By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Beginning with the simple, ageless sound of sweetly sawing fiddle, primal acoustic guitar, and galloping percussion, the neotraditionalist Scandinavians on Minneapolis's NorthSidelabel have created one of the more distinct genres to hit the "world beat" market this decade. Often, the joy of falling in love with Central African soukous or Afro-Cuban jazz comes, at least in part, through the appreciation of stylistic developments that occurred over decades of cross-cultural miscegenation. The pleasure in the best NorthSide releases, by comparison, comes from watching rigorous conservatory musicians bridge hundreds of years of history to wed traditional music to '90s pop concepts. Groups like Hedningarna and Hoven Droven and artists like Saari Wimme bend context with both vigor and studied reverence.
Most radical among these new-schoolers is Finland's Saari Wimme, a man who sings in a centuries-old vocal style, known as yoik, specific to the indigenous Sami people. (The trancelike quality of this has invited comparisons to some Native American vocal music.) Arguing for the continued relevance of yoik, a press release for Wimme's album Gerrain asserts that the singer takes inspiration from "the sound of an outboard motor" as well as "the blowing wind."
The best example of yoik's ability to make sense in the context of late-twentieth-century culture is the way Wimme's oscillating drone blends with the electronic accompaniment of RimmeRadio, his backing band throughout Gerrain. Imagine the Future Sound of London working with a Tuvan throat singer and you've pretty much got the idea.
Equally odd, though far more potent, are two groups that mix ancient folk stylings with Anglo-American heavy metal: Hedningarnaand Hoven Droven. Hedningarna--two Finnish women and a cast of Swedish Men--rock out on their 1998 issue, Trä, in what might sound to some like Black Sabbath performing Celtic reels on fiddles, hurdy-gurdy, flute, bagpipes, drums, and electric bass and guitars, among other instruments. Trä's successor, this year's Karelia Visa, is just as intense, though quite a bit more diverse, sending the sprightly singing of Sanno Kurki-Suonio and Tellu Paulasto and the lyrical playing of the backing boys on a journey across the pop spectrum.
The like-minded Hoven Droven are more straightforward, rocking the smorgasbord with classic Swedish folk as reimagined by space-metal guitar greats Monster Magnet. Hoven Droven's is an intense music that evokes Thor coming down from Valhalla with a Gibson Flying-V in one hand and a six-pack of Grolsch in the other. Their 1997 NorthSide release, Groove, is immediate and visceral rock music. From the ferocious "Slentbjenn" to the triumphant funk-metal of "Mythrpolska," fierce rhythms pound out hearty melodies, leavened by driving, spiraling fiddles.
Yet, for this listener, the most exciting group on the NorthSide roster--the group that bends context to the most fascinating ends--is the one that does so most gently. There are no electronics or rock guitars in the music of the Väsen; instead, 1997's Whirled is playfully neotraditional. Choppy, busy, shape-shifting percussion forms groove around Olav Johansson's nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), Roger Tallroth's guitar, and Mikael Miran's fiddle to create great pop-wise folk (but never folk-pop) out of ancient folk music. Songs like the buoyantly pretty "Börjar du Fatta" and the almost funky "Shapons Vindaloo" leap around the music's boundaries like gymnasts.
For me Whirled rates with Cuban classic Introducing Ruben Gonzalez as one of the world-music finds of 1997--even if the fickle world-beat community was less than game to pick up on it, or the new sound it heralded.