How happy accidents led to folk heroes' signature sound
For a group whose music sounds so naturally organized there is much in Swedish polska masters Vasen’s back story that is haphazard, even fortuitous. This might be true of many musical relationships but somehow Vasen seem to have had more than their fair share of serendipity.
For instance, were it not for the group’s nyckelharpa player, Olov Johansson’s uncle having to go into hospital and Johansson’s mother borrowing his nyckelharpa while he was undergoing surgery, Johansson might not have discovered the instrument that has become his own means of expression and a crucial element of Vasen’s signature sound.
Then later, had the shower in the house they were sharing during a weekend retreat not been occupied when Johansson suggested to Roger Tallroth that they try playing nyckelharpa and the 12-string guitar that happened to be lying around, they might never have heard how well matched are the sympathetic strings of the Swedish keyed fiddle and the ringing strings of a 12-string guitar.
How these heroes of Swedish folk music – a group so popular in Bloomington, Indiana that they have a street named after them there – came to appear on American jazz fusion troupe Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner 2 album is another story. We’ll get to that shortly but in the beginning there were three fiddler players, Johansson, Tallroth and Mikael Marin, who wound up playing other instruments to create Vasen.
“There was a bit of a folk wave in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s and all three of us interacted in some way or another,” says Johansson as the group prepares to return to Scotland for a tour that includes an opening night concert during Edinburgh’s Tradfest. “This was a time when there was only one TV channel and building your own nyckelharpa had become quite popular. We’d go to these fiddlers meetings because there was music in all of our families and it had been passed on. “
After Johansson’s uncle had recovered and become aware of the disappearing nyckelharpa, his mother returned it and bought her own. Johansson learned to play it and some years later took it off to a winter market in Norway where a large group of musicians and folk dancers had congregated.
By chance he and Tallroth were billeted together and it was here that Johansson uttered the fateful words, ‘Would you like to play some tunes?’ To which Tallroth replied, ‘No, I’m going for a shower’ before returning and picking up the 12-string guitar.
“It was one of those magical moments,” Johansson takes up the story. “The two instruments sounded great together and the other people who were staying in this big house started to gather round and listen.”
One of the listeners took advantage of a break between tunes to say that the sound Johansson and Tallroth were making was the best thing he’d heard in ages and that someone should record it. In fact, he said, if no-one else recorded it, he would take it on himself. A few months later he got in touch, found out there out been no recording made and decided to start a record company, with Johansson as his first signing. By this time, Mikael Marin had joined Johansson and Tallroth and they discovered that having the mellow viola, rather than the fiddle, sitting in between the nyckelharpa and the 12-string guitar created a very distinctive sound.
The recording came out under Johansson’s name and he called it Vasen. Cue much confusion among promoters and festival organisers who wanted to book Vasen, so the trio took their name from Johansson’s album, which in turn became the group’s first album.
“That album was more or less all traditional tunes that we’d learned from older fiddlers and from archives, old recordings and tune books,” says Johansson. “These were tunes that were largely forgotten but by the time we started to work on our second album, we’d got the feeling that it might be easier to create the music we were longing to play ourselves rather than going out and trying to find it. So we started composing our own tunes and setting our own challenges.”
Almost three decades on from the Vasen album – they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary next year – they are still setting themselves challenges.”
“I think if we’d found a settled formula or a way of working that we were happy with we would have split up a long time ago,” says Johansson. “We’ve always challenged ourselves to keep developing so that there’s something we’re aiming for over the horizon and when we get there, there’ll be something over the next one. When we started playing gigs as a trio we’d all drag our fiddles along but fairly quickly we discovered that we didn’t need any other instruments to keep us pushing forward and I’m not sure if we’ll ever exhaust the possibilities of the nyckelharpa, viola and 12-string guitar.”
Another factor in their longevity is that they’ll go off and play in other situations. Johansson has a duo with Scottish harper Catriona McKay and the others’ involvement in side projects means that they all bring fresh ideas to Vasen when they reconvene after a break. Once they start working on new music it’s a question of refinement, taking a melody and making small adjustments in timing, dynamics and phrasing.
Their string band status has found them welcomed into the bluegrass scene in the US, where fiddler Darrol Anger has been a particular advocate for many years. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile has been another champion of the group, inviting them onto his radio show, Live from Here with Chris Thile, and playing tunes with them and his own band, Punch Brothers at concerts and festivals.
