Arts/Literature

Christmas music (6)–Best Christmas album by a Nordic fiddle group

The Loveliest Rose, by Bukkene Bruse. This group is wonderful, and this is one of my favorite albums. They are led by the fantastic and cute as a bug’s ear fiddler Annbjorg Lien, who has several albums of her own (check out her website). I quite like Scandinavian folk music, especially fiddle music, because, mainly, it’s a bit different from British (and therefore American country/bluegrass) folk music–but not that different, actually, given the musical correspondence between Scotland and Norway that went on for centuries. (Edward Grieg’s grandfather was a Scottish immigrant to Norway—and this was not unusual.) Different rhythms and melodic structure, probably because of the weird Norwegian medieval music it’s all based on. I like Allison Krauss and Laurie Lewis as much as the next bluegrass fan, but if you want to hear a fiddle band do interesting stuff, check out Annbjorg Lien’s Aliens Alive, a live album from 2001. Available from North Side Records, as is The Loveliest Rose. More recently, Lien has been responsible for helping to put together together The String Sisters, who put out one of the best albums (and videos) of the decade a couple of years ago.

This raises, not surprisingly, the question of Norway. A very sensible country, which gives the highest percentage of foreign aid of any country in the world, and which represents a huge percentage of UN peacekeeping troops. A country that undeniably means well, in part because they feel little bit guilty about being so rich. Well, what’s wrong with a little guilt? It keeps you on the straight and narrow.

So why is Norway still whaling?

For much of the 19th century, the Hardanger fiddle played by Lien was banned in many Norwegian churches as being a tool of the devil. Norway now is a pretty remarkable place. It’s rich as all getout, of course, since it has wisely husbanded its North Sea oil and gas resources, unlike the UK, which as pretty much squandered them. Oslo is a pretty cosmopolitan city for being so small, the folk music scene is great, but the knitting scene is even better. I am fortunate in going through life surrounded by a sorority of knitters and quilters, which means that I’m always warm and always have attractive things hanging on the walls. And boy, Oslo is the place to go for yarn. We did a holiday there about three years ago as part of a Scandinavian trip (Denmark, southern Sweden, and southern Norway). We ate really well the entire trip, especially in Skane (where the Henning Mankel Wallander mysteries are set), saw some boring art in Copenhagen, saw some fantastic Viking petroglyphs in all three countries (they’re everywhere! Who knows this?), and bought lots of yarn in Copenhagen, and especially in Oslo. It’s not cheap—nothing there is—but boy, if you’re a knitter, you have to think about going there. We ran into knitting tourists from the US in the yarn shops. What a great idea—yarn tours.

Theyre everywhere!

They're everywhere!

A couple of years ago we went on a bus tour of the Shetland and Orkney islands. Probably the first and last bus tour we’ll ever take, frankly–partly because we brought the average age down. But we had a great time, especially in Shetland. Take a look at a map of Britain—and there’s Shetland, way up there in the North Atlantic somewhere. And if you look at the history (and pre-history) of this area, you realize that there’s this whole northern culture that has persisted for centuries more or less outside the European mainstream—and vestiges of it still exist. Scotland, Norway, the Shetland and Faroe Islands, and Iceland—these areas have been bound by kinship, trade routes, and culture for a millennia, at least. When high school kids in Shetland want to head to a city for a bit of urban night life, they head to the nearest city—which happens to be Bergen, in Norway. I can’t wait to go back—Shetland is famous for churning out fiddlers, and they have a Shetland Fiddle Frenzy festival every year that we were fortunate enough to catch while we were there. Our current Shetland fiddler of choice is Chris Stout, who hasn’t put out a Christmas album, but has a couple of fine solo efforts, and some even better work with Catriona MacKay. But there’s a whole raft of them

While we’re in the general Scandinavian area, I may as well mention two other Christmas albums, also available from North Side. Or winter, in the case of Triakel, a trio from Sweden who are associated with a couple of Swedish rock bands, but use Triakel as a vehicle for more traditional folk stuff. Wintersongs is just that—songs of and about winter, which should appeal to those of us who think that winter is the best season. In Swedish, of course. And then there’s Can We Have Christmas Now?, by Sari & Mari Kaasinen, who are the founders of and singers for the Finnish group Värttinä. Traditional Finnish Christmas songs, in Finnish. Both, like The Loveliest Rose, are delightful to listen to, in part I think because you can’t understand a word they’re singing unless you speak Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish, but they still capture the spirit of the season. Finally, I should note that Helene Blum, of the Danish duo Karen and Helene, has a new Christmas album out, and of course it’s in Danish. Not that that will deter me from getting it—but I haven’t heard it yet, so can’t actually offer an opinion. First I have to figure out how to get it. Karen and Helene’s earlier Solen was lovely, though. They’re singers, though, not fiddlers, although I gather Helene is married to a fiddler. So that makes it ok to include it here.

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