To understand power-string band Frigg, you must take a mental journey to the small Finnish village of Järvelä. “The joke is that if your name is Järvelä, you were born with a fiddle in your hand. So they always ask, ‘Are you one of those Järveläs?’” explains band leader and bass player Antti Järvelä, who like many people in this Western region of Finland carries the surname of the village in which they were born. But Frigg is not just rehashing traditional tunes. Just as the world’s ice caps are melting from global warming, Frigg’s humorously-named new album, Economy Class, (Northside Records, September 23, 2008), presents a groove and swing of original music that thaws unexpected melodies and rhythms. Audiences here will have a chance to witness these tectonic shifts during their USA tour, September 26-October 19.
While listeners of bluegrass and Celtic music will find some similarities in Finnish and Norwegian string music (two of the founding band members hail from Verdal, Norway), the melodic twists and turns are an aural reminder that things are just different up north where the sun disappears for months at a time. But Frigg takes that one step further with the energy of a rock band and off-kilter rhythms and missing beats that accentuate the unexpected reserved-meets-over-the-top sense of humor common in Finland.
Antti is joined by cousins Alina and Esko Järvelä (pronounced YAR-vuh-luh), whose father Mauno Järvelä has taught hundreds of children in the area to play fiddle. The three cousins were preceded by two legendary master fiddlers: their grandfather Johannes Järvelä and great grandfather Antti Järvelä. “For my grandfather, it was not so accepted to play the fiddle, because of religious things going on at that time. It was considered a devil’s instrument,” says the younger Antti. “I still wonder why it’s been carried on so well. If you look at the entire country of Finland, our string of villages, called Kaustinen, is the only place where the living tradition has carried on really strongly. I think it is because they must have been a bit rebellious. They were proud of their true heritage.”
“The first instrument to pick up there is the fiddle because there are plenty around,” Antti continues. “The fiddle can be played in almost any key so it’s versatile and among other things it’s a very popular wedding instrument. In the old days, there were very long weddings, like three days. They always needed music that could be heard over the dancing and talking. The clarinet and the fiddle were used a lot. The fiddle remains, but some fiddlers have adapted some ornamentation like triplets and quintuplets and keys from the clarinet style.”
There have always been variations from village to village, and when visiting musician arrived, word traveled quickly. The resulting “jam” sessions led to innovation. Musicians rarely wrote music down then, and forgotten phrases were replaced with new creations. “They might add extra ornaments, or change the lines to make them faster, or just add some extra notes,” says Antti. “It’s always been a real living tradition.”
Economy Class follows in this tradition of messing with tradition. Most of the pieces are originals based on traditional tunings and rhythms, and using all acoustic instruments (including fiddles, mandolin, the lute-like cittern, a Finnish bagpipe, a jaw harp, and uncharacteristically, a dobro), but with unexpected compositions or consciously powerful arrangements. The band emphasizes creating a specific ambience with each piece, which requires intense discussions about the exact ornamentation and bowing style they use on a given tune. This gives them a very tight sound rare in any traditional string style. The themes of traveling, drinking, and collaborating are woven throughout, usually with a dose of humor thrown in.
Antti composed the title track after a night of partying on the last night of a tour. His first memory of the party came as he was sitting on an airplane holding a small piece of paper that said “Economy Class,” and he felt it was an apt description; “it was the most terrible condition you could imagine,” he remembers. It made him laugh and he wanted to share his feeling of second-class status with the world, while writing a tune that would reflect the happiness of the party, not the hangover.
“Jalla Jalla’s” energetic playfulness belies the track’s inspiration. While traveling in Egypt, Esko kept hearing warnings of Jalla Jalla. It was not until he got home and found himself spending extended periods in the bathroom thanks to a stomach ache that the symptom resonated. The dizzying meter (mostly in a rhythm of five, but sometimes in three, and sometimes with random beats thrown in for good measure) of this waltz-like tune exemplifies a signature sound of Esko and Antti, who are known for drawing on asymmetrical rhythms from the Balkans… or from Bela Fleck. “This one turns upside down,” says Antti. “There is a clip on YouTube where you can see the audience clapping on the beat, and when the meter flips, they are clapping on the back beat. They just keep clapping. It’s really cool.”
Frigg has a special tie to the U.S. This year’s tour will be their fifth here. They love the way American audiences respond; “it’s very different than back home.” A few of the tunes reflect their experiences in the U.S. On a day when he had already composed two frenetic tunes, Antti uncharacteristically set out to write something slow. “I needed to calm down; bring myself down,” he remembers. Within 20 minutes he had written the tune on a fiddle, but played it for a year without finding the right name. He temporarily called it “my pensionist’s waltz,” because he could envision himself playing it as an old man rocking in a rocking chair. The band decided to let their audiences name the tune, asking them to hand in their suggestions on paper or by email. One day after they performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, an older gentleman approached Antti and said, “I have an idea for the unnamed song, but I just have to tell it to you.” Antti knew upon hearing the name, it was set: “When the Time Comes, I’ll be ready.” Antti says, “It gives you the freedom to form a picture based on your mood. Everybody gets their own wish.”
Frigg composed “Polka Internationale de Louisiane” in honor of their visit to Lafayette, Louisiana, where they played at the Festival International de Lafayette. The tune combines Finnish elements with a steady happy Cajun rhythm. “Kind of Polka” is self-explanatory, though in standard Frigg fashion it has some extra beats thrown into the rhythm, making the accompaniment sound upside down at times. But Antti argues, “It still goes very kind of even.”
The music scene in Finland and throughout Scandinavia is a tight-knit group, partly because of the music academies and their support of traditional and modern music, which has led to many collaborations. This spirit is captured on a few tunes from the album. The Frigg musicians heard “Norrsken,” which was written by a music professor from Stockholm’s Swedish Royal Music Academy, performed by another Finnish group called Luna Nova. Antti composed “Viinalaulu” at age 17 for a school theater production about dirty angels. The Finnish bagpipe can be heard on the upbeat “Kisapolska,” which multi-instrumentalist Petri Prauda composed for a choreographed dance. “Northern Lights” was commissioned by an educational organization in Norway, who organized a tour for Frigg in the dark of December. Like the individual colorful lights seen in the northern sky, the tune features a variety of melodic solos.
The album closes with a reworking of a simple Norwegian folk tune called “Lars Lenkelifot.” The band enlisted two amateur choirs and a brass section. “I knew this tune from childhood and always thought it was so simple that it was not worth playing,” remembers Antti. “But one of our fiddlers Einar Olav wanted us to try. It took me over ten years to realize that you can bring back this simple melody and build something really nice.”
The themes that weave together much of Frigg’s music are their travel and unexpected twists and turns. Who knows what new tunes or tales will emerge when they hit the U.S this fall. Regardless, audiences are sure to get a taste of their wacky sensibility from the north.
Kaustinen, a cluster of villages on the slow-winding River Perho in the western Finnish region of Ostrobothnia, has long been famous for its fiddlers. But, largely as a result of the innovative influence and success of Kaustinen band JPP (the acronym derives from “Järvelän Pikkupelimannit”) and the teaching by that band’s Mauno Järvelä of all the kids in the area who want to learn, the standard of playing, tune writing and arranging has increased even further, and rapidly, over the past few years.
The band Frigg is at the crest of this new wave, full of fresh ideas and taking the next leap forward for Finnish fiddle music.
In Ostrobothnia it’s common for a surname to be the same as the family’s address; the Järveläs come from the village of Järvelä, the scatter of farmhouses a bow-throw up river from Kaustinen. In Frigg are three members of the family’s fourth generation of famous fiddlers: Mauno’s daughter Alina, son Esko and nephew Antti. Their grandfather Johannes Järvelä and great-grandfather Antti Järvelä were both legendary master players.
You won’t find the family names of the four other band members on the gravestones outside Kaustinen’s big yellow and white wooden church, though. Two are from other parts of Finland, and the name Frigg (the Norse goddess of love and fertility) reflects the fact that in this band Finnish fiddling meets Norwegian. Playing both ordinary and Hardanger fiddle are brothers Gjermund and Einar Olav Larsen, from Verdal in the central Norwegian region of Trøndelag. They have played as a duo since childhood, three times winning the group category at Norway’s national traditional music competition, the Landskappleik, in which in 2002 at the age of twenty-one Gjermund became the youngest ever winner of the solo fiddle category; he won it again in 2005.
Their father, bukkehorn player and fiddler Geir Egil Larsen, would take them with him when he visited older fiddlers such as Hilmar Alexandersen, whose playing was a big influence on the brothers. They first visited Kaustinen with their father in the early nineties, and there they met Mauno Järvelä and his family.
Both of them have benefited from the possibilities that exist in Norway, as they do in Finland, for education in folk music. Specialising in music at Inderøy high school they joined the folk musicians’ course at the Ole Bull Academy in Voss and followed it with a music course at the college in Nord-Trøndelag. Gjermund went on to the Musikkhøgskolen in Oslo, which, like the Voss academy, is a meeting place for young folk musicians from around Norway, each bringing their own tradition, and there he became part of Norwegian Grammy winning fiddle band Majorstuen, with whom he still plays.
Antti Järvelä, despite being one of the Finland’s leading fiddlers, in Frigg largely forsakes his fiddle to play double bass, as he also does in JPP and another hot combo, the fiddle and accordion band Troka, bringing a new articulacy and inventiveness to Finnish folk bass playing.
Alina Järvelä has moved from being a pupil of her father Mauno to being his colleague in teaching their hundreds of young fiddle pupils in the Kaustinen area and beyond, and she also teaches classical violin at Tampere Suzuki School of Music.
Fiddling brother Esko Järvelä is, in other contexts such as Kaustinen thrash-folk heroes Tötterssön, also a key-pounding, pedal-pumping demon on the harmonium, an instrument characteristic of Kaustinen wedding-bands. But while both he and Antti play it on the first CD, Frigg doesn’t follow the Kaustinen tradition and cart one of those hefty items around to back the fiddles.
Instead the ground between fiddles and bass is covered by Petri Prauda and Tuomas Logrén. Prauda, from southern Finland, plays mandolin, cittern and Estonian bagpipes, the latter an unusual addition, visually interesting with its low- slung drones and capable of giving a Hedningarna-like squeal in concert with the four, sometimes five, fiddles.
Logrén plays guitar and also brings a new sound to Finnish folk music: that of dobro. Its zipping, curling slide sound weaves among the fiddles with a remarkable rightness. He comes from Rääkkylä, in Karelia near Finland’s eastern border with Russia, the home village of well-known Finnish roots band Värttinä (of which, in his early teens, he was a member).
With their galvanic live shows, and the 2005 second album, Keidas Oasis Oase building on the buzz caused by the 2002 debut album Frigg, the band have been catching ears on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, during the recent US tour an appearance on Garrison Keillor’s famous networked radio show A Prairie Home Companion had the studio audience baying for an encore. That’s the way it’s turning out wherever they play.