Johansson can just about understand the Swedish-bluegrass connection but the polska-jazz fusion connection that took Vasen into Snarky Puppy’s orbit is, he agrees, a more unlikely story. It’s one that begins with the American band’s bass player, Michael League teaching his Snarky Puppy colleagues a Vasen tune very early on in their development.
“Apparently, Michael’s brother, Paddy kept playing Irish music at home and Michael got fed up with this and asked him to play something different,” says Johansson. “So he played one of our tunes, which is in 23/8 time and Michael loved it and gave it to Snarky Puppy to play when they were still in college.”
Fast forward a few years and Vasen’s sometime fourth member, percussionist André Ferrari suggests they all go and check out this jazz group everyone on the music scene in Stockholm’s talking about – and Vasen end up onstage playing Swedish folk music with Snarky Puppy.
“Six months later we were invited to record Family Dinner 2 in New Orleans,” says Johansson. “It was an amazing experience. There were all these different styles of music, people from Brazil and all over Latin America, musicians from Europe. But what struck me most was that Snarky Puppy is an electric band essentially and so they’re naturally going to be louder than us but they all really listened to what we were playing. That’s what made it such fun to do – they’re actually very similar to us in that they listen closely to each other, and one of the first tunes they learned was one of ours!”
Vasen play Mareel, Shetland on April 20; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, April 21; St Andrew’s in the Square, Glasgow, April 22; Kilbarchan Performing Arts Centre, April 24; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, April 26.
Tradfest runs from April 26 to May 6. For further information, log onto www.tracscotland.org/festivals/tradfest
From The Herald, April 11, 2018
Duo bare knuckles in bold and raw partnership
Chris Stout and Catriona McKay (photo by Kris Kesiak)
Catriona McKay and Chris Stout are on a roller coaster. One day the harp and fiddle duo might be preparing for a concert with the Scottish Ensemble. The next it’s a recording with a Norwegian folk singer or a traditional musician from Mozambique, an Irish accordionist or in Stout’s case, a gig at a jazz festival with guitarist Graeme Stephen.
Their recent album, Bare Knuckle features compositions that were inspired by trips to Russia and time spent in Brazil, two more in a series of adventures that neither of them foresaw back when they were learning to play their respective instruments in Dundee (McKay) and Shetland (Stout).
Next Wednesday, they play the closing concert at Edinburgh International Harp Festival, an event they’ve featured in numerous times in the twenty or so years they’ve been making music together, and McKay teases Stout by remembering that when they first met he didn’t know what a clarsach, the Scottish small harp that McKay has taken as far musically as geographically, was. Stout counters that, in Shetland with its rich fiddle legacy, they didn’t need so many strings to play tunes.
That first meeting, at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, didn’t bode well. McKay had been advised to seek out “this fiddle player from Shetland” because he knew lots of tunes that might benefit a classically trained musician who wanted to explore the tradition. What Stout didn’t know at the time, but would soon appreciate, was that McKay’s preparatory research in the Academy’s library had led her to a quote from a music lecturer that described the harp as a limited instrument.
“That immediately got me going,” says McKay. “I thought, there’s no way someone’s going to represent my instrument like that, and what’s become clearer over the years is that the only limitations are in your mind. The thing about the harp is that it’s a very simple instrument whose body is actually its mechanism. Anything is possible and sometimes when I play I hear things that are not on the instrument. Because when you play with other people, from other countries or other genres, sometimes sounds they’ve made stay in the harp – or at least, that’s the way I see it.”
Stout, it turned out, had similar feelings about his own instrument and thinks this might be why their partnership developed and continues to grow.
“Catriona and I both love colour,” he says. “In music, colour can trigger emotion even before you choose notes or harmony. If you touch someone from another culture with colour you can draw them into your music and tell them a story.”
This is something that they’ve done time without number now as they travel the world. In Mozambique a few weeks ago they arrived not knowing a word of the local language but they still thrived. It’s been said before that making music with strangers is like conversing without the need for a translator and McKay and Stout have found this to be true.
“When you play music in another country you settle very quickly because you’re communicating at a fundamental level,” says McKay. “People can tell if you’re being honest in your music, even if – especially if – they haven’t heard you play before and don’t know anything about the culture you come from. They’ll trust you immediately because of that. To arrive in a strange place and have someone listen to you closely is a beautiful interaction.”
