Roots World

Malargrót, released in July 2003, is the latest musical dispatch from Spælimenninir’s cross continental conversation, now it its 25th year. The album is a blast of warmth from the chilly shores of the northern Atlantic. In the language of the Faroe Islands, Spælimenninir means simply “the folk musicians.”

Spaelimenninir ‘s newest album, Malargrót, contains a magical mix of old and new, with fiddle tunes from a 200-year-old Faroese fiddle collection along with new tunes from fretted instrument player Ivar Baraentson, new arrangements of traditional material from Kristian Blak, and dance tunes from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

On CD as onstage, fiddle-driven Scandinavian dances dominate, including the hopsa, waltz, reinlænder, the Swedish polska…and polkas aplenty. The band also plays reels and jigs from the Shetland and Orkney Islands. And from further across the northern waters, there is the occasional New England contradance tune.

In addition, Spælimenninir collects traditional songs in Danish and Faroese, a language most closely linked to Old Norse. Band members compose original material. And if the piano takes off on a jazz harmony or an extra jolt of syncopation, well, welcome to the 21st century. In other words, Spælimenninir is “pan-Scan” and beyond.

Ívar Bærentsen composed the first tune, “Fair Isle Reinlendari,” inspired by a wonderful trip to Fair Isle, between Shetland and Orkney. The band then turns to a traditional Swedish tune “Sveds-Jans Polkett ,” a polkett from SvUardsjø, Dalarna. “Hamish Bayne/La Fille Qvinze ans /Smith Jig” actually is multiple tunes rolled into one track; A Svabo sandwich on Bærentsen bread! Ívar Bærentsen wrote the first tune and the second jig is from the notebook of Jens Christian Svabo. Traditional to the Faroe Islands, “Det er i nat “, Kristian Blak arranged this haunting Faroese ballad melody which is usually sung a cappella for Faroese dancing. Spælimenninir nods to Denmark, playing three traditional tunes from the Danish island of Fanø, “Hans Thomsen/Søren Fogeds stykí/Det førstí brujstykí.” Then Ívar composed this dance tune for our friend Marianna Holzer, “Mariannaís Hambo”

Based on melodic forms found in songs from the island of Lewis in the Hebrides, “Eilean,” holds an introspective space on the CD, showcasing Kristian’s fluid musical nature.

There is a song to start a party with and it is “Rumlekvadrille”, a well-known tune from the island of TÂsinge. Janne taught the band this waltz “Lapp-Nils vals från Väst-Jämtland”, from his home region in western Jämtland in Sweden. A Norwegian reinlender, “Reinlender fra Sogn”, composed by Moses Paulen from Jølster. Janne plays this tune which he learned from a fine Norwegian-American hardingfiddler, the late Anund Roheim.

“Mars”, traditional from the Faroe Islands, another high-spirited and melodic tune from the notebook of Jens Christian Svabo. Svabo (1746-1824) is a prominent figure in Faroese history, known primarily as a linguist and ethnographer. While living in Denmark, during several periods between 1765 and 1800, he learned to play the violin and is reported to have played for dances. In 1775, the same year that he apparently began writing his music notebook, he traveled briefly in England. Svabo returned to live in the Faroes in 1800 and took up lodgings in a house called Pætursarstovu in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. In 1928, a manuscript was discovered in the attic of Pætursarstova: Svabo’s own handwritten collection of tunes, dated 1775. This manuscript is now kept in the Faroese National Library. Kristian Blak has composed a new, winter-morning melody for an old Danish ballad, “German Gladensvend.”

Spælimenninir then heads north embracing a traditional Norwegian tune called, “Reinlender”. “Den ormstukne ” is a reinlænderpolka played throughout Denmark, rollicking back and forth between bitter and sweet. The title translates as “The Worm-eaten”, but the band not entirely sure what the worms ate! Spælimenninir learned this version from fiddler Svend Bjerg (1903ñ1999) from Fjand in west Jutland. Svend remained an active musician well into his 80’s. While Spaelimenninir plays this tune in G, Svend usually played it in the key of F. “Å a hår så ont i æ maw; det hær a håj i fjowten daw!” eng: Oh, I have such a stomachache; I’ve had it for fourteen days!” On this next song, the breathtaking landscape of the Faroe Islands has served as inspiration for many of Kristian Blak’s original compositions. “Álvastakkur” is a stack located just off the island of Hestur. Sharon Weiss’ recorder solos beautifully capture the island mood. “Lapp-Nils polska från Väst-Jämtland “, another tune from Janne’s neck of the woods, near the Norwegian border, in Sweden calls out to everyone to come out and play! “Den røde lue (trad. Denmark” is a lively folk dance from Himmerland, in hopsa rhythm, “The Red Cap”. You can hear Kristian singing, “Wem hå’ tån mi rø lu?” eng: Who has taken my red cap? A red cap is often part of the Danish men’s folk costume.

