‘There’s just a little ocean between us. I think there’s more that connects us than not,’ suggests Tore Bruvoll, guitarist, composer, arranger, and one half of the duo behind the group Hekla Stålstrenga (which means ‘crochet-work steel-strings’). Bruvoll is referring to the relationship between Norwegian and Irish traditional music, and listening to the myriad of musical projects that Bruvoll and Ragnhild Furebotten – fiddle-player and co-founder of the group – engage in, it is relatively easy to hear, not just similarities in styles, but that same musical searching that has invigorated so much of Irish traditional music in recent years.
Norway, like Ireland, experienced an influx of styles, instruments and new approaches to traditional music in the 1990s. That was what drew blues guitarist Bruvoll in. Furebotten on the other hand grew up with traditional music, her great-grandfather in particular being a collector of music. Both come from the northern part of Norway, in the counties of Nordland and Troms. Trace the area on a map – it is that thin middle section of Norway where Sweden comes within a few kilometres of the Norwegian Sea, or Norskehavet – and it is little wonder that the musical tradition is so deeply entwined with the maritime tradition. As Furebotten explains, ‘Most of this part of Norway is along the coastline, and therefore the music is inspired by this type of society: the weather, the ocean, boats and fishing, journeys, visitors, death, tragedies, wives alone at home waiting for husbands, and hard work.’ The geography shapes the people too, she continues, ‘The personality of the people from the north is often characterised as open, direct, and with lots of humour – maybe even a bit of raw humour!’ Yet it also the great distances between Nordland and Troms and the major urban centres of Norway that are important: ‘This is a very long area, the distances are huge, and this affects the musical tradition. The regional styles are very much present.’
What may also resonate with Irish audiences about this particular northern region is that, like in our own northern Donegal tradition, the fiddle music is played at a quicker pace than the rest of Norway. They also, surprisingly, do not have a tradition of playing the hardingfele, or hardanger fiddle. This ornately designed, unique-sounding instrument, which is synonymous with Norway, and which has been championed in Ireland in recent years by fiddle players Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan, is more established in the traditions of south Norway.
Ragnhild Furebotten is an example of a young artist openly exploring what it means to be a traditional musician in the twenty-first century. Her output is substantial already, her music vies between the experimental and the traditional, and her perspective embraces the bigger picture: ‘North-Norwegian cultural heritage and traditional Norwegian music in general are big parts of my identity. But still, I don’t think of myself first and foremost as a folk musician. Rather I feel that I’m a musician, period, and that being a musician is about the balance and strife between background and traditions and ever-new inspirations.’ Striking that balance can be a constant search. After several years living in Oslo, touring at home and abroad, and also studying in Denmark, she decided to move back to northern Norway: ‘Yes, moving back up north after years in Oslo was a decision to embrace and live fully the specific culture that was mine form the start. I wanted to … play a role in the cultural life of the north. … I think that having ties to tradition and proper knowledge of cultural history are things that make a more genuine personal expression possible. For me at least, the notion of being a representative of a tradition makes my quest for a personal expression more focused and fruitful.’
Citing Norwegian fiddle-players Susanne Lundeng and Harald Haugaard as important influences, but also bluegrass singer/fiddle-player Alison Krauss and singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, Furebotten was originally best known as a member of Majorstuen, a dynamic young fiddle group who in 2003 won a Spellemannprisen, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy. The natural next step for her was a solo album, Finally Waltz, which has received particular acclaim, and which takes a more distilled approach, involving just two other musicians – Gjermund Larsen on fiddle and Frode Haltli on accordion. Despite the sparse approach, the recording called for an exploratory creative process that involved much improvisation and experimentation between the musicians. The result demonstrates not just a terrific technique – crisp execution is an umistakeable feature of her fiddle-playing – but also artistic focus: each track is finely constructed, ‘Aslag-slatten’ in particular combining a clever weave of counter melodies and syncopated rhythms on clarinet and fiddle, with a repeated trill holding it all together. She is currently working on her second solo album.
Furebotten has been to Ireland a few times before and is very aware of the Irish fiddle tradition, in particular musicians such as Tommy Peoples, Martin Hayes, Paddy Glackin and John Carty, but there is an even more direct connection between Ireland and Hekla Stålstrenga, for Tore Bruvoll is the guitarist with the group String Sisters. A group established at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in 2001, it combines the fiddle traditions of Ireland (Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh), Norway (Annbjørg Lien), the Shetland Islands (Catriona Macdonald), USA (Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles) and Sweden (Emma Härdelin), with Bruvoll on guitar. To hear String Sisters is to appreciate just how reconcilable these traditions are. The experience has heightened Bruvoll’s awareness of the interconnections between the traditional musics of Europe. ‘Tunes from all over have so much in common,’ he explains, ‘I’ve experienced this when playing with the String Sisters. Folk music is definitely a universal language.’
Multi-instrumentalist Bruvoll, who lists traditional singer Sondre Bratland, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, Eric Clapton and Tom Waits as particular influences, started out as a blues guitar player in the niteclubs of Tromsø. You can still hear that influence in his playing, although traditional Norwegian folk music has been his principle focus for the last ten years. He has recorded two albums with traditional singer Jon Anders Halvorsen, and yet a visit to his MySpace page reveals an artist who stretches over the full gamut of contemporary Norwegian musical life. In particular, ‘Kvea’, in which Bruvoll records an extremely sensitive accompaniment on saz, a Middle Eastern instrument, over a track of an elderly Norwegian traditional singer, demonstrates real capability and understanding. It is not surprising that aside from his work with Furebotten and the String Sisters, Bruvoll is one of the most popular guitarists on the Norwegian folk scene. He is at the moment not only working with various other bands, but also writing music for a play and developing a new band using two guitars.
Ragnhild Furebotten and Tore Bruvoll met at the age of sixteen in the mid-1990s in a music college in Tromsø in Troms county. Despite the instant musical match, it wasn’t until 2005 that they finally realised their ambition of establishing a group together and then last year releasing the group’s first CD, simply titled Hekla Stålstrenga. They suggest that the tunes in their repertoire that are perhaps furthest away from the Irish tradition, such as their ‘pols-tunes’, will be of particular interest to Irish audiences, but ‘Hjertebank’ and ‘Ekvilibristen’, two tunes written by Furebotten, should also be mentioned. Both are contemporary fiddle tunes that nonetheless demonstrate the uniqueness of the tradition in Norway, in particular the marked intonation and the centrality of the trill.
For this Music Network tour, Furebotten and Bruvoll will be joined by another Spellemannprisen winner, bassist Trond-Viggo Solås, and drummer Christian Svensson, who performs with the Swedish group Hedningarna which combines electronic and folk elements with Scandinavian traditional music.
Hekla Stålstrenga may have taken several years to come together, but as with the geography of northern Norway, great distances seem to enhance the richness of the music.
7 – 15 October 2009
Ragnhild Furebotten, fiddle
Tore Bruvoll, guitar
Trond-Viggo Solås, double bass
Christian Svensson, drums