Kalabra, Kalabra (Caprice, 1997)
Myllårit, Eta Pravada
(Warner Finlandia, 1997) S
Sirmakka, Tsihi Tsihi (Warner Finlandia, 1997)

Kalabra's self-titled album is one of the most upbeat albums I've ever heard. This new sextet plays a form of a jazz-folk fusion. It's a really interesting mix of vocals, flute, bass, percussion, saxophones, bouzouki, jews-harp, harmonica, and nyckelharpa. The Swedish press I saw when in Stockholm said that this is 'modern Swedish folk music peppered with improvisation.' This is a fair assessment, as Kalabra play and sing a combination of folk music, rock and jazz with vigorous rhythmic drive. Waltzes, polkas, schottisches, and even a ballad or two are part of the repertoire. Kalabra play and sing a combination of folk music, rock and jazz with vigorous rhythmic drive. Indeed, the rhythmic drive is the strongest element of their unique sounds, with the bright, breezy vocals of Ulrika Bodén (who also plays flute) creating a jazzy feel to their music.

What amazes me as a Librarian about Kalabra and the rest of the Nordic groups fusing traditional material with a modern approach, is how much their approach feels like it has come out of the seminal Irish groups, The Moving Hearts. Fintan Valley's Companion to Irish Traditional Music noted that they mixed 'traditional music with rock, jazz, and contemporary songs...' but more importantly was the mix of instruments which had not been done before -- ' fiddles and bagpipes were fused with saxophones and drum kits. Kalabra -- and most of the new Nordic groups -- fuse the traditional sound of fiddles onto a mix of saxophones and rock-style percussion. It's a heady mix that would indeed, as the contradance say, make you shut up and dance!

Our next group is a bit different. According to their press kit, 'Myllarit is a brisk vocal and instrumental group from Petrozavodsk, the Republic of Karelia, NW Russia. The Finnish Uusi Kansanmusiikki ( The New Folk Musik ) has characterized them as a phenomenon of the new wave Karelian folk music. Myllarit make music based on traditional songs and tunes. They unearth their material in folk songs collections and recordings made by folk performers. The group strives to unite the multilingual musical traditions of the Republic of Karelia in their original show. Thus, Myllarit perform Karelian songs and melodies of the White Sea, Olonets and Ladoga regions, and also Russian songs of the Trans-Onega region, fitting them to suit their more modern style. Besides, the group performs songs of the Ingria ( St.-Petersburg region ) in the local Ingric dialect of the Finnish language.' I used to think that the border between England and Scotland was a bit vauge, but the Karelian region literally lies in both Finland and Russia!

The mix of instruments is not that unusual for this type of group -- ' Aleksandr Bykadorov (guitar, scythe, vocals), Arto Rinne (vocals, mandoline, bouzouki, harmonica), Sergei Zobnev (piano accordion, 2-row Russian button accordion, vocals), Tatyana Umnyakova (fiddle and vocals), Dmitri Dyomin (clarinet, flutes, bagpipe, saxophone, and vocals), Andrey Lukin (drums), Leo Sevets (guitar, jouhikko -- a bowed lyre--, 5-and 10 string kantele -- Finnish-karelian harp --, lead and backing vocals). What is different is the sheer size of the group, as most of these groups are foursomes or smaller. Myllarit creates a 'wall of sound' And it's an entertaining sound as well.  Nils Inkila, correspondent for the Canadian Uutiset, a Finnish newspaper, noted, '...one must say that if there's a group that performs Finnish-style folk music better, it must be from another world -- '.. It's worth remembering this name and to go see and listen to them. It will be the best musical investment of your vacation.' The other radical difference between this group and most of the other Nordic/Russian groups is this group has male, not female, vocals. Indeed, Aleksandr Bykadorov looks like a Russian version of Tempest's Leif Sorbye!

Myllarit means The Millers, and this is the rowdy music that a group of slightly drunk -- or perhaps really soused -- working class blokes would make, complete with shouting and raffish laughter, while singing in their favorite tavern. Tales of cooking cats (not them, but the blokes in the next village), flash girls, a love song about their native city Petroski, love lost and found, life on the Russian collective farms, and the Holy Night itself. Warner Finlandia has done a nice job of providing bilingual liner notes. I highly recommend this album to all fans of Nordic music!

Phønix hails from Denmark, land of Hans Christian Anderson, pickled fish, and buxom maidens. Their recording company Web site describes them as 'Energy, intensity, progressivity. This is obtained by the mean of new original compositions, traditional Danish tunes and a unique instrumentation, merged with Nordic, African, Latin America, rock and Jazz music. The result is a very original play style and sound, that sends the Danish folk music way ahead into the next millennium.' This fivesome of Kristine Heebøll on fiddle, Jesper Falch on percussion, Jesper Vinther Petersen on accordion, Anja Præst Mikkelsen on bass clarinet and clarinet, and Katja Mikkelsen on recorders, fiddle and bagpipe, is an all-instrumental undertaking with not a vocal to be heard anywhere.

Nor is this jazzy like Kalabra. Rather, this is music for celebrations -- ' light, bouncy, and quite danceable. As Søren Chr. Kirkegaard, writing in Jyllandsposten, noted -- ' 'Everyone in the group, that has created its complete personal style and sound, does it well. The sound is highly coloured by Anja Præst´s forceful playing on the bass clarinet, Jesper Vinther Petersen contributes to the warm keynote with his melodic accordion playing and Jesper Falch is brilliant with his rhythmical playing on the congas. There is a great drive in Kristine Heebølls dynamical violin playing and Katja Mikkelsen adds to the music neat and lyrical facets with her beautiful playing on the recorder. Phønix seem to be on a steady course after having risen from the ashes' The closest North American group in terms of the sound is a Minneapolis-based  instrumental group called the Seven Thieves. Like the Seven Thieves, violins are the root sound of the group. The overall sound is almost, but not quite, medieval in feel. Buy both Udbrud and Live as there's little overlap between them. Live has the added element of crowd sounds, as it was indeed done in a small venue. I really can't say it added to my enjoyment of the album.

Sirmakka's Tsihi Tsihi is similar to Phønix in sound and nature. Sirmakka is a Finnish folk music ensemble consisting of young musicians from Rääkkylä in North Karelia. (Yes, another Karelian group!) It was founded in 1986 with 18 members (!), but its present lineup includes six members. Sirmakka is considered to be one of the most interesting and most popular folk music ensembles in Finland. This recording has but five members on it -- ' Sari Kaasinen on vocals, kantele, two-row accordion, and tin whistle; Jussi Kaasinen on mandoline; Tero Pakarinen on bass; Mikko Soininen on on guitar and vocals; and Taina Våyrynen on five-row accordion. Sari Kaasinen is also known as the former leader of the more famous Finnish folk group Värttinä. Värttinä began life as a children's and adolescents' band in North Karelia in the mid-1980s. It specialized in Karelian music, and it gained popularity in its 20-member form. In the 1990s, Värttinä merged Finno-Ugric tradition and rock music. In addition to the wild and energetic drive created by the constant roar of fiddles and accordions, it featured highly skilled women singers.

Sirmakka, to my ear, sounds a lot like Myllarit, which once again demonstrates how transparent the Russo-Finnish border is! Fronted by the vocals of Sari Kaasinen, who rolls her R's almost as well as Emma Hårdelin of Garmarna, this band has the feel of being very comfortable with the ancient ballads collected in the Finnish Kalevela. This isn't surprising as Sari Kaasinen has been involved with folk music from a very early age. Her mother, Pirkko Kaasinen, was deeply interested in folklore, and passed her enthusiasm onto her children through poems, songs and children's rhymes. Sari and her sister Mari performed with the Tsupukat band from an early age, both at local venues and in Helsinki. At the relatively late age of eleven, Sari took up the kantele and decided on her future profession -- ' a kantele teacher, a composer and a musician.

The songs are of love lost, hard times during the long winters, death, the danger of drink, and nonsensical rhymes. This is lively stuff suitable for dancing and drinking long into the cold, windy night!

Swåp, our next band, is unique. As the Northside Web site puts it 'Two Swedes and two Brits; two men and two women; two blondes and two brunettes; two Scandinavian folk fiddlers and two traditional Celtic musicians. This is Swåp -- the inevitable confluence of two distinct but related musical cultures by a quartet of gifted players. As they move from Swedish polska to Celtic jig, from Scandinavian 'vals' to British waltz, it's easy to marvel that this musical exchange has not been presented so directly before.'

Yes, folk fiddlers, not folk violinists. The Green Man Review Style guide notes that 'the historical differences between the two instruments were always slight and have vanished with time. Some critics -- including a few ethnomusicians who simply don't know better -- will insist that the distinction between them now is the style of play -- ' a fiddler being one who plays folk music while a violinist plays classical music. This simply is not true as there are too many shades of gray to assume this. For example, many folk musicians in Scandinavia more often than not play violins and therefore are most often called violinists. Even English folk musicians are often violinists, i.e., Dave Shepherd of Blowzabella -- a band who plays Anglo-French trad music --plays a violin. Always check the liner notes to see which term the musician prefers!'

[Iain Nicholas Mackenzie]