In 2014, the university town Umeå, capital of Västerbotten County in northern Sweden, has been elected as European Capital of Culture (www.umea2014.se) along with Latvia's capital Riga (www.riga2014.org). Umeå is a centre for cultural activities with annual film and music festivals and a lively music scene.
The music of Sweden shares the tradition of Nordic folk dance music with its neighboring countries in northern Europe, including polka, schottische, waltz, polska and mazurka. The accordion, clarinet, fiddle and nyckelharpa are among the most common Swedish folk instruments. The instrumental genre is the biggest one in Swedish traditional music. In the 1960s, Swedish youth sparked a roots revival in Swedish folk culture. Many joined Spelmanslag (folk musicians' clubs) and performed on mainstream radio and TV. They focused on instrumental polska music, with vocals and influences from other traditional genres becoming more prominent since the 1990s. By 1970, the "dansband" monkeys run around
Swedish music has also included more modern and pop influences. On a per capita basis, Sweden is one of the world's most successful exporters of popular music. Its most famous export is ABBA, which was a worldwide musical phenomenon. Another Swedish artist, DeDe, was so successful in Japan in the late 1990s that she inspired a collectible doll. Sweden has also historically dominated the Scandinavian music scene, with Danes and Norwegians listening to music in Swedish rather than the other way around. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Scandinavian death metal bands became very popular with the international heavy metal community.
Sweden's most classic troubadour was Carl Michael Bellman. Others include Evert Taube, Cornelis Vreeswijk, Fred Åkerström, and Povel Ramel.
Swedish folk songs are dominated by ballads and kulning; the latter was originally used as a cow-herding call and is traditionally sung by women. Ballad stories descend from skillingtryck printed songs from the 19th century. Modern bands like Folk och Rackare, Hedningarna and Garmarna incorporated folk songs into their repertoire.
The fiddle is perhaps the most characteristic and original instrument of the Swedish folk tradition. It had arrived by the 17th century, and became widespread until 19th century religious fundamentalism preached that most forms of music were sinful and ungodly. Despite the oppression, several fiddlers achieved a reputation for their virtuosity, including Jämtland's Lapp-Nils, Bingsjö's Pekkos Per and Malung's Lejsme-Per Larsson. None of these musicians were ever recorded; the first major fiddler to be recorded was Hjort Anders Olsson. Other early fiddlers of the 20th century included Nils Agenmark and Päkkos Gustaf. There is an extensive traditional repertoire of fiddle tunes, in forms such as the 3/4 polska and the 4/4 gånglåt. One type fiddle peculiar to Sweden is the låtfiol, a fiddle with two sympathetic strings, similar to the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle
The nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle) is similar to both a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy, and is known from Sweden since at least 1350, when it was carved on a gate in a church in Gotland. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the nyckelharpa was known throughout Sweden, Denmark and particularly in the province of Uppland. The latter has long been a stronghold for nyckelharpa music, including through the 60s revival, which drew on musicians like Byss-Calle from Älvkarleby. The instrument played at this time was not the same as that used today; August Bohlin and Eric Sahlström made changes to the instrument that made it a chromatic and straight, more violin-like instrument. In spite of these innovations, the nyckelharpa's popularity declined until the 1960s roots revival. The nyckelharpa was a prominent part of several revival groups later in the century, especially Väsen and Hedningarna.
The Swedish bagpipes (säckpipa) has been part of a long-running folk tradition, passed down orally until the death of Gudmunds Nils Larsson in 1949. Later revivalists such as Per Gudmundson added a tuning slide and revitalized the instrument.
Accordions and harmonicas were an integral part of Swedish folk music from the beginning of the 20th century, when they contributed to the gammeldans genre. The most famous Swedish accordionist is undoubtedly Kalle Jularbo, who was famous throughout the early 20th century. Later, the accordion fell out of favour within the roots revival, and did not return until the very end of the 1970s.
