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Traditional Swedish folk with a twist

Members of Väsen include, from left, Mikael Marin on viola, Olav Johansson on nyckelharpa and Roger Tallroth on guitar.
Members of Väsen include, from left, Mikael Marin on viola, Olav Johansson on nyckelharpa and Roger Tallroth on guitar. Photo courtesy of Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness
Celtic, classical, folk, modern: You’ll hear sounds of them all at Tuesday DNACA concert

For 24 years, Väsen has been creating a river of acoustic music that has one foot in the Swedish folk music tradition and the other firmly planted in innovation and collaboration.

The Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness will present the trio in concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Crescent Elk Auditorium.

“People who love Celtic or classical music will quite soon find their way into our music,” said founding member Olav Johansson in a recent interview from his home in Uppsala, Sweden.

Johansson plays the unique nyckelharpa, which dates to the 14th century and can be described as a long fiddle with keys along one side. The other talented musicians comprising Väsen are Mikael Marin on the 5-string viola and Roger Tallroth on 12-string. Together, “we are working hard to sound like an orchestra,” noted Johansson playfully, “we do have a lot of strings.

He also noted how, over the years, each member of the group has established certain roles.

“I carry the melody,” he said, “and can make quite a racket!” Guitarist Tallroth “has created his own tuning using only A and D, which gives him a huge range” and sometimes plays bass and sometimes melody. Martin “fills in the spaces; he improvises and creates second voices.”

It all started when Johansson picked up a nyckelharpa at age 14. Until then, he had dabbled in playing recorder, piano and guitar, but “was not caught by them,” he said. The nyckelharpa was different. Loaned to his mother and him by a maternal uncle, Johansson was soon smitten with it, and his mother ended up buying him one. By 1990, he had become World Champion of both the modern chromatic and the older, historical nyckelharpa.

In describing playing a nyckelharpa, which hangs around his neck, Johansson has his right hand on a short bow, “so I don’t poke my eyes out,” he said. He “stops” the strings with his left hand, noting that there is one row of keys per each of three melody strings. There are also sympathetic strings not touched by the bow, that “ring along with the melody strings ... creating a sound that is rich in overtones.” When he presses on a key with his left hand, “a wooden peg acts as a fret from the side and stops the string.”

In a story that has become a Väsen legend, Johansson was attending a winter market in the mountains of Norway. He noted he was staying in a house where Tallroth was also in residence, and one day invited the 12-string guitarist to play music with him. Tallroth declined — he was off to use the shower — but fortunately the shower was occupied, and so he returned with his guitar.

“We ended up playing music for hours,” said Johansson. One person witnessing this pivotal jam session was Olle Paulsson, who promised to start a record label if they would be willing to record an album together, and thus Drone music was born: the company that released the trio’s first two CDs. 

The addition of Tallroth’s guitar added a twist to the essentially traditional Swedish folk music duet of fiddle/nyckelharpa, and there was originally some resistance to the concept. Yet it was the guitar chordings and rhythms that attracted an entirely new audience for the trio, along with an international reputation. 

Väsen has performed on National Public Radio several times, toured the world several times over and has no less than 16 albums to its credit. The trio’s most recent release coincides with winning the No. 1 slot in the 2013 World Music Torchbearer Awards on About.com.

“The Swedish acoustic power-trad trio Väsen is, in this critic’s opinion, one of the finest bands in the world, regardless of genre, and apparently my readers and Väsen’s loyal fans agree with me heartily. The band’s gorgeous, sweeping acoustic melodies are represented well on their latest CD, Mindset,” said Megan Romer.

“Väsen treads an enchanted territory between classical, folk and pop,” noted the Utne Reader. “The sound may be traditional, but the attitude is completely modern, mixing up the ideas of folk, the virtuosity of prog(ressive), and the humor of the insane asylum into a cuisinart of acoustic bliss,” lauded Wired magazine.

“There’s a rumor among musicians that these guys are the best band in the world,” said fiddler Darol Anger, “...It’s no joke.”

Tickets cost $18 general, $15 for seniors 65 and older and $12 for full-time students, K-college, and are available at Del Norte Office Supply in Crescent City, Wright’s Custom Framing in Brookings, and at the door at 6:45 p.m. the night of the show.

For more information, contact DNACA at (707) 464-1336 or visit www.dnaca.net.

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