By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweden's Folk Music: Old Tradition Survives New Trends

European music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods had two distinct sets of successive or parallel traditions :  secular and spiritual.  The events I had recalled in the preceding blogs were of the former kind.  I shall be turning the telescope round towards the others shortly ;  but  meanwhile, the spotlight on authentic instruments in the contexts mentioned in the last four posts  reminds me of a performance by a Swedish ensemble because it had also projected a clear vision of some old-world musical instruments. 

But this was a presentation of Swedish folk music, which in turn reminds me of some other vintage events featuring the folk music and dance of other cultures,  particularly of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Let us change the track with this recollection, then!


ICCR  --  Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's most spacious auditorium (about 1900 seats) is situated. 

New Delhi
 13 December 1991

Enjoyable fare

And now Sweden is taking some initiative to bring some of its art and culture to India.  This is on a subdued scale, which is welcome.  In the context of international cultural exchange, it is useful to organize a series of artistic events at reasonable intervals, whatever may be the merits of concentrated cultural festivals.  It seems the Swedes intend to make a steady, well-spaced-out presentation of their country's cultural life, in several Indian cities.  Let us hope that it will all add up to something substantial in the long run.

There was an exhibition of Swedish designs in New Delhi some time ago.  There will be an exhibition of Swedish art shortly, and a program of Swedish jazz after some time.  Between these, there was a performance of Swedish folk music last week. The event was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Swedish Embassy, in collaboration with Svenska Rikskonserter (Swedish National Institute for Concerts, which is a Government-funded institution, like ICCR here).

Tradition and trends

Contemporary folk music in Sweden, as in many other countries, has two distinct facets.  There is the old tradition, which the cultural conscience-keepers strive to keep alive.  And there is the new trend (gradually becoming a tradition perhaps) -- which looks to the past for inspiration and ideas, but feels free to develop different concepts altogether in style, technique and instrumentation, particularly in conjunction with jazz and rock.  The Siri Fort event brought this fact into sharp focus.  The overall impression of the Swedish folk music scene today, tastefully created by this balanced program, will not easily be erased from the memory of the 1,500 people who were present.

Thus, we heard the cow-horn and the shrill herding calls of by-gone days ;  the contrasting or combining sounds of the violin, the Swedish bag-pipe and keyed fiddle (called 'nyckel harpa'), medieval flutes, and the 'bouzuki' (a mandolin-like instrument of Greek origin) ;  and also jazzy, folk-oriented music featuring the  saxophone, clarinet, electronic synthesizer, and an assortment of percussion instruments.

There seems to be a conviction in Swedish music circles that the new trend will not destroy the old tradition, but will actually save it by attracting the younger generation to the folk idioms.  This approach would seem to gain credibility in the light of the fact that folk fiddlers' clubs and meets continue to flourish in Sweden side by side with the emergence of the new music, and there is also a resurgence of old folk instruments.

Inverse influence

The phenomenon of art music drawing ideas and themes from folk music is universal, and Swedish art music is no exception.  But a remarkable thing about Sweden's folk music as it exists today is that s major form of it -- called Polska -- is based on dance tunes imported by Polish art musicians who served the Swedish King's court in the 16th century.  In the concert under review, there was a fine demonstration of the Polska on the violin, visually enlivened by a handsome dancing couple.

A very enjoyable part of the evening's fare was the pulsating music created by the keyed fiddle in association with the ordinary fiddle and the bouzuki.  The forceful combination produced a torrent of melody and rhythm of an arresting quality, fortified by the droning sound of sympathetic strings.

Some members of the group stood out because they happened to figure repeatedly in the show, accompanying other musicians or dancing in different contexts.  It will not be fair to accord them star status by mentioning selected names.  The whole performance must be viewed as a collective effort ;  and everyone concerned -- including the Swedish Institute's representative who gave a very useful running commentary -- must be warmly congratulated.

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