The story of Swedish folk music is one of near-extinction and renewal, preservation and experimentation, national disinterest and national pride. While the traditional music scene doesn’t compete with the sales of Sweden’s pop music [see sidebar], it is musically richer and more vibrant than ever. Sten Sandahl, head of the Swedish Concert Institute and a professor of ethnomusicology, said, “It’s safe to say that never before in the history of the Swedish music tradition has there been so many people playing.
One of the reasons for this renaissance is the rise of a new generation of performers that has brought musical sophistication as well electronic gadgetry to the hoary old tunes. As in many countries, the earliest Swedish folk music was played by amateurs and followed the rhythms of daily life. There was music for dances, weddings and for accompanying daily chores, such as calls used by cow herders.
While folk musicians often pulled out their instruments for dances, Sweden is unusual in that its tradition has no percussion instruments. The dance rhythms, usually the three-beat polska, were kept by fiddlers stomping out the time and the pounding of the dancers’ feet. “The floor essentially became the drum,” said Sandahl.
In central Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Sweden, the idiosyncratic folk music traditions were squelched by the dominance of Western classical music, with its fixed interval scales that were nailed into place by the equidistant keys of the piano and accordion. One of the victims of this rigid structure, Sandahl said, were the “blue notes,” the neutral thirds and sevenths that were in Swedish traditional music, but which fell in between the major and minor scales of Western art music.
Also elbowed out was the use of constant drone tones played by instruments like the bagpipe or the nyckelharpa keyed fiddle [see sidebar]. The proponents of classical music, Sandahl joked, “taught all the farmers they shouldn’t sing off-key.”
Reinforcing the strictures of Western art music was the accordion, which arrived in Sweden from Germany in the late 19th century. “It was easy to learn and made a lot of noise,” Sandahl said, “which was good for dances. So the violin had to give in and either play together with the accordion or it would just be the accordion.” By the second decade of the 20th century, Sandahl said, “There were a lot of people warning that the accordion was going to destroy all the traditions.” Prior to the arrival of the accordion, the fiddle was the preeminent instrument of Swedish folk music. Usually a fiddler would play alone or in a duo, with a second-part fiddler playing an octave parallel to the lead fiddler. Eventually, the second fiddle part was made more complex by better players, some of whom became famous for their technique in their own right.
Another development, which began in the 1920s, was the spelsmanslaget, or fiddlers’ groups. These very democratic assemblies were large gatherings of fiddlers who played in villages and eventually moved to concert halls and festivals when the Swedish Broadcasting Company began to popularize folk music in the 1940s through radio shows and recordings. Along with the “discovery” of folk musicians by aca
From ABBA to the Hives, Music Export is a Thriving Business in Sweden
Will the economic importance of Volvo, Absolut and Ikea in Sweden be one day overshadowed by the likes of the Cardigans, Ace of Base and ABBA?
According to representatives of the Swedish music industry, the export of music is the country’s fastest growing economic segment, with a value of $450 million in the year 2000. In the global marketplace, Sweden now lags behind only the United States and the United Kingdom in musical exports.
Today, the music industry in Sweden includes more than just Swedish pop groups. International artists such as Celine Dion, NSYNC, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez have come to Sweden to use recording studios or to collaborate with Swedish songwriters and producers. “For them, it’s a break from the ordinary,” said Christer Lindblad, head of the Swedish Export Music Service, adding that .pop stars have come to Sweden to use studios as a way of getting away from all the distractions of their lives back home. For example, Tambourine Studio, in Malmoe, is known for its unique sound and has attracted artists from all over the world, especially Japan.
The Swedish music export industry is now so extensive that last year the British paid more for Swedish music played on radio and TV than the Swedes paid for British music. STIM (a Swedish agency that collects royalties) has over the past few years reportedly collected 272 million Swedish Crowns. In addition, Sweden's Nordic neighbors Norway and Denmark pay about 15 times more for Swedish music than Sweden does for theirs.
Sweden’s homegrown recording artists have climbed the pop charts around the world regularly over the past three decades. The first Swedish pop trailblazers came in 1974 with Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling” and, of course, ABBA, who hit it big–for the first of many times–with “Waterloo.” Ultimately ABBA became one of the most popular hit machines in history, even inspiring the current Broadway musical Mamma Mia.
The heavy metal group Europe followed in the late ’80s with the hit “The Final Countdown,” then came the unusual rise of Roxette. Formed by Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson, Roxette hit the U.S. market in early 1989 via an inadvertent collaboration with an American student, who brought home their single “The Look” and gave it to his lo