Bare Knuckle was intended to convey the idea of honesty. They’d reached a stage in their music where they wanted to bring out more of an edge, they say. This is quite a statement from a duo whose musical interaction has for some time appeared to be the equivalent of walking a tightrope without a safety net.
“A heavy metal fan might laugh at this but we were looking for more grittiness,” says Stout. “When you make an album you really want to create something you don’t already have, otherwise it’s not new, I suppose. We’d made albums that had, we hoped, sounded good and were maybe quite polished but I’m not sure that they captured what we do onstage. We wanted something a bit more raw, a bit more bold because I think that’s the way we are as people anyway. Well, Catriona is!”
McKay adds that the album is a fair reflection of where they are as a duo and perhaps contrary to expectation, when they work with a classical group such as the Scottish Ensemble they don’t have to bend too much to accommodate the other players’ style. Quite the reverse, in fact. Stout, who is a classically trained violinist as well as a traditional fiddle player who took McKay into the band he formed at school, Fiddlers’ Bid, laughs as he tells of leading the Scottish Ensemble astray by teaching them tunes the traditional way, by ear.
“I think when they learn one of our tunes that way and play it they sound like a folk band,” he says, adding with admiration that the ensemble can move so naturally back and forth between written Bach or Bartok pieces and a Shetland-style dance tune. “It’s interesting for us because what’s grown over the years is the realisation of how important this duo is for both of us and the importance of us keeping a sense of identity as a unit. At the same time, we want to keep growing, keep trying new things.”
In the beginning, they agree, they were looking for a sound and using largely traditional music as a launching pad for their playing, to see where they could take that material. With the confidence gained through working together over time, and winning awards such as the Herald Angel they were presented with at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014 (they’re also shortlisted in the Best Duo category of this year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), they now play almost exclusively original compositions, although these are written in the style of traditional tunes.
“Every experience we have stays with us,” says McKay. “It might register as just a sound at some point in a tune or it might lead to the tune itself being written. It’s clear that what we do as a duo is open enough to embrace other genres but what we find when we go somewhere to collaborate, be it a concert with an orchestra in Russia or a workshop with children in Mozambique, is that the people there want us to be ourselves.”
Bare Knuckle might be said to be the ultimate example, so far, of the duo being themselves and if it marked a bold step, as Stout says, it has been rewarded with high praise in reviews.
“You can’t try to second guess people’s responses when you go into the studio,” he says. “You can only make the recording you set out to make and release it. But it’s good, just the same, when you maybe go out on a limb and the people who are listening to your music really get it.”
Catriona McKay & ChrisStout play Glenuig Hall, April 21; An Lanntair, Stornoway, April 26; and Tolbooth, Stirling April 28.
Inspired by the mermaids, ghosts and magic of Sandwood Bay
Duncan Chisholm is not a mind-reader but there are times when the Inverness-based fiddler is playing a melody that he would love to know what his audience are picturing in their imaginations as they listen.
Over the past ten years or so Chisholm has become increasingly inspired by places and the desire to communicate a sense of these places in his music. His multi-media project Kin, which he premiered at the Blas festival of highland culture in 2007 and for which he subsequently won a Herald Angel award during the Edinburgh Fringe, took him deep into the Highland landscapes of his forebears. This led on to his Strathglass Trilogy, which actually became four albums as he followed his musical representations of the ancient clan Chisholm lands, Farrar, Canaich and Affric, with a live album recorded in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during Celtic Connections in 2013.
It was during the process of conceiving, composing and recording the Strathglass Trilogy that Chisholm realised that he’d caught the theme bug. So when it came to following it up he needed a project and one presented itself as he read a magazine article about Sandwood Bay. Located on the far north-west coast of Sutherland, this natural phenomenon with its mile-long beach of pink sand and 240-feet high sea stack requires determination to visit as it’s down a six-mile path from the nearest car park.
“I’d known about Sandwood for about thirty years and although I knew the area quite well, I’d never been to the bay,” says Chisholm between rehearsals and sound checks for the various concerts he’s involved in at this year’s Celtic Connections. “Reading that article, about two years ago now, made me think, I have to go. I’d no thoughts about making an album dedicated to it but on that first trip I immediately felt that I belonged there. Getting there really felt like making a pilgrimage, which is what I eventually called the first track on the album, and being there, miles from so-called civilization and feeling as if you could be living at any time in the past, present or future, made me start imagining melodies to describe this extraordinary place of beauty.”