The unique synthesis of Scandinavian fiddling and American contradance style soon came to define the band’s sound. For contrast, Spælimenninir began to explore the sounds of the Faroes, whose traditional music is vocal, not instrumental. Pianist Blak’s complex harmonizations of the old skjaldurs and Kingo hymns lend elegance to performances dominated by cheerful dance tunes. The traditional music has provided him with a unique source of material as he has matured from a young teacher into an award-winning composer of classical and jazz compositions. Blak and Bærentsen also compose many of the tunes that Spælimenninir performs. Their inspiration may come from the beautiful landscape of the Faroes, or a wish to honor a friend or to comment on their own modern lives.

“When we lay out a tune, it is in a mixed style. It is not obvious where it comes from — it comes from everywhere,” explains Kristian Blak, founder of Spælimenninir. The musicians of Spælimenninir first met in the Faroe Islands, in the capital city of Torshavn in the mid-1970’s where a young high school music teacher, Kristian Blak, sought to inspire his student players by importing performers from neighboring countries. From that fluid scene came the name, Spælimenninir, “the folk musicians.” From the start, the band was international, with Ívar Bærentsen, a native Faroese, playing guitar and mandolin and fiddler Jan Danielssohn who was visiting from Sweden and stayed for a while. In 1977, American recorder player Sharon Weiss traveled to Faroes to study folklore and joined the band. Charlie Pilzer, an American bass player, met the others on their first US tour in 1978 and in 1980, Erling Olsen, a Danish fiddler, went to Faroes to visit friends on a summer holiday, joined the band and extended his stay for two years. Charlie Pilzer reflects, “Our sound isn’t strictly Faroese. No one culture will claim us. We are a band of many countries.” On Spælimenninir’s first American tour, Weiss circled back to her hometown in Massachusetts and threw the band into a night of American contradance playing. It was a stretch for the Scandinavians, says Blak, but it worked. “There is some mysticism in how you must play at an American contradance,” he recalls, “but we didn’t know enough to be nervous. We must have sounded very different to the dancers. But instead of getting mad, they got quite excited and people jumped onstage to play along with us.” Says fiddle Danielssohn, “The American style — long sets and the intense playing — surprised us. We had to pick up a lot of tunes very fast.” For contrast, the band also began to explore the music of the Faroes, whose traditional music is vocal, not instrumental. As pianist Blak has matured from a young teacher into an award-winning composer of classical and jazz compositions, his complex harmonizations of the ancient skjaldurs and Kinko hymns lend elegance to performances dominated by cheerful dance tunes. He and Bærentsen compose many of the tunes that Spælimenninir plays and records. Inspiration for a tune may come from the beautiful landscape of the Faroes or in honor of one the bands many friends.

Spælimenninir is heard throughout the public radio system in Europe and the U.S. with frequent appearances on Radio Danmark, and on PRI’s “The Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor. The band is a festival favorite, appearing at the Tønder Folk and Jazz Festival in Denmark, the Festival Belle Isle in France, the prestigious Edinburgh Folk Festival as well as festivals in the Shetland and Orkney Islands in Scotland, and countless festivals in the U.S. and Canada.

A delight to ethnomusicologists, Spælimenninir has performed at museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA, and on the stages of America’s premiere folk venues, including The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI, the Green Willow Club in Wilmington, DE, and Passim’s in Cambridge, MA.

After 25 years and eight albums, says bass-player Pilzer, “Our sound remains a constant. It swings, it’s got a groove, and it’s a little different from anything you’ll hear anywhere.” Band members still live in four countries: Denmark, Sweden, the Faroe Islands and the U.S. But bonds of friendship and respect help to span the miles, they say. “It’s very rare for six musicians to stay together for so many years,” says Pilzer. “With all the travels and good times together, we now blend our cultures and languages. We may start a sentence in English and end it in Danish.”

Washington Post


October 18, 1996

THANKS TO its delightful recordings and its occasional appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion,” the folk ensemble Spælimenninir has developed an audience in the United States eager to hear it perform traditional and contemporary music from Scandinavia and the British Isles.

The sextet’s new album, “Flo∂ og Fjøra” (“Ebb and Flow”), won’t disappoint those fans or, for that matter, anyone else who enjoys music that instantly transports them to a different place and time.

It can be an exhilarating ride at times, driven by the sound of infectious polkas, jigs, reels and hopsas, and whenever pungent, racing fiddles and a pumping piano fill the air.

But just as often the tempo slows and the music exudes a simple beauty and charm, particularly when the ensemble is pared down for the sake of intimacy or when Danish love songs and children’s tunes come into play.

The ensemble’s repertoire is both colorful and curious, ancient and new. Perhaps that’s to be expected of a group that includes one Swede, two Americans, two Danes and one native of the Faeroe Islands in the far North Atlantic, which is where the band is based.

As listeners will soon discover, the Faeroes are the fount of the band’s inspiration and a source of many musical pleasures.