Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It's Nice Up There at Nisswa

So KFAI Fubar Omniverse host and Nordic Roots fan extraordinaire Blanche finally convinced me to head north with her for the Nisswa-stämman, which is a small festival of traditional Scandinavian music which is held on a lovely Saturday each June at the Pioneer Village in the little town of Nisswa, up in the Brainerd Lakes area.

It's a sweet little festival, with all the traditional food and customs someone who loves their Nordic heritage could ever wish for. My ancestors were of the more Celtic persuasion, but I did chow several servings of that Norwegian rice pudding! As one of the tireless organizers pointed out, all the Americans are the ones running around in traditional outfits and the European musicians are just there in their jeans, or as he said "the ones who look like rock stars."

Cedar pals Esko Jarvella and Tuomas Logren, who we know from their many appearances with Frigg, held up their end of the rock star deal and really stole the show, as far as this fan was concerned. They cranked out a number of complex and speedy polskas and waltzes, mostly from Esko's Master's degree cd project, which he just completed over at the the Sibelius Academy department of Folk Music over there in Helsinki.

All the sets at Nisswa are short, about half an hour, but most of the artists play at several different stages during the day. There are some super-intimate performances and workshops in the little log cabins there at the Pioneer Village, too. We caught an acapella set during a brief rainstorm by Finnish expats Saana, five women who now make their home in the Twin Cities and do traditional singing together. About 20 people squeezed into the folding chairs in the "Summer Kitchen" cabin, with about that many on the porch trying to listen and stay dry. Beautiful harmonies on old hymns had me referring to the building as "that little church" the rest of the day. A very timeless feel, perfect with a little thunder outside. They closed it up with a spritely version of an old Varttina song, I think from Aitara, so it was fun to sing along.
You betcha, it looks just like this.

It's that kind of little festival, lots of teaching of tunes and fiddling in corners under the tall pines, and some singing along thrown in. Nothing too edgy, lots of tradition. Lots of big lags (groups of musicians) up from the Cities, featuring Hardingfeles, Nyckelharpas and all those traditional wool outfits. In true small town Minnesota fashion, the festival ends with a Saturday night dance at the local American Legion hall, with each band playing for about half an hour. That was the perfect juxtaposition of two cultural worlds, past and present, old country and new. A huge circle of dancers swirled on the floor to the calling of a petite Danish fiddler while we wall flowers drank our beers under the stern gaze of the photos of generations of Legion and and Auxiliary members.

And no matter what Blanche tells you, it's really only about a two and a half hour drive up there.

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