Bára Grimsdóttir, Funi (Green Man Productions, 2004)

I still have much to learn about Icelandic folk music, but Bára Grimsdóttir's recording Funi is an immensely enjoyable introduction. Having started singing at the knees of family members in the '60s, Grimsdóttir is now a seasoned performer, composer and folklorist. Her voice is extraordinary. She can hit high notes that I only dream about reaching and hits them with incredible clarity.

The liner notes give the listener an excellent mini-history of Icelandic folk music, which has been primarily a vocal tradition with little in the way of instrumental accompaniment. Two instruments used exclusively until the mid-19th century were the langspil (Appalachian dulcimer players take note) and the Icelandic fidla (a bowed zither). As a result of the focus on the voice as the instrument of choice, the singing styles have their own unique character. Certainly you can trace the Scandinavian influences in the music, the same way you can hear the "Scandinavian-ness" of their spoken language, but it's easy to pick out the melodic lines, harmonies and rhythms that separate it from other Scandinavian cultures -- a development not uncommon in the human circle of evolution as populations become separated and travel down their own paths. The other point to note is the role of poetry in the culture. Many of the poets are known, credited and revered in the society and individuals are constantly adding to the pool of poems and songs. These elements are passed down through the generations with many of the credits intact. My impression is that singers draw from the pool of poems and melodies, often mixing and matching to their satisfaction -- truly a folk process. Grimsdóttir sings many songs, written by family members, that have been woven into her family's traditions. She also selects poetry and melodies from elsewhere in the pool.

Funi is a combination of traditional a cappella arrangements and, on several tracks, songs accompanied by the more contemporary guitar (Chris Foster) and squeeze boxes (John Kirkpatrick). Foster and Kirkpatrick masterfully adapt to the quirks of the Icelandic music, sometimes accentuating them, sometimes lending a more English sensibility, and always making the right decision.

The first three tracks have a more standard European sound to them with Foster's guitar (tracks one and three) and Kirkpatrick's accordion (track three). Grimsdóttir's kantele colors track one, "Morning Prayer," putting the tune squarely on Scandinavian territory. Listen to those notes she reaches in the non-verbal interlude in this song. Wow!

With tracks four through six, the ears are treated to some of the nuances of Icelandic melodies that are easily audible in the a cappella arrangements. The first of this group, "Blessed Lady," is an intimate, chant-like song of four lines about a woman clearing away dishes and taking care of servants. A gentle, sparse fidla accompaniment on the second time through accentuates the song's meditative quality. I suppose that makes it not an a cappella arrangement, but the focus is still very much on the voice. "My Work" has more of a shout to it and requires Grimsdóttir to sing in a louder chest voice. She handles this range with ease even though it's clear the high soporano is her comfort zone. The song, written by a woman who had 13 children, is a cry for what might have been had she not been saddled with so many socks to darn. I think that would make me shout! "In the Countryside" is the third song in this set and presents a third vocal color. It is an appreciation of the natural world written by Magrét Einarsdóttir, the sister of Grimsdóttir's grandmother. The vocal range here is right in between the two previous songs. At this point it is very clear how much control Grimsdóttir has over her voice.

I think the transition from "In the Countryside" to "Lily" is my favorite progression on the album. Chris Foster's guitar introduction on "Lily" incorporates the parallel fifth harmonies that are talked about in the liner notes and is a real head-turner after the three a cappella songs. He follows her vocal line like another singer would, with a few finger picking moves in between. With Grimsdóttir's voice on top, it gives the illusion of three voices instead of one. It is a superb arrangement and a testament to Foster's understanding of the music. There are more harmonies like this on the title track, "Funi" (track 10) with Grimsdóttir triple-tracking her voice and John Kirkpatrick's squeeze box adding to the chorus. On "I would spread out my wings" (track 16), the voice is alone again with one harmony overdubbed. I love these harmonies. They won't strike one as being particularly avante garde, but there is a distinctly different feeling to them than you get with the more dispersed, softened harmonies in thirds that are so much a part of European and American music.

I have not found a Web site specifically for Grimsdóttir, but this MySpace page will give you some audio samples and a description of the album. A search brings up several sites for purchasing the CD.

Each of the 18 songs on Funi has something very special to offer. The variety is refreshing. So often folk music albums have no dynamic or textural changes. Not so with Funi. And it accomplishes this without losing its focus on the singing. I also find the accompaniment exceptional for the way that it always supports that singing without getting boring. We all know what good instrumentalists Foster and Kirkpatrick are, but this also shows what good musicians they are. Their participation here is about supporting the voice and even when there is an opportunity for an instrumental interlude, they follow the vocal patterns, adding only a little ornamentation. The three muscians together have designed a beautiful piece of musical lace. Funi has quickly earned a special place on my CD shelf. Next stop, Iceland.

[Barb Truex]