Dateline: 02/06/98

In the heart of Minnesota is a new record label devoted to preserving and distributing the rich traditions of Scandinavian music. Minneapolis' NorthSide was founded Rob Simonds, who also co-founded the Rykodisc CD label, in order to bring this music to a wider audience. I recently asked Mr. Simonds a few questions about his new label, and had the chance to listen to a few recent NorthSide releases.

Paula: How did a record company for Scandinavian music end up in Minnesota?

Rob: Despite the fact that this is the #1 or #2 region in North America for Scandinavian immigration and would probably be a natural place to do it, it just happens that my interest in this music coincided with a point in my career where I was looking for what to do next, and I happen to live in Minneapolis.

Paula: What is your attraction to this kind of music?

Rob: There's certainly an intellectual element. While this music is accessible to casual American music listeners (like Celtic or Appalachian music), it also has some unusual modal qualities and rhythms that are a bit tricky. I like that. The Finns in particular like strange, shifting time signatures. Also, the quality of play, composition, and arrangements by the musicians involved with this music is incredibly high, so that's a big plus for me. But there's definately an emotional element which drives my passion for it. The mythology and energy connected with Scandinavian folk tradition may be part of that (maybe I was a Swede in a former life!), but I've always been attracted to music that has some spiritual element to it. It intensifies the emotional depth, which is what really gets me hooked.

Paula: Can you comment on some of the musical styles from Sweden and the other countries you deal with -- I notice a lot of it has an almost Middle Eastern feel.

Rob: There are really a number of different styles and cultures involved with "Scandinavian" music. First there is the medieval music, which bands like Hedningarna and Garmana work with, and all of the Scandinavian countries (and other parts of Northern Europe, including the British Isles) have overlapping roots with that music. The ballads are generally dark, sad, or violent, and the instrumental music has lots of drones (bagpipes, hurdy gurdy, nyckelharpa, etc).

The more "contemporary" traditional music of Scandinavia has been influenced by many other cultures. Because of its geographic and political position, the Scandinavian countries have been key players in world trade for hundreds of years. This has brought the influence of countries as far away as China and Africa (and, yes, the Middle East) into the evolution of Scandinavian folk music.

In general, today's contemporary folk artists from Sweden and Norway share very similar (often the same same) roots in the fiddle music and vocal styles of the countryside. Denmark has a similar but slightly different (and less involved with today's scene) folk music tradition. Finland has more ties to the Ugric side of things (Russia, Eastern Europe) and this can particularly be heard in the vocal music. But even these "roots" were influenced by other cultures. Norway used to own the Shetland Islands, for example, and a lot of exchange happened there.

Then there's Sami music, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. That's more related to other Northern Hemisphere indigenous music, including Inuit and American Indian. A number of American Indians who have heard our Finnish Sami chanter Wimme comment that it's "their music."

Paula: What are your goals with Northside, what do you hope to achieve artistically?

Rob: I think the musical scene in Scandinavian is tremendously exciting and interesting, and my primary goal is to expose and make this available to North American music lovers. Ultimately, I would like to see the Scandinavians take their place on the world stage of "ethnic" music, right up there with the Celts and Africans.

Paula: What are the plans for the label in the near future?

Rob: We have ten releases planned between now and mid-May, so lots of work! We want to take the momentum we have built with Väsen's "Whirled" title and with Hedningarna and Wimme in particular and keep those moving forward. We also have one of our new Finnish bands, Troka, coming over in May to appear on Prairie Home Companion. And we hope to be further involved in getting these bands to tour the U.S. by later this year. Mostly we are committed to doing whatever we can to expose this wonderful music.

Hedningarna's latest release Hippjokk blends medieval Scandinavian dance music with contemporary techno and rave. The result is very eclectic and energetic and would fit equally in place in a dance club or on a folk show on a university radio station. The band, whose name means "The Heathens" in English, is comprised of three Swedish men and three Finnish women, but this time it is just the core trio of the guys.

Wimme Saari is a modern jojk (also pronounced yoik) singer from Finnish Samiland. An ancient Sami vocal tradition which is very similar in sound to Native American chant, Wimme's self-titled debut, which was originally released in his homeland in 1995, has a techno-ambient feel to it thanks to the participation of the Finnish band RinneRadio. Wimme also guests on a few tracks on Hedningarna's album mentioned above.

Väsen is a Swedish quartet utilizing nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle), viola, guitar, and percussion. Mostly acoustic, their 1997 recording Whirled features all original compositions which demonstrate deep roots in Swedish traditional folk music. A very energetic release which demonstrates an extreme level of musical virtuosity, Väsen's name in English has many translations, all of which capture the essence of the band: spirit, being, nature, character, and soul.

Thanks very much to Rob Simonds for taking some time out to answer my questions and to Michele Delfino at the label for sending me some music.

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