.

Väsen, which performs April 15 at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, April 19 at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, and April 20 at Eugene’s Shedd Institute, crafts original compositions and arrangements of trad tunes that bridge the gaps between folk, power pop, classical, and melodic jazz. Building on Swedish folk music roots, the high energy trio (quartet in Europe when joined by percussionist André Ferrari) play the type of new Nordic folk music that rides on syncopation, accented weak beats, odd meters, and dense string-driven heterophony with crooked tunes similar to the Quebecois dance tradition.

Folk revival

As with other folk music festivals in Scandinavia during the 1970s and ‘80s (Kaustinen Folk Fest in Finland and Folkemusikkveka in Norway), Gärdesfesten, the Swedish Woodstock of 1970, gave a folk revival in the country added momentum as interest in traditional Swedish music and dance grew. Though the movement slowed in the late ‘70s, a resurgence of interest in the polka in the ’80s pushed new ensembles into the public eye and the new dance venues gave them an opportunity to hone their playing.

Väsen is a product of these times. Back in the day, nyckelharpist Johansson and violist Marin sat at the feet of such Swedish folk music notables as Curt and Ivar Tallroth and Eric Sahlström of the Uppland region. Within a few years of taking up nyckelharp in 1980 at age 14, Johansson was considered a master player. In 1990, the year after meeting bandmate Tallroth, he won the championship in both traditional and modern categories at the Nyckelharpa World Championships at Österbybruk, Sweden.

A composer, producer, and arranger who has been a Swedish national fiddler since 1983, Marin has played under Leonard Bernstein and collaborated with artists such as Mikael Samuelsson, folk rockers Nordman, and Kronos Quartet. He plays in the duo Marin/Marin with his daughter Mia Marin.

The old time dance lilt of Swedish folk tunes is given punch and drive by Roger Tallroth’s 12-string rhythm guitar constructions that thicken the texture of the bowed instruments while securing the downbeat—sexing it up with satisfying syncopated accents—and taking the harmonies a bit farther afield than Grandpa Ole might approve of. Tallroth is a bit of an iconoclast, having developed his own unique style of playing. His signature ‘Tallroth tuning’ and ever changing style of rhythm guitar have influenced string players in the Nordic/Scandinavian folk scene for years.

As with other Scandinavian folk groups (Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Frigg, Värttinä, Hedningarna, Mari Boine), Väsen grew into a progressive ensemble that complements the vitality and integrity of traditional music with up to date modern arrangements, robust harmonies, and tasteful percussion.

These chaps work a hall like humpback whales net herring. Their relentless, ebullient tune smithing drives concert goers into frenzies. If there is no dance floor, you can be sure of some serious seat grooving in the audience. Their masterful arrangements often build a tune up over varying pairings of instruments in a slow boil leadup to climactic tutti drops that rival the most twisted dubstep ride. But, at the drop of a hat, they spin out refined, gossamer waltzes.

The group’s marches (some of my favorite tunes), especially when joined by Ferrari, could put a Scotsman on his Scotch bottle with their confident momentum and at times darkly intimidating intonements (the “dum, dum, dee, dah, dah of “La Marche” from Linneaus Väsen is especially apocalyptic). In contrast, “Hembrannarmarsch” (from 2013’s Mindset) is a jaunty march, high kicking and joyous, and one can imagine the soldiers dancing in sync, solemn but radiant, down the high street.

Väsen with Portland Punch bro Chris Thile.

No strangers to the US, with several tours over the last 15 years and multiple appearances on Prairie Home Companion, Väsen has collaborated with American musicians Mike Marshall and Darol Anger and alt-bluegrass phenoms Punch Brothers have recorded a version of Marin’s Flippen. The tune has become a staple of the group’s set list and in fact has become an erroneously adopted “old time” American tune across the globe. And recently, the band has collaborated with Snarky Puppy, a Grammy winning, self-proclaimed improvising pop band.

However, the epicenter of Väsen fandom in the US is Bloomington, Indiana, where the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival is located. One year, zealous fans convinced the city to rename a street after the band for the festival and the trio titled their next album Väsen Street in honor of their devotion.

Väsen performs 8pm April 15  at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, $25, get tickets here; 8pm April 19 at Ashland at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall, get tickets here; and 7:30pm April 20 at Eugene’s Shedd Institute, $29, get tickets here.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.

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