Himmerland: Playing New Music Across Styles, Cultures and Frontiers.
On a mild autumn evening in March at one of Australia's major folk festivals, the huge crowd in the big marquee clap and shout their admiration for the band on stage. This is a Himmerland concert, and this Danish band is one of the most travelled outfits on Denmark's roots and folk music scene.
Right now it is the drummer that has all the audience's attention. Bathed in coloured light from the spots, he sings and dances around behind his drum-kit, while his hands flash over the skins so fast that the eye can hardly keep up with them.
Then the rest of the band join in on saxophone, violin, guitar and electric bass, and the marquee throbs with new roots and world music and happy listeners. It is as though everybody in the place has drunk of the same magic, intoxicating potion.
The First Meeting
On the other side of the world, in an area known as Himmerland in northern Jutland, lies the tiny Danish village of Halkær. It is about 20 miles from Ålborg, where the Vikings founded a market-place around the year 1000, and today Ålborg is the fourth largest town in Denmark.
Halkær has about 50 inhabitants. A little to the south, among green slopes and winding roads and under the vast skies, Eskil Romme has a farm with views over the beautiful Halkær Lake in the Halkær Valley.
Eskil Romme (56) is an organic farmer who also plays saxophone, composes music, and is extremely active in the cultural life of the area. One brain child of Eskil Romme's is the exclusive little Halkær Festival. Every June, the local people invite all comers to a fest celebrating “Nordic, Celtic and Organic cultures, independence and the environment.”
And it is at this very special Halkær Festival that five experienced but very diverse musicians meet, five lives in five different musical worlds. Ditte Fromseier (34), Andrzej Krejniuk (33), Ayi Solomon (56) and Morten Alfred Høirup (51), have all played on Eskil Romme's solo album Himmerland Tunes, released that spring. However, they have never all been in the studio at the same time. Not only are they to play a presentation concert that same afternoon, but they have never all seen each other face to face before.
A New Danish Band Takes Shape
The debut concert at the Halkær Festival goes well. The challenge is met and surmounted. Everyone is happy. The band's Ghanaian percussionist, Ayi Solomon, remarks contentedly, "I was personally in harmony with each of the band members playing joyfully with smiles."
The first concert is soon followed by others at the Faroese Festival, Summartónar, which focusses on new music of many types. This positive development leads to the five musicians agreeing to form a permanent band with the name Himmerland.
Himmerland's musicians live dispersed around Denmark, but usually meet in guitarist and singer Morten Alfred Høirup's flat in Frederiksberg, part of Copenhagen. Here, on the fourth floor, amid children at play, washing hung to dry and ringing telephones, the band experiment with a jumble of new compositions, improvisations and old songs in new arrangements, and it all somehow becomes a cogent whole – the band's repertoire.
Himmerland quickly record a demo cd, and start on their travels almost from day one. Eskil Romme, in particular, is an energetic booker, using his vast network to sell the band to the whole world. His attitude is that a band does not develop unless it is out playing live concerts.
For Ayi Solomon, whose daily musical work is with Denmark's top world and jazz names, building Himmerland's repertoire is his first experience of European folk music.
Ayi Solomon says, “Building the band required a lot of discipline as we all came from different musical backgrounds. I am a Ghanaian and from a tradition of drum and dance (Folklore) music. However, my musical carrier began with me playing highlife music, reggae music, funk, soul, soukous, etc., so when songs are presented for the band to work on, my contribution to the composition would come straight from the elements of my musical background and the kind or style of music I am acquainted with, mostly contributing rhythms and beats and also the form of a song.”
Himmerland's bass player, Andrzej Krejniuk, is originally Polish, but grew up in southern Denmark. He has played masses of jazz and rock, and has also played world music. He sees the challenge in starting a band with so diverse musicians, but he has been happy to be part of the process. "My intuition told me that this band would amount to something, since we all got along so well," he says and goes on:
“The greatest hurdle in this band – and doubtless many other bands, no matter what kind of music they play – is to find the right balance between each musician's own personality and the shared soul of the group. We each bring our own background, and it is really important to be able to lay aside your musical tropes and to listen, to discover new ways of doing things. It has been very entertaining to see an African percussionist play a fast Danish keraus dance, or see a Danish guitarist play African soukous."
Himmerland and the Music
Ditte Fromseier is a trained violinist adept at both folk music and classical. Meeting the new styles meant she had to revise her whole attitude to music. “Suddenly I was obliged to discuss details in the music that, as a folk musician, I had taken for granted. This made me see my music from the outside, which brought new aspects to light for me. I have been fortunate enough to have Himmerland play some of my compositions, and it has opened my eyes to see how my tunes were given new life at the hands of the group members. Sometimes in ways I had not seen coming. It's great!”
For Eskil Romme, who has both a jazz and a folk music grounding, Himmerland has provided the opportunity compose much more than before.
“My inspiration comes from working on the farm, and from working in the music association and the festival, where I meet lots of people. It gives loads of very varied musical input, so I never run out of sources of inspiration for my composing. Introducing new material for the band is a revelation every time. The Himmerland team are such talented, inquisitive musicians who seem to have unlimited ideas for what we can do with the music we each bring in.
The Magic Potion
The years to come will see the Himmerland musicians expanding their common repertoire, while continuing to travel and tour with great success in Denmark, the Faroes, Sweden, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Scotland, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, South America, Australia and New Zealand.
At this time of writing they have just returned from a long tour of Australia and New Zealand, where they played 20 concerts, including an appearance at the major National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia. The band are busy planning the next couple of years.
“In this band it's all about listening to each other, making room for each other, and using what each of us brings in...," explains singer and guitarist Morten Alfred Høirup. "We throw everything into the big pot and brew up a kind of magical, musical potion. The potion is never the same two nights in a row, but it brings joy, hope and new powers to all who listen in, and we have a lot of fun brewing it. That's the kind of pleasure we would like to go on communicating, but we have to plan it all very carefully!
So while Himmerland are on their way out to play at festivals in the Faroes and in Denmark, Finland, England and Italy, they are busy planning new tours, concerts and festivals in different countries. Along the way they manage to record and release albums. The first was called New Roots Music from Denmark. They are currently gathering material for the next album which is to be recorded soon. It is an intense and demanding process when five very different musicians have to find what Andrzej calls the band's shared soul. They work away, discuss things, argue, try various things, disagree, then agree.... But, as Solomon says with a wide smile, "Nevertheless, all is good. We are one happy Himmerland!"
Translated by Rod Sinclair.
Photo Credits: (1)+(5) Himmerland, (2) Eskil Romme, (3) Ditte Fromseier, (4) Morten Alfred Høirup (unknown / from website).