Over the next eighteen months Chisholm made that pilgrimage another seven times, seeing Sandwood in all seasons and all weather. He read up about it and learned about the Viking longship that, legend has it, is buried beneath those pink sands and the many ships that foundered at nearby Cape Wrath and were washed up on the shoreline.
“There are lots of stories, about sailors haunting the beach and mermaids crying out in the sea,” he says. “It’s also reputed to be the site of the first Pictish settlement in what became known as Scotland. Nobody lives there now but so much has happened there over time and the topography is fascinating. Some of the most ancient rocks in the world are situated there and of course, the sea stack, Am Buachaille is beautiful.”
Each time Chisholm visited Sandwood he took his camera and returned home with images that fed into the tunes that make up Sandwood, the album.
Appropriately for a fiddle player whose style is very close to singing, when he is composing Chisholm absorbs scenes and gets to know images in the way that a traditional singer might learn the narrative of a ballad.
“I don’t actually look at the images as I’m writing,” he says. “I would look at what I’d captured on film for pleasure and then try to come up with phrases that describe the scene from memory. For me, playing the fiddle is very much like singing. I want the notes to be accurate but there has to be a human element and I find when I’m learning new music I tend to sing the melodies first to get to know the nuances.”
As with the Strathglass Trilogy, not all of the tunes on Sandwood were composed by Chisholm and his co-writer on this project, pianist-flautist Hamish Napier. The aptly titled A Precious Place comes from the pen of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw and is given glorious “voice” by Chisholm, whose fiddle tone and technique, in an ideal world, would be, he says, a combination of Maria Callas’ perfection and the warm, golden sound of Gaelic singer Roddy Campbell from Barra. Shaw also provided Islands on the Edge and other tracks come from the writing of piper-saxophonist-whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield, Irish singer and keyboard-player Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill in her Nightnoise era and Hamish Napier flying solo.
For Chisholm, using someone else’s composition is all part of the process of conceiving an album. He organises melodies into a linear form so that before he goes into the studio the album is planned with a beginning, a middle and an ending.
“I absolutely love playing live,” he says. “It’s the ultimate form of communication, a kind of one-to-one conversation with the audience where, especially in an intimate venue, you’re making the equivalent of eye contact to see if people are understanding what you’re saying musically. At the same time, though, and in a different way, recording is also a wonderful process, a joy. It’s like sculpting. You take in ideas and if you have the right people with you, magic can happen as the music takes on a subtly different shape to what you originally had in mind.”
Helping Chisholm to bring his ideas to fruition on Sandwood were musicians including uilleann pipes and whistle player Jarlath Henderson and guitarist-bass guitarist Ross Hamilton, both trusted studio allies from the Strathglass Trilogy. Hamilton, whose “day job” involves studio work with rock and pop bands, gives Chisholm’s music a current edge, with a canny use of electronica, that the fiddler himself wouldn’t necessarily find for himself.
“Ross has a great ear for sounds,” says Chisholm. “I often go into the studio with an arrangement idea where I’ll think, the pipes should come in here or this part needs a whistle line – and I know Jarlath will come up with a great harmony, for example – but Ross is the master at blending in something quite unexpected that enhances the atmosphere of a composition. It’s really inspiring and fascinating to hear phrases that might have started as something I hummed to myself on the beach or sitting on a rock come together into a whole album.”
The next phase in Sandwood’s life as a collection of music is to be performed live and following its premiere at Celtic Connections Chisholm takes it out on the road in late April. Beyond that, there will be more musical impressionism as, just as he says, Scotland offers limitless possibilities for a composer who likes to create a sense of place in his music.
“I’m not going to say too much,” he says, “but there is somewhere I have in mind that would be perfect for the next project.”
Sandwood is released on Copperfish Records.
Duncan Chisholm presents Sandwood live at Cecil Sharp House, London on April 19; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, April 28; Eden Court, Inverness, April 29; Perth Concert Hall, May 5; and Orkney Folk Festival, May 24-27.
From The Herald, January 31, 2018
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