In the 1960s, Swedish jazz musicians like Jan Johansson used folk influences in their work, resulting in an early 1970s series of music festivals in Stockholm. The Swedish Music Movement reflected a popular trend towards jazz- and rock-oriented folk music, featuring many performers who brought a new vitality to Swedish folk.
Swedish folk music is a genre of music based largely on folkloric collection work that began in the early 19th century in Sweden. The primary instrument of Swedish folk music is the fiddle. Another common instrument, unique to Swedish traditions, is the nyckelharpa. Most Swedish instrumental folk music is dance music; the signature music and dance form within Swedish folk music is the polska. Vocal and instrumental traditions in Sweden have tended to share tunes historically, though they have been performed separately. Beginning with the folk music revival of the 1970s, vocalists and instrumentalists have also begun to perform together in folk music ensembles.
The history of Swedish folk music collection began with the formation of an organization called the Gothic Society (Götiska Förbundet) in 1811, shortly after the establishment of Sweden as a modern constitutional monarchy in 1809. The first published transcription of a Swedish folk tune came out in their journal Iduna in 1813. The men of the Gothic Society were primarily interested in collecting the oldest materials they could find among the peasants of the Swedish countryside. Collection in the 19th century largely followed this model; the music was generally arranged for performance by people whose primary background was in art music.
In the early 1890s, the first "public" performances of Swedish folk music by actual spelmän (folk musicians) were held at Skansen, Stockholm's open air museum of Swedish folklife. The first Swedish spelman contest was held in 1906, and the first national gathering of Swedish spelmän in 1910. Over time, the contests began to fade, and the less formal gatherings became the primary venue for Swedish folk musicians to interact with one another. Instrumental folk music was still primarily a solo tradition during the first half of the 20th century, and the best-known players were virtuosic fiddlers from the province of Hälsingland.
In the 1940s, the first spelmanslag, or amateur folk music groups, were established, associated primarily with the music of Dalarna. The first major recording project for Swedish folk music was also launched in the late 1940s. Some of the most popular recordings were of spelmanslag in Dalarna, and during the 1950s the spelmanslag phenomenon spread throughout the country.
The beginnings of the folk music revival could already be seen in the mid-1960s, influenced by albums such as Jan Johansson's Jazz på svenska ("Jazz in Swedish") released in 1962 (EP) and 1964 (LP). The movement gained momentum in 1970 in the aftermath of Gärdesfesten, Sweden's answer to Woodstock. The Swedish folk music revival peaked in the late 1970s.
In the years since, Swedish folk music has once again receded into a subcultural niche, but the revival has effected a number of changes. These include the addition of a number of new instruments (saxophone, flute, tambourine, guitar, and mandola, to name a few) as well as some revived instruments (e.g. Swedish bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, and härjedalspipa). The inclusion of these instruments has meant the invention of new forms of ensemble music (given that Swedish folk music had previously been primarily a solo melody tradition). A polska dance revival, beginning in the early 1980s, has meant new contexts for the music to be played in. Swedish folk music has entered the educational system at all levels; musicians are becoming more and more skilled at ever-younger ages.
In Swedish, the word spelman is most often used to describe a player of Swedish folk music. It may also be applied (with descending frequency) to folk musicians from other Nordic countries, from other European countries, from non-European countries, and even musicians in other genres. The meaning of the Swedish word spelman is very similar to that of the English "fiddler," except that it is not tied to a specific instrument. Because of the commonality of the fiddle in Swedish folk music, the word is often translated as fiddler in any case. Technically, the actual Swedish word for fiddler would be "fiolspelman" (fiddle spelman).
The other common translation of this word is folk musician. The problem here is that the Swedish word "folkmusiker," meaning folk musician, was invented explicitly in opposition to the older word "spelman." Ale Möller coined the term "folkmusiker" to refer to musicians who played Swedish folk music professionally during the folk revival, but were not necessarily grounded in the spelman tradition.
