Norse by Midwest
Purists grumble that "folk-rock" neither rocks nor respects folk tradition. But the newest genre of world music showcased in this weekend's Nordic Roots Festival displays both studiousness and soul. In this, the first American event of its kind, nine pop-influenced neotraditionalist acts from Scandinavia will descend like a Viking raiding party on the West Bank, filling the Southern Theater, the Cedar Cultural Centre, and the 400 Bar with music that justifies the term neo-folk.
While it makes perfect sense that such a festival should take place in Odin's own Twin Cities, the venue owes more to fateful coincidence than demographics. Three years ago Nordic Roots Festival founder Rob Simonds was working for Rykodisc in Minneapolis when he received a box of CDs from the record company's Swedish distributor. After letting the package gather a thick layer of dust, Simonds sampled its obscure contents at the urging of a co-worker and quickly became enthralled by what he heard.
The sound on those discs was the same mesh of ancient and modern music that festgoers will hear permeating the West Bank this weekend. Coursing with the off-kilter polska rhythms common in Swedish folk, the droning, fiddle-based tunes Simonds heard sounded timeless and otherworldly. But like some cave painting sprayed with a hip-hop graffito, the music was filled with brazenly contemporary pop touches. Swedish folk vets Den Fule, for instance, showed no qualms about using jazz phrasing to loosen up traditional folk ballads. But that mild fusion felt conservative compared to the fiddle-mosh sounds of Garmarna and Hoven Droven--bands that will hold up just fine in the smoky atmosphere of the 400 Bar.
What Simonds had discovered was a new, as yet critically unsung generation of Nordic conservatory musicians, a school of new jack Swedes and Finns that augmented long-played pagan song forms with metal and techno touches. "This music became a personal obsession for me," says the bespectacled, clean-cut Simonds in his office at NorthSide Records, the company he subsequently created to put out the music he found in that dusty box of discs. "I had absolutely no roots or historical attachment to anything Nordic. I don't even think living here affected my taste for it. It was almost a spiritual experience: There was something more going on with these tunes, and I still don't know what it was."
Simonds might have kept his newfound passion to himself had Rykodisc not decamped and moved to Massachusetts in 1997. Deciding to stay in Minneapolis, he considered getting out of the record business altogether before taking the plunge to found NorthSide, the sole U.S. distributor exclusively promoting the still virtually unknown genre of "Nordic folk." Simonds quickly joined forces with Boiled in Lead bassist Drew Miller (Miller's own imprint, Omnium, shares space and resources with NorthSide), and they've gone on to release 30 albums in North America. Simonds has also traveled through the Nordic nations to witness the movement firsthand, and he speaks with some authority about the current wave's historical undertow.
"If you go to any pub in Ireland after hours, there are inevitably people playing Celtic music," he says. "But in Sweden, while a lot of people learned to play the fiddle when they were young, the music isn't a real active part of the cultural consciousness." Simonds attributes Sweden's folk amnesia to the Catholic Church's late but sweeping arrival near the turn of the century, when the institution vehemently quashed what it saw as the devil's vices of fiddling and dancing. But oddly enough, Simonds claims there are advantages to mining a forgotten, hard-to-market music.
"Young people in Nordic countries feel like they can do anything they want with the music now," Simonds says. "The downsides of an active living tradition like Irish music is that there's a lot of pressure on young musicians not to mess with it."
On the eve of its biggest American blowout to date, the Nordic progressive folk movement is poised to electrify a whole circuit of hidden connections between Old Worlds and New, especially in Minneapolis-St. Paul. For starters, Cedar Avenue, the street where this weekend's festival takes place, offers a link to Minnesota's immigrant past.
In fact, just when traditional music was being repressed overseas, Nordic peasant culture was enjoying its heyday here on the Mississippi's West Bank. Between 1885 and 1915, the Twin Cities absorbed America's largest concentration of immigrant Swedes outside of Chicago. Of course, this was before highways, higher learning, and hospitals carved up the neighborhood. Today it might be difficult to imagine thousands of people crowding into the area's vaudeville halls, including the Southern Theater and Dania Hall. Both theaters still stand, of course, though a commercial developer is currently eyeing Dania's old third-and-fourth-floor theater for condo space.
Cedar Avenue was named Snoose Boulevard back when Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian were spoken on the street and in the stores. Snus was a kind of Swedish chewing tobacco, and the name became synonymous with the entertainment district. All of which makes the idea of a Nordic festival on the West Bank feel historically appropriate--and more than that, somehow right.
But there are other, more recent links between NorthSide's music and Minnesota's Nordic history. In the early years of the Depression, decades after Snoose's peak, thousands of Finnish Americans--many of them Minnesotan--were recruited by the Soviet Union through the American Communist party to work in Soviet Karelia, a small and piney republic wedged between Finland and Russia. Hundreds of these workers died in Stalin's purges, and when a mass grave of 9,000 people was discovered two years ago in a Karelian forest glade, a number of Minnesotans were among the 200 North Americans who'd been executed and buried there.
Perhaps Karelia's cultural significance helped draw Finnish-American forest workers back to the quiet, wooded land. It was in Karelia that Elias Lönnrot gathered songs in 1835 for what became the national epic of Finland, Kalevala, and the region has preserved a tradition of increasingly rare "runesongs" for hundreds of years. Today Finns in Russian Karelia have been reduced to a tiny minority, and after enduring the worst of Soviet repression, they've recently borne the brunt of Russia's capitalist collapse.
Still, this was where one of NorthSide's most groundbreaking bands, the Finnish-Swedish combo Hedningarna, traveled to learn the old songs, living and working with hospitable locals in the most desolate rural towns. The excursion apparently paid off, at least in urgent performances by the two female vocalists and a raw percussive sound on the band's haunting new album, Karelia Visa. In the truest Nordic neo-folk fashion, the platter is as much an ethno-musical document as an experimental music opus.
And when the group makes its American debut at the Nordic Roots Festival, it will up the ante by playing after a "yoik" (or chant) master, Wimme Saari, who himself reveals yet another chain of Old World-New World connections. The Sammi are the original settlers of Scandinavia, and may have traveled, like some Native Americans, from Central Asia. They share distinct musical approaches with their North American counterparts--and a similar history of forced removal. Somehow, Wimme's techno-backed throat chanting shows how closely the two indigenous music arterioles run, tracing back to a single, now invisible heart.
Like Wimme, Hedningarna makes closing the circle between fierce ethnic traditions and Western pop tastes seem natural, even easy, though neither act--nor any other on NorthSide--slips into the morass of easy listening. (Simonds rejected a bid by Polygram to include hugely popular Celtic-Nordic new agers Secret Garden in the festival.) In a Nordic world of long nights and longer winters, these roots rockers come from a tradition of daunting practice hours and intellectual seriousness. They're stoic about their edutainment.
"Hedningarna are probably the best example of a Nordic band as historians," offers Simonds. "Nobody had ever bothered to go to this part of Karelia and document that culture. Those traditions risk dying, and perhaps these bands are the only ones who'll preserve them."
The Nordic Roots Festival takes place Friday through Sunday, April 2-4. For complete concert information, go to www.noside.com/festival/ or call the Cedar Cultural Centre, (612) 338-2674; the 400 Bar, (612) 332-2903; and the Southern Theater, (612) 340-1725.
Hedningarna performs live with the Flying Foot Forum's dance production of Trä Thursday through Saturday, April 1-3, at the Southern Theater. The band will also perform music from its new album Karelia Visa on Sunday, April 4 at the Cedar Cultural Centre with Wimme Saari opening.
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