Swallow Hill Music Hall
in Denver, Colorado
(17 September 1999)
The sound of fiddle music greeted me as I approached Swallow Hill's main entrance. "Frifot's still in sound check," I thought. However, a few minutes later, I heard bagpipes. I was taken aback momentarily. Was that for the Paddy Keenan show in the smaller theater downstairs? No, Frifot, best known as a Swedish fiddle trio (despite the fact that only two of the three are fiddlers), implements a plethora of instruments in their act, including mandola, folk harp, fiddles, harmonicas, whistles and, yes, bagpipes.
Frifot (pronounced "free-foot" and, yes, you need a free foot to tap during their show), consists of Ale Moller on mandola, harp, whistles, horns and vocals; Lena Willemark on lead vocals, fiddle and whistles; and Per Gudmundson on fiddles, bagpipe, and vocals. They opened their show with Moller's wooden whistle. It sounded like a call for both the audience and Willemark, who stood almost meditatively at the microphone, her eyes closed, looking as if she was finding her way to the music. Find her way she did to a piece of shepherd music and then to two fiddle tunes, a long dance followed by a polska. The mix of mandola with the fiddles gave the piece a post-Renaissance feel; the mandola took on a virginal/harpsichord sound against the fiddles.
After thanking us for our "noise" (applause), Moller joked about their short two-week tour of the U.S. and how they now were very familiar with American airports. He reiterated their purpose for being there: "We're here to bring you music. We play traditional Swedish music." Indeed, they quickly transitioned back to the tunes, this time performing a piece of chorale music, a sacred song from southern Sweden. Despite the fact that I don't understand Swedish, I enjoyed not only Moller's harp along with Gudmundson's fiddle and Willemark's whistles and vocal work. I could feel her emotions via her voice, if not her words. Her face, eyes and body movements (placing her hand over her heart as she sang) communicated things I could not have understood otherwise.
Indeed, even Gudmundson claimed only to understand a few words from a later piece written in Willemark's home dialect -- very different from Swedish, she assured us -- and learned from a Norwegian singer. However, she clued us in on the song's most important subjects. "Who shot most of the mooses, who got the most handsome man, and who put the spell on the neighbor's horse?" she asked. The song revealed the answers.
Rural themes ran through a number of songs, particularly the herding numbers, both instrumental and vocal. In what perhaps was the most unusual part of the evening, Willemark's voice stood out in a vocal herding song learned in a village near her hometown. (She reported that she still sings such songs at home during the summer -- "during the half month"). "This is long distance calling, so you will hear it," she warned us as she backed away from her microphone. No additional amplification was needed for this very loud and often very high (yet not shrill) song appropriate for open fields. She later was joined by Moller on whistle and Gudmundson on fiddle -- both playing very gently and quietly on this otherworldy-sounding piece. Willemark clearly enjoyed herself as did the audience, which applauded and mooed in response.
Willemark exited the stage twice to permit Moller and Gudmundson some time for duets and solos, including Moller's memorable solo on the willow flute. This flute does not have any fingering holes, so "I play by a specific technique: any way," he laughed. He held and moved a finger at the end of the flute, but otherwise all notes were created by his tonguing and breath control. Since I am a flautist, I watched him in awe. There were times I wondered how many different flutes and whistles he had with him. He'd earlier impressed me on the cow's horn as well.
When Gudmundson brought out his bagpipes for the first song after the break (What break? They spent most of it mingling with fans in the lobby!), he admitted that it was an instrument that "divides the world into two parts, and the ones who love it are here tonight." He explained how he was going to play the Swedish version of the pipes and that while they currently are undergoing a bit of a revival, they have been played in Sweden since the Middle Ages. Willemark's voice was almost drowned out against Gudmundson's bagpipes and Moller's shawm ("also a strange instrument," Gudmundson mused), but it still was there.
In addition to medieval instruments, the band performed a medieval ballad. They wrote music to lyrics (found in medieval manuscript form) about a woman who has the ability to put a man to sleep when he least desires to doze. The song became bawdy. Due to this skill, she was a still a virgin after many years and many men. Moller laughingly instructed to "make up things" if we didn't understand the Swedish.
There were times when, despite the Swedish lyrics, that the songs (the fiddle tunes in particular) took on a slightly Celtic lilt. However, the music definitely was Swedish; I found even the fiddle tunes not to be as airy as most Irish melodies.
Don't attend a Frifot concert nor buy their CDs expecting a Celtic-style fiddle group. For starters, while fiddles dominate most of the songs, Willemark's voice and all of the other instruments make them more than "a fiddle group." Besides that, they are Swedish. There may be a hint of Ireland here and there, but the next note or so will remind you promptly that they are not Irish.
However, if you want to learn about Swedish folk music from three extremely talented and enthusiastic musicians (and just plain be entertained), seek out Frifot. Their Denver audience certainly was not disappointed in that evening's lesson.
[ by Ellen Rawson ]