Some have also considered the term spelman (literally "play-man") to be problematic given its implication that Swedish folk musicians are normatively male. The term "folkmusikant" has been proposed as a gender-neutral alternative, but has seen little traction.
The spelmanslag is an amateur organization of Swedish folk musicians, usually dominated by fiddles, who play tunes together. Often these groups play tunes from the specific area of Sweden with which they are affiliated. Spelmanslag meetings tend to serve social function as much as they do musical ones; and money from paid performances generally goes to the group, rather than its constituent individuals.
The first Swedish spelmanslag was Dalaföreningens spelmanslag, formed in 1940 by folk musicians from Dalarna who at the time were living in Stockholm. Over the course of the 1940s, the phenomenon spread throughout the province of Dalarna, and in the 1950s it became a national trend.
The spelmanslag movement saw new life beginning in 2003, with the establishment of the annual student spelmanslag world championships (studentspelmanslag-VM) at the Linköping Folk Festival. A number of student spelmanslag have been formed in order to compete—in 2003, there were four competing teams; by 2007 the number had risen to fifteen. These student groups tend to be characterized by high-energy playing, and generally do not limit themselves to tunes from one particular region within Sweden.
The spelmanslag has a characteristic "wall of sound," produced by a large number of musicians playing a melody, with one or a small number of others producing a secondary harmony part, usually based in thirds and sixths. Most spelmanslag are dominated by fiddles, though some are dedicated primarily to the nyckelharpa. Often (but not always), the spelmanslag will also have one or more instruments that support the melody with chord progressions, such as cittra (zither), accordion, bass, and/or guitar.
The title of riksspelman (pl. riksspelmän), or "National Folk Musician" of Sweden, is a generally recognized badge of mastery for Swedish folk musicians. It is an honor bestowed upon bearers of the silver or gold Zorn Badge, awarded annually by the Zorn Jury, a panel of experts under the auspices of Svenska Folkdansringen. The silver Zorn Badge is the highest award attainable for musicians who play before the Zorn Jury in their annual Zorn Trials. (Other possible awards include a certificate, bronze Zorn Badge, and post-bronze certificate.) The gold Zorn Badge cannot be sought, but is reserved for one or two master musicians pre-selected by the Jury.
Since the creation of the riksspelman title in 1933, it has been awarded to an average of ten people per year. Sweden today has approximately 300 living riksspelmän.
In 1910, a national folk musicians' gathering (riksspelmansstämma) was called at Skansen, Stockholm's open air museum of Swedish folk culture. A number of musicians were invited to play; the 65 who heeded the call were all awarded a silver badge designed and financed by the painter Anders Zorn.
Later, in 1933, Svenska Ungdomsringen för bygdekultur (The Swedish Youth Ring for Village Culture) created a system by which folk musicians could play music before a jury of experts. Various awards for the participants of these Trials would be handed out at an annual "National Folk Musicians' Gathering," a name taken from that original event in 1910. The highest award for participants in the Trials would be that same silver badge designed by Anders Zorn. Those who received this highest honor would be known as "National Folk Musicians" (riksspelmän).
In other words, while the name of the event was taken from that initial gathering in 1910, the meaning was changed in 1933. In 1910, the national folk musicians' gathering was a National Gathering of Folk Musicians. In 1933, it became a Gathering of National Folk Musicians (riksspelmän).
The Zorn Jury (Zornjuryn) is made up of nine members. When a member retires, the Jury selects a new member, subject to the approval of Svenska Folkdansringen. Generally, the Jury is made up of folk musicians with a great deal of experience and knowledge, most of whom are also riksspelmän. One position on the Jury may also be held by a scholar, whose primary credentials are academic. As of 2008, the current jury members are: Jan Burman, Verf-Lena Egardt, Christina Frohm, Wille Grindsäter, Pers Nils Johansson, Krister Malm, Gert Ohlsson, Peter Pedersen, and Tony Wrethling.
