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Väsen – The Essence of Sweden

I was going to make this post about one of my favorite bands, Väsen. But as I started to research their history as a band, and as individual musicians, I ran into too many collaborations they have been a part of, both individually and as a group, to NOT include other favorite bands and musicians in this post. In one instance I hadn’t even done my due diligence in reading the names of all the musicians on one of my favorite Christmas CDs, Jul i folkton, or I would have realized that Väsen guitarist Roger Tallroth is on that CD.  Of course!

The Swedish band Väsen has been a major source of inspiration for my generation of string players. Their music is firmly rooted in the Swedish folk music tradition, but combined with more than a little flare from rock, classical music, baroque, and jazz. It is a powerhouse of sound, rhythm, and textures that makes their sound absolutely irresistible. Let me introduce the band.

Olov Johansson plays the nyckelharpa, which is a keyed fiddle, or a keyed harp. Instead of the fingers stopping the strings, the fingers press keys that act as frets that stop the strings. To see the instrument in action, check out the video at the top of this post which shows it up close from different angles.

Although the nyckelharpa gives Väsen a very distinct sound, it is really the combination with Mikael Marin’s 5 string soaring, harmonious viola, and Roger Tallroth’s 12 string, grooving guitar, that makes the wonderfully rich and unique sound of Väsen. Each one of them has stepped outside of the traditional way of playing their instrument, experimented with different tunings and techniques, for the rest of us to enjoy and aspire to emulate. Having played together since the 1980s, and released their first album in 1990, there is no wonder that the band members are so completely in sync with each other, and at ease in their ensemble playing.

I had the pleasure of doing a workshop with the members of Väsen in 2007, and I was struck by their ability to seemingly harmonize and improvise as they go. I remind myself that musicians with this ability have a huge vocabulary, and pulling out the appropriate accompaniment techniques on the spot becomes completely effortless. This is certainly the case with Väsen. Roger Tallroth’s guitar playing with the band has been recognized for being innovative, as he has developed a new sound that adds to the tradition of Swedish folk music, using syncopated grooves and unconventional chord progressions. But for me personally it is perhaps Mikael Marin’s understated, weaving, rich, and always tasteful accompaniment style that makes me want to improve my own accompaniment techniques.

Many American musicians have been inspired by the magic of Väsen, and have either covered their tunes, or collaborated with them on stage and in the recording studio. The American band Punch Brothers, which is rooted in bluegrass, is another example of a group that integrates new sounds with an old tradition. I got to see them play live several years ago at the House of Blues in Boston, and I have rarely been to a show as energetic and tight in my life. Like the members of Väsen, the musicians in Punch Brothers are true virtuosos who thrive on creating new sounds, using intricate arrangements that weave melodies and grooves effortlessly from one instrument to another. It is therefore no surprise that the Punch Brothers took one of Väsen’s tunes, Flippen, and made it their own.



In 2007 Väsen teamed up with American fiddler Darol Anger, and mandolin player Mike Marshall, for some live shows and a full length CD. Check out this version with the five musicians playing Flippen, with Darol and Mike adding their bluegrassy improvisation language to the mix of yet another thrilling Flippen ride.



Perhaps one of the most invigorating Väsen collaborations may be that with the New York based not-quite-fusion jazz collaborative Snarky Puppy. This group has made quite an impression in the online music video scene over the last few years, for their exciting live studio performances that are absolutely a thrill to watch. Snarky Puppy was founded in 2003 at the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. Three years later they intersected with the Dallas gospel and R&B community, which transformed their music to become funkier, groovier, and quite frankly flaming hot. In addition to Olov and Roger joining the band for a project along with genre defying singer songwriter Becca Stevens, Väsen’s longtime off-and-on percussionist André Ferrari joins them on this beautiful ride.



And because most things find their way back to tradition, let me end this with the Swedish sounds of Jul i folkton, where Roger Tallroth plays the cittern, a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance period, with Ale Möller playing a masterful rendition of the ancient German hymn, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.

I admit that this post exposes my absolute love for different styles of music and musicians coming together to create something new. And at the same time the wealth of old musical traditions, styles, and instruments, is absolutely at the center of their creations. There is a young generation of musicians out there that is driving this trend forward, and particularly there are string instrument musicians all around me, many of them inspired by Väsen, who have managed to do this with such effortless beauty that I am continuously in awe of what we have, and what is to come.



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