Väsen—And Its Nyckelharpa Virtuoso—Make Old Time Swedish Folk Music Fresh
It was in 1990, the year that a 24-year-old Olov Johansson won the first Nyckelharpa World Championships at Österbybruk, Sweden—the nyckelharpa is an early Swedish relative to violin with keyed notes and a shimmery tone—that he tapped violist Mikael Marin and guitarist Roger Tallroth to accompany him on his debut solo album. He called it “Väsen,” a Swedish word roughly translated as “spirit” or “essence,” though it is impossible to fully capture its meaning in English.
The Swedish folk trio stuck around, and the album’s title became their own. After two more recordings, a collaboration with the Swedish folk-rock group Nordman in 1994 earned Väsen mainstream European popularity and widespread acclaim among acoustic music fans the world over.
In a certain respect, the trio, which performs at Club Passim in Cambridge on Oct. 16, has always stuck to a fairly straightforward formula: traditional-style fiddle tunes rendered with clever arrangements, played at a high level, and recorded with a no-frills aesthetic. (Tallroth had to return to Sweden unexpectedly for a family emergency and Johansson and Marin will perform at Club Passim as a duo.)
Swedish folk music evolved out of music for dancers in the courts and later in the countryside, where villagers gathered on icy winter nights and in the long, eerie twilight of Swedish summer. It has a lilting, dynamic quality reminiscent of Celtic music and a propulsive energy akin to the barndance-driven sounds of Appalachia. But Swedish tunes, unlike their brethren to the west, are often written in time signatures based in phrases of three, lending them unusual buoyancy; players—generally fiddlers—stretch and contract these rhythms for a suspenseful, slightly off-balance feel. Tunes range from the furious and notey to the measured and stately, but like the whirling couple dances to which they owe their form, all share a sense of perpetual movement, of the centrifugal force generated by two bodies in motion.
“The folks that I learned from, there’s several generations. My teacher is recorded, his older brother is recorded, his teacher is recorded, and his father is recorded. So we can hear the same tunes being played from recordings from 1914 in various versions,” says Johansson. “To me, you can definitely find qualities in that music, in that way of playing, that deserve to be used, and to blow people away again and again. But still, I have to make something [of my own]—I can use those musical expressions and musical tricks. But I have to make them my own in order for them to sound convincing. And then they have changed, and they have developed, and they have become mine. And that’s the way it goes with tradition.”
Johansson, Marin and Tallroth seem to possess an almost telepathic connection. In their capable hands, Sweden’s native music is delivered with both ecstatic freedom and stunning precision. Certain music lives in the interplay between like minds, and it is a rare group of musicians who can harness its full potential.
Over the course of 25 years and 15 albums, the members of Väsen have honed their preternatural chemistry. Johansson and Marin met as teenagers in 1980 and immediately recognized a kinship, which is apparent to this day: Johansson delivers fleet, ebullient melodies on the nyckelharpa, while Marin provides robust, quicksilver counterpoint, spiraling around his partner like a swallow through the air.
For a time after the Nordman project, Väsen toured and recorded as a quartet with a percussionist named André Ferrari. The albums that followed, “Whirled” and “Gront,” were the group’s most modern. Ferrari’s playing on those recordings is at once sensitive and alive, but his presence made for an ensemble of a slightly different character than the trio. As a quartet, Väsen was bombastic and exhilarating, though rarely intimate. In 2002, tired of life on the road, Ferrari left the band.
It’s as a trio that Väsen seems most natural, and in the years since reverting to their original lineup, they have shown no signs of tiring. “I think it’s because we’re still having fun playing this music,” says Johansson. “We have our rather well-defined roles in the music we make, so we’re not kind of competing with each other. We have our own fields within the music, where we have big freedom. And having that freedom, all three of us are striving to refine and develop what we’re doing all the time. And as long as there’s something happening with that development and that refinement, I think we all three find it interesting. We’re still making progress.”
But what really sets Väsen apart is Tallroth’s guitar work. Guitar entered the Swedish folk vernacular relatively recently, and Tallroth has always stood out for his groove-oriented, pop-inflected approach. He plays a 12-string guitar (each string is doubled) and uses a deep, open tuning that lends his playing an expansive quality. Tallroth has an ear for the dramatic offset by a proclivity for the quirky, favoring odd phrasing and unconventional chord progressions. “He built his taste for harmonies listening to bands like the Beatles, I think,” remarks Johansson.
“When Roger started to play his guitar, adding bass lines and second voices and counter-rhythms and stuff—he was one of the first explorers, you could say, of that way of doing it,” Johansson explains. “And now he has created a school in how to make accompaniment on guitar to traditional music in Sweden. ... He has been very important.”
The members of Väsen are prolific tune-writers, and one of the group’s greatest strengths lies in its material. Johansson, Marin and Tallroth have a taste for uplifting hooks and built-in dynamics, but they write with the same melodic exquisiteness and idiosyncrasy particular to Swedish folk music. This has earned the band a devoted following among American string players across a vast musical spectrum. In 2007, Väsen recorded an album with mandolinist Mike Marshall and fiddler Darol Anger—two legends of modern bluegrass music—which garnered the band legions of bluegrass fans and landed them at unlikely festivals like the popular Wintergrass in Bellevue, Washington.
Like so many folk bands, Väsen by necessity must navigate the murky territory between what is considered “traditional” and what is “new.” Johansson estimates that about 80 percent of the band’s concert set is original, but he points out that the practitioners of traditional music have always been the makers of their own material: “All the people we learned from, they did compose. So it was not strange to make your own tunes.”
It is in live performance that Väsen is most brilliantly illuminated. The trio stands clustered together, heads bent intently, bodies swaying. Johansson, with his glasses and lanky frame, resembles a tall, Nordic Harry Potter, positioned between the bearded Tallroth and the black-clad Marin. No matter how large the audience, the group sounds not so much like they are onstage as at a loose, late-night jam session—albeit a particularly virtuosic one. It’s like walking into the coatroom at a house party and discovering the musicians’ secret sanctuary. With each bow stroke and every strum, Väsen ushers the audience into that rarefied world, where the tunes churn endlessly through the night, and the breaking dawn is only an affirmation that this has been happening for ages, and will happen for ages to come.
Amelia Mason is a writer, musician and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr.