Tuesday, February 05, 2013

mazurka / hambopolkett

[Sweden's....] invaluable contributions in the fields of folk, rock, jazz, classical. The Swedish government has long seen its musicians as a source of cultural pride and as an economic resource. Sweden's export music industry brought in over $450 million to the country's economy and is third only to the U.S. and the U.K. For these reasons, the government has helped musicians by sponsoring recordings and concerts, both for domestic consumption and international. (National Geographic, quoted from this undated web page.)

I'm a bit doubtful about how to interpret this. It seems pretty obvious that, just for instance, there's a hell of a lot more Latino music swimming around and between Latin countries than there are Cardigans fans in the UK. And I'd have thought the same might well apply in the Islamic world,  or in East Asia. Sweden's laudable third place just seems to prove that, in northern Europe, music can be a money-making industry, there are affluent audiences who like to pay for their music, and the infrastructure is there to sell it abroad.. (Thus even pan-Arab stars and expat Third World musicians are signed up by and make money for the music industries of the west).

Sure taste, good business management, English-language skills and no drugs: that's why Sweden can out-perform in this sector. The products we are talking about are international musics: quality rock and dance, jazz, classical. And if I think of the warm hours, so many of them, the pleasures of listening e.g. to Kent (rock band), Esbjörn Svensson (jazz pianist) or to dozens of BIS recordings (classical label), why would I say anything bad about the happiness that economics can distribute?

Still, the Swedish music I'm most fascinated by is the music that doesn't contribute to those export figures, the things you never come across anywhere else. Like these two treasures from the Loppis (=junkshop), picked up last summer.

Gunnar Persson, Gästrikelåtar och lite till (1999)

"Why, that's a hambo!" said my Mum instantly, on hearing the opening bars of Track 1.

At first everything sounded the same to me. For me one of the biggest fascinations (in music, or any art, or nature, or people, or any topic at all) is watching and discovering how the initial impression of uniform matte begins to differentiate, crack and break open into life and variety. With more attention and a little more knowledge, I've come to see these dance tunes as individuals and as comprising a literature with a quality of fullness, though they are not representational.

hambo Swedish 3/4 dance with strong accent on first beat (derived from polska or mazurka-polska)
mazurka 3/4 dance (of Polish origin) similar to polska - usually fast.
polka   2/4 dance of Bohemian(?) origin
polkett - short for hambopolkett, a Swedish dance popular in the late 19th Century.   
polska  Nordic dance nearly always in 3/4. Warning 1: a polska is not a polka! Warning 2: The description "Tysk Polska" (German Polska, track 11) means a schottis! 
schottis 2/4 dance of Bohemian(?) origin, a slower polka. 
vals (waltz) - 3/4 gliding dance in close position: in Sweden, continuously rotating (as in the video below).
bondvals - country waltz

... and combinations of these.

This is radically dance music. Not in the sense that you absolutely have to dance to it to enjoy it, but you miss half the meaning of the music unless you have the dance in mind. For instance, hambos and polskas are always structured into units of eight measures (bars). The end of a unit is signalled by a decisive, stabbing chord and a tiny pause. The melody arrives at its resolving harmony in the seventh measure, and this signal confirms it in the eighth. The flightier waltz has units of 16 measures, or sometimes 32. But when it's the latter, there's a message in the music at measures 15-16; a joint awareness of the potential resolution that isn't forthcoming. This almost unconscious awareness creates eloquent possibilities.

Gunnar Persson is an accordionist in the Jularbo tradition. He comes from Sandviken in Gästrikland, the southernmost province of Norrland - the kind of midland country you pass through swiftly on the way further north.Sandviken is an inland town, 25km west of Gävle. It lies on the north shore of the Gästrikland Storsjön ("the big lake"). You've probably heard of Sandvik, the global-reach engineering firm that dominates the town. Persson, however, worked for the local authority before his retirement.

The title means, more or less, "Tunes from Gästrikland and a few others". And indeed, a glance at the map of Sandviken shows up some of the places referenced in the titles: Valbo, Bäck, Högbo...

Of the 28 tracks, 16 are Persson solos on a variety of instruments, 9 are duets with the much younger Anders Larsson, and Anders gets a little solo spot on tracks 18-20, his virtuosity on the piano accordion particularly evident on track 18. Persson composed 6 of the tunes himself, 14 are tunes that Persson learnt from other Gästrikland musicians (though they didn't necessarily originate there - folk music, like fairy-tales, is typically a local transformation of sources beyond the local), and 8 are tunes from the wider Jularbo tradition (Carl Jularbo was born in Dalarna).

Perhaps, after all, this release did have an eye for the export market. At any rate, lovingly detailed accounts of the tunes and the instruments are handily given in English as well as Swedish.

Here's a vid of Gunnar Persson and Anders Larsson in action at a dance. Judging from their younger looks, this was ten years before the CD was recorded.

Benny Granberg, Ordjord (2002)

Benny Granberg is a singer-songwriter from Filipstad, a working town in Värmland in central Sweden. The tracks are simply arranged and recorded but his keening, distinctive voice and the painfully personal songs are instantly arresting.  (Internet sources variously categorize this album as country-folk and easy listening rock.)

This is one of my favourites, partly because of Lennart Svensson's accordion swirling in the background. 

Levande vals - Living waltz (translation mostly from Google Translate)

Jag gick omkring och dog här levande
och kände lukten av lik
i den tekniska standardens isande vind
där man blir rik, man blir rik

I went around in a living death
and smelled the scent of corpses
in technology standardized icy wind
where you grow rich, you grow rich

För när människor kränger sitt skal
av skryt och förbannad lögn
när den digitala moralen slagit ut

Because when people turn out their shell
of swagger and damned lies
when the digital morals knocked out
the human factor ideals

i en dans som lyser av guld
där kvalitet är kostnad
en dans runt en kalv som i girighet
profiterar min moral och min skuld

in a dance that shines like gold
where the quality is the cost
a dance round a calf that in greed
makes profit of my morals and my guilt

Tiden var bara en mått
på all min galenskap, allt vad jag gjort
och satt år därtill, blev bara
till ett hokuspokusslott

The time was just a measure
to all my madness, all that I've done
and spent years doing is nothing but
a hocus-pocus-castle

Men där skogen står trygg och sval
med sin krävlösa identitet
och väntar därutanför på min själ
och förlåter min fångna moral

But where the forest is safe and cool
with its demanding identity
and waits outside the door for my soul
and forgives my captive morals

då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals

when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to step out
with life upon my neck

Och när vårregnen faller på skog
och sköljer valsen min ren,
sköljer av mitt hjärta från gråt
där tvivlet förlöstes och dog

And when the spring rains fall on the forest
and the waltz washes me clean,
rinsing my heart from tears
where my doubts were delivered and died

då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals

when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to step out
with life upon my neck

Och när skogarna ångar av liv,
och drömmen står som en vän,
när kärleken varsamt snurrar mej fram
i livets väldiga kliv

And when the woods steam with life,
and the dream stands there like a friend,
and when love so gently swirls me away
into life's powerful striding

då dansar jag i livets vals
som snurrar hit och dit
där kärleken får mej att ta steg
med livet om min hals

when I dance in the waltz of life
as it reels here and there
where love compels me to to step out
with life upon my neck

Granberg is also a nurse to his wife Gunilla, who has frontal lobe dementia, as movingly described here.


Elg, Grete Helle Rasmussen, Helge Havsgård Sunde, Remembrance (2000)

If you have ever wondered, as I have done, what would happen if the strongly characterized popular vocal styles of today were brought to bear on the rich repertoir of lieder / art-song, then this recording supplies some of the answers. Elg is the lead singer with the popular Norwegian band Dance With A Stranger, who play a kind of radio-friendly melodic rock - what we once used to call FM Rock. It isn't really my cup of tea, but anyone can hear that Elg is a powerful and distinctive vocalist. Here, however, he teamed up with classical accompanist Grete Helle Rasmussen on a program of lieder, with discreet electronic or chamber-orchestra arrangments by Helge Havsgård Sunde.

The first thing you have to get out of the way is the inevitable technical challenge. This material demands, and normally receives, a different kind of vocal power. When required to sing quietly in a low register, Elg disappears; when required to sing loudly in a high register, he brays. Some of the songs are almost ruined by this treatment - Berg's Nightingale, for instance.

But when it does work, this collection is as affecting as you would hope. It's affecting partly because of the fragility of the voice, but partly too because of the modern directness of the emotional transference; it lifts away a veil of classicism from the music.

All the songs are sung in English. Some owe their sense of contemporaneity to what are, in effect, new lyrics written by Elg and Grete. Thus their rendering of Fauré's "Mai" replaces Hugo's florid sonnet with a simple (very Norwegian) celebration of May as the first month of spring, with its pale promise of sunshine ("Together we will find a way / In the first days of May"). Schubert's "Litanei" becomes the vehicle for a New-Age reassurance: "Intuition shows you where your feet shall walk... All you see is meant to be..." In these pieces the voice and the words have an intimate relationship that is a shock in the context of this beautiful, timeless music.

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