Norse Code

What draws young Nordic musicians to medieval songs about wolves ripping babies from the womb?

In a way, the water spirit Näcken is to Swedish folk music what the devil was to Robert Johnson. Myth has it that mastering the folk fiddle requires playing at the banks of a north-running river on a full-moon Thursday, then returning for two consecutive Thursdays until Näcken emerges from the depths. The spirit will teach you to play so powerfully that even rocks and trees will dance uncontrollably.

"You'll also cause people to dance to the point where they can't stop until they collapse," says Rob Simonds, adding a note of warning. "Once you master a tune, if you play it in front of Näcken too many times, you will become his agent, and he's associated with the dark side."

Faster than a Saab, heavier than a Volvo: Sweden's medieval/techno vehicle Garmarna
Faster than a Saab, heavier than a Volvo: Sweden's medieval/techno vehicle Garmarna

The person telling this story isn't some wizened shaman from a rural Swedish village. Rather, such lore emerges from the mouth of the clean-cut, bespectacled founder of NorthSide--the only American label specializing in roots music from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. A self-described secular Jew from the East Coast, the fortysomething Simonds is the unlikely creator of the largest Nordic music gala this side of the Atlantic, the annual Nordic Roots Festival, which celebrates its second year this week on the West Bank.

It's a little hard to tell how much of the water-spirit tale Simonds actually believes. He takes the trouble to dig around his Warehouse District office for a printout of his label's first 1997 press release, which--when he wrote it--included a brief mention of Näcken and some info about the then-nascent label. He hands me what came off the printer instead: a fractured, oversized NorthSide logo with the name Näcken repeated across the page and nothing else.

This "misprint" could easily be written off as an annoying computer glitch, but it spooked Simonds's business partner, Drew Miller. Bringing the printout to Sweden, Simonds showed it to various roots musicians who looked at it, gave him a knowing nod, and nonchalantly commented, "You don't mess with Näcken."

"I've had enough weird experiences working with the music that can't be explained rationally," says Simonds. He leaves it at that.

Tales of ancient mythology mucking with modern technology suit NorthSide, which has brought Nordic music with origins in the Middle Ages to a growing market of American listeners. Singers on the imprint recount tales of young lasses losing their true love and withering into depressed old maids. They revive one old song about a wolf ripping a baby from its mother's womb, another about a jealous father feeding his unknowing daughter the heart of her murdered beloved. Traditional stringed instruments such as the Norwegian hardingfele, the Swedish nyckelharpa, and the hurdy-gurdy soundtrack these stories with bone-chilling drones. Perhaps only the lack of English forestalls Tipper Gore and an advisory stamp.

Still, recollections of last year's festivities may have less to do with the songs than with a sort of blurred primal euphoria. Sweden's Garmarna played techno-influenced medieval ballads; Väsen wove traditional Swedish rhythms into intricate instrumentals; Sanna Kurki-Suonio interpreted Finnish folk songs accompanied by only a viola. Many of the acts mixed ancient and modern elements in ways that felt natural. Yet it was always the ancient aspects that gave the music its power, prompting comments from a number of audience members that the songs felt so old they knew them in their bones.

It doesn't take much prodding to discover that most NorthSide musicians experienced similar epiphanies en route to their current vocation. Depending on their age, Nordic roots revivalists were often fans of Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. Many are intimate with the dance-club scene. Some, like Garmarna vocalist Emma Härdelin, grew up in a family of folk musicians, but most wandered through numerous genres before "coming home" to their native roots.

Speaking over the phone from Finland, Kari Reiman, the primary songwriter and arranger for the country's most successful folk-music export, Värttinä, recounts his gravitation toward traditional music. "When I was a teenager, I was into heavy music--Uriah Heep," he says. From metal roots, Reiman made the unlikely choice to pick up a banjo and play bluegrass--a phase that lasted ten years. It wasn't until he attended Finland's largest folk gathering, the Kaustinen Festival, in 1978, that he began exploring his native roots music.

"The feeling was very different from any rock show I'd been to," he recalls. "People were very warm to each other. It was very much," he pauses to find the words, "maybe, a religious experience."

Because American folk rockers of the Sixties endured purist cries of "infidel," audiences here might look for a similar backlash against Nordic revisionists. That nothing so divisive has emerged is a credit either to Nordic tolerance, or to the way these bands have largely hewn to their original material. Even the hardest-rocking outfit on the Nordic roots scene, the folk-metal group Hoven Droven (who played last year's festival and return to the Cities in June), usually sticks with traditional songs, cranking the volume and speed until their polskas and waltzes incite mosh pits.

Härdelin, who fronts both the techno-industrial influenced Garmarna and the traditional acoustic Triakel, typifies the easygoing attitude. Though she straddles two formal extremes, she doesn't hear it that way. "For me, it doesn't make a difference, except with Garmarna I wear ear plugs," she laughs. "I'm just singing. If you put a drum kit and samples behind it, it's one thing. If you put fiddle and harmonium behind it, it's another."

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