Nordic Fiddlers Bloc preview: Dancing with the devil

Dark spirits and mythical creatures from Shetland and Scandinavia animate the music of renowned traditional fiddle trio


It is a testament to the resilience of folk music, and the irrepressible need to boogie, that folk fiddling has survived centuries-long suppression by organized religion. In northern Europe’s dark winter worlds of centuries past—where the most invigorating times of the day were the treks out to the barn to do the milking or to mend tattered fishing nets—the need to move the body, to clasp warm hands and wrap an arm around an unfamiliar waist must have been overwhelming.

Of course any kind of sensuality, especially the kind that involves spiritual transport — have you ever lost yourself in the smooth, mechanical swirl of a well danced contra? — has been a target of church edicts for centuries, with the fiddle the corrupting tool that must be restrained, reviled, or repressed. God forbid the folk to ease their woes: the stress of family, the shame of lust, the dark tutoring of loneliness. If any one of these ills is left without a temporary cure, social disease is sure to follow.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc performs October 7 at Portland's Nordic House.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc performs October 7 at Portland’s Nordic House.

But have no fear, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFC) will surely ease those tensions and free the constricted spirit. Halloween may be weeks away but the horned god will be at Portland’s Nordia House on Oct. 7 in the form of three talented (and handsome) fiddlers who are touring in support of their long awaited 2016 release, Deliverance. The concert promises to be an enthralling journey into the sonic landscape of Nordic fiddle music. The beauty of the newly constructed Nordia Hall, the warmth and openness of its great room, and its intimate forested surroundings will surely transport the listener to the mythical lands of high seas, cruel winds, deep forests, dark nights, and dang good dancing.

The trio brings tools of the devil, including the ornately filigreed Hardanger fiddle. With four bowed strings and four or five resonant strings located below the fingerboard, the instrument (from the southwest of Norway) is used in dances that include vigorous foot thumping. Since these instruments of the devil caused the weary to dance, drink, and fornicate (ie. let off some steam), they fell prey to the Pietists — zealous Lutheran church henchmen lead by Hans Nielsen Hauge — who, in 19th-century Norway, sought out and destroyed countless numbers of these beautifully crafted instruments. Preachers declared the burning of fiddles of all kind necessary to save the soul of the poor sinner. To this day, these tensions linger on in Norway.

NFB’s Hardanger fiddler, Olav Luksengård Mjelva, from Røros in the Sør-Trøndelag region of Norway, has played in many groups including SVER, Frikar, and the Rydvall/Mjelva duo. A fine example of the “Devil’s music” played on the dastardly Hardanger is “Fanitullen,” a singular expression of a larger collection of tunes, here played by Haakon Solaas. Who would have thought that Hell would have comfy chairs?

Nordic Fiddler’s Bloc / Salt Stage 04.29.2015 / Strand Theater Rockland Maine from Jason Elon Goodman on Vimeo.

NFB co-founder Kevin Henderson is native to the Shetland Islands, an archipelago of Scotland with a world famous fiddling tradition. After studying with renowned Shetland fiddlers Trevor Hunter and Willie Hunter, Henderson went on to play with such groups as Fiddler’s Bid, Boys of the Lough, and Session A9. Considered one of Shetland’s finest traditional fiddlers, Henderson released his debut solo album, Fin Da Laand Ageen, in 2013.

Shetland fiddling has many similar features to Norwegian fiddling due to the constant cultural mixing that followed in the wake of North Atlantic seafaring industry. Its lively, syncopated style (accent on the off beat) uses open strings (bowed but not fingered) that drone and resonate around the melody line. Shetland is no stranger to Old Nick, it would seem, given the titles of some of its tunes: “De’il amang the Tailors (this link will tire you out!), “Devil in the Kitchen,” “Kickin’ up the Devil on a Holiday.”

Fiddler/ Hardanger fiddle player Anders Hall, from Arbrå, Hälsingland in Sweden, brings his unique knowledge of both Swedish and Norwegian folk fiddling to the group. A cofounder of the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, he melds tradition with innovation.

There is a very special retuning (A-E-A-C#) in Swedish fiddle music called näckastämning or trollstämning (also used in Norwegian fiddling). The fiddler often uses trick techniques in these tunes like left-hand pizzicato (plucking string with finger). Such brazen show-offery could only be associated with the devil (fan or hin onde), right? Well, Swedish folk music lays it on heavy with a menagerie of mythical creatures, including trolls and näcken, showing a fondness for the fiddle, as in “Nacken Polska,” played here on a Swedish Nyckelharpa. In fact, it is said that if fiddlers learn the trade from a näcken, they can play so well that revelers won’t be able to stop dancing.

Nordic Fiddlers Bloc performs at 7:30 pm Friday, October 7 at Nordia House, 8800 SW Oleson Rd. Portland. Tickets ($20-$25) are available online

Daniel Tapio Heila is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene.

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