Over Stok og Steen, til almuen (2L, 2003)

Over Stok og Steen (literally "over stick and stone", but translated figuratively as "over hill and dale") hail from Hedemarken, a region of southern Norway located just above Oslo and straddling the Swedish border. Thomas Lomundal (fiddle), Ronny Kjøsen (accordion and keyboards), Thomas Nilssen (accordion and clarinet), Frode Slupphaug (upright bass) and Morten Bråttas (guitar and dobro) perform the traditional folk and dance tunes from the villages of this region. Many of the tunes in their repertoire date back several centuries. On til almuen ("to all and sundry"), the band plays a wide variety of dances, from standard waltzes to old minuets to a few dances in triple time peculiar to Hedemarken, along with a few songs featuring guest vocalist Hege Nylund. The breadth of the range of styles performed here might surprise listeners whose primary exposure to Norwegian folk music consists of hardanger fiddle tunes, or perhaps a handful of polses played at Swedish dances. In addition, anyone who expects the fiddle to dominate the sound on this album will be intrigued, and hopefully impressed, by the creative arrangements which often instead put the accordion or clarinet in the spotlight.

The opening tune is a reinlander from the village of Romedal. Reinlanders are the Norwegian equivalent of the schottis; the style was adapted by German fiddlers from the Scottish hornpipe before finding its way into Scandinavia. They are played in cut time, and have a bounce to them which distinguishes them from reels or polkas. Like most of the tunes on this album, this schottis leans towards the more pleasant and melodic side of Scandinavian music rather than the edgier, aggressive side. This is followed by a polonaise. Much like a polska, the polonaise is a 3/4 dance with emphasis on the first and third beats in a measure. Next, the band plays a brudemarsj, or bridal march. As you might expect, this tune is slow and stately, and sweetly played with Lomundal handling the melody on the fiddle and some really nice harmonies on accordion.

The fourth tune, "Damerne Gaar," is the first of two gallops on the album. This tune actually has two parts. The first sounds very classical, but the second is a cross between a reinlander and a polka, with the defining characteristic of a single note played three times in succession, obviously evoking the galloping of a horse. Next comes the first of two minuets composed by Johannes Sternberg. The minuet is another dance in 3/4, and this particular minuet could be easily played and danced as a waltz. While the minuet is no longer danced in this part of Norway, Sternberg's pieces continue to be played by the folk musicians of his native Romedal. Sternberg may have died in 1801 at the sadly young age of 25, but he left behind some very strong melodies, as this minuet makes evident. The first song on the album is the sad ballad "En vise jeg vil synge (A Song I Will Sing)," which deals with the time-honored topic of jealousy and unrequited love. Hege Nylund's voice will remind listeners familiar with Swedish music of Sofia Karlsson, or perhaps Ulrika Bodén and Sofia Sandén of Ranarim and Rosenberg 7.

Following this song is a Graaberg masurka. Graaberg is a legendary tavern associated with with one of the biggest fairs in all of southern Norway. Mazurkas are triple-time pieces with a heavy swing, or dip, on the first measure, and are danced accordingly. The polka which follows begins with a field recording of its composer, Nikolai Evenson, playing on accordion. His style is considered quite distinctive, but Kjøsen and Nilssen handle the tune smoothly. "Runtom-kule" consists of three tunes referred to as "runtoms" in Romedal, but the first of them, at least, is played in other parts of Norway and Sweden as a dance called a Finnskog, after another town in Hedmarken right on the Swedish border. These tunes are played in triple time, but the third beat in the measure is held for significantly less time than the other two. The accordions give the tunes a more syncopated feel than I've heard on fiddles alone; I cannot say if that is closer to the tradition in Romedal, or simply the artistic license of Over Stok og Steen.

The next song, "Nu vil jeg reise langt herfra (I Will Now Travel Far)," features Brattås playing the dobro. This song recounts the story of man who left for America, but returned seven years later to find that his love had married someone else and had children. Sad songs seem to be quite common in this part of Norway. The album's one true waltz features the two accordions, and sounds much like Finnish waltzes one might expect to hear from the playing of Maria Kalaniemi. Following the waltz is the second of Johannes Stenberg's minuets, played as a trio by Lomundal and two guest fiddlers, Gjermund Larsen and Einer Olav Larsen. While still in triple time, this minuet does not resemble a waltz nearly as closely as the first one.

Next comes a fast, energetic Norwegian fandango, featuring an aggressively bowed bass in the main part of the song and a couple of quiet waltz interludes to break the tension. This is followed by the third and last song on the CD, "Sørg ikke kjære pike (Grieve Not, Dear Girl)." Accompanied hauntingly by only the two accordions, Nylund tells the story of a poor man's unsuccessful attempt to win the heart of a wealthy maiden. After this comes another mazurka, featuring some subtle piano and a brief solo from Bråttas on guitar.

"Over Stok og Steen" is a happy, bouncy gallop from which the band adopts its name. The melody originated in Austria, but many Norwegian fiddlers adapted this tune to their own tastes. The melody is instantly catchy, and the enthusiasm with which it's played is contagious. "Springdans fra Hedemarken" completes the album. The tune dates back at least 150 years, and the style appears to be related to Swedish polskas. With the gentle piano and accordion arrangement, though, the band performs this piece much like a last waltz.

On til almuen, Over Stok og Steen show themselves to be a very capable band that successfully manages to add its own creativity into the musical arrangements, while still honoring the history and traditions from which these tunes were born. If I have any complaint about the sound, it is that I would have liked to have heard the guitar more strongly in the mix, although that could easily result from my own personal bias with regards to that particular instrument. Fans of traditional Scandinavian music looking to examine the folk music of Norway more deeply will want to have this CD, as will players of Norwegian and Swedish music looking to add to the tunes and styles their repertoire. If they're playing specifically for folk dances, however, they might want to make sure that they know somebody who can teach the dances associated with these tunes. Most of the styles covered on til almuen are actually not common, at least not to the Swedish and Norwegian folk dances held outside of Scandinavia. Still, that should not be regarded as an obstacle to enjoying some well- performed, quality traditional compositions from a particularly prolific region of Norway.

[Scott Gianelli]

For a extensive, detailed description of the history behind each tune on this CD, click here.