In any given year, three members of the Zorn Jury are selected to adjudicate the week-long Zorn Trials (Zornmärkesuppspelningarna). The Trials are always held during the summer months, each year in a different location in Sweden. A local representative is appointed as a fourth adjudicator. Each participant in the Trials is given a fifteen-minute time slot, and asked to play three to five tunes for the Jury. The Trials are closed to the public, but are recorded by Svenskt Visarkiv (The Centre for Swedish Folk Music and Jazz Research) for posterity. The results are posted at the end of each Trial day, and the awards are distributed at the National Folk Musicians' Gathering (riksspelmansstämman) at the end of the week.
The adjudicators judge participants on four criteria: rhythm, technique, intonation, and "qualities as a folk musician" (egenskaper som spelman). The fourth criterion relates to stylistic authenticity in musical expression, and is weighted more heavily than the other three. Also of import is that participants in the Trials demonstrate mastery over a single regional tradition. Attempting to play tunes from multiple different regions never results in a silver badge.
The Zorn Trials are open to musicians aged sixteen and older. Few receive the silver badge on their first try, however. Notable exceptions include Marie Stensby (1975), Åsa Jinder (1979), and Jeanette Eriksson (2002), all of whom became riksspelmän at age sixteen.
Only players of instruments regarded as "traditional" may play for the Zorn Jury. There is no official list of traditional instruments, however. Musicians who apply for a time slot before the Jury are simply rejected if they list an instrument that the adjudicators regard as non-traditional. Instruments that have been accepted in the past include: fiddle, chromatic nyckelharpa, silverbasharpa, kontrabasharpa, clarinet, durspel, harmonica, kulning, spilåpipa, härjedalspipa, träskofiol, travers, hummel, näverlapp, cow horn, näverlur, and Swedish bagpipes. It is permissible to play multiple instruments for the Jury.
There are no restrictions with regard to nationality. Currently, four non-Swedes hold the title: Kristian Daugaard Madsen (Denmark, 1982), Oline Bakkom-Härdelin (Norway, 1996), Emma Reid (England, 2006), and David Kaminsky (USA, 2007).
Musicians who are already riksspelmän are not eligible to participate in the Zorn Trials.
Folk musicians are occasionally credited with being riksspelmän erroneously. In some cases, these are musicians who have been granted lesser awards by the Zorn jury (a certificate or bronze Zorn Badge). In other cases, they are well-known folk musicians who people simply assume are riksspelmän. The main reason behind these misunderstandings is that the title of riksspelman is far better known than are the official mechanisms and processes that grant it.
The authority and expertise of the Zorn Jury, which awards the Zorn Badge, is generally accepted within the Swedish folk music community. The controversy associated with the system generally relates to the question of which instruments are regarded as traditional, and thus approved for judgment by the Jury. Many argue that no such limitations should exist, the argument being that "it's not what you play, but how you play." Others push for the acceptance of certain specific instruments. The best-known case in which such a movement succeeded resulted in the Jury's allowance of the diatonic button accordion (durspel) for the first time in 1979. Currently (as of 2008), a similar movement is pushing for the acceptance of trall, or vocable singing, as a traditional instrument.
Another minor controversy regards the word "spelman" (literally "play-man") itself, given the growing number of female "spelmän" and riksspelmän in Sweden.
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Date: February 2014.
Photo Credits: (1) Umeå 2014, (4) Mia & Mikael Marin, (5) Lyy, (6) Ulrika Bodén, (8) Folke, Emma & Josefina, (9) Trailerpark Idlers, (10) Ahlberg Ek & Roswall, (12) Hoven Droven, (14) Hedningarna (unknown/website); (2)-(3) Map/Flag (by FolkWorld); (7) Kongero, (13) Nordic (by folkBALTICA); (11) Kraja, (16) Plommon, (17) Triakel (by The Mollis); (15) Ranarim (by Wackelstein Festival).