Monday, June 13, 2011

Nisswa-Stammen 2011

The Nisswa-Stammen is a low-key festival held each summer in an outdoor “pioneer village” in the lake country a few miles north of Brainerd, Minnesota. Fans of Nordic culture drop in, often in costume, to listen to musicians play. There are amateurs and professionals, Scandinavians and home-grown talent. Dance and performance workshops are held throughout the day on Friday, there’s a concert that night, and the next day the musicians play a rotating schedule of 30-minute sets at three outdoor stages, with further brief dance instruction being offered (to live accompaniment) to beginners like me, in a log cabin “dance barn” so small it might better have been named the “dance shed.” On Saturday night a smorgasbord is offered in a nearby church, followed by a genuine dance that can run to the wee hours of the morning.

Or so I’m told. We’ve been to two such festivals now—the Saturday portion at any rate—and have taken a few dance lessons ourselves. But we’re not sufficiently adept to make it worthwhile lingering at the evening dance. Besides, after a long drive and a day of listening (and eating) in the open air, we’re pretty much worn out by the time that last meatball disappears from the smorgasbord plate.

Last year the Scandinavian headliners put on outstanding shows—Geitungen (from Norway), Faerd (from Denmark and Sweden), and the Polka Chicks (from Finland). This year the groups were smaller and slightly more traditional in their approach. This required more careful listening, but the rewards were equally great.

The Nasbom brothers, for example, learned to play from their musician father, and listened to eminent fiddlers perform in their home, including Eric Sahlström and Viksta Lasse, at an early age. Torbjörn took up the nyckelharpa as well, and though Pär later moved the Switzerland two decades ago, they brothers have continued to perform and tour together, playing the Uppland tunes they first learned as children.

Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Britt Pernille Frøholm teamed up with freebase accordionist Linda Gytri for a couple of lively and good-natured sets, though I was no less mesmerized by the fiddling of America’s foremost Hardanger fiddler, Loretta Kelley. She did a few haunting tunes at one point with vocalist Arna Rennen, who lives on the North Shore. Arna, in turn, did some story-telling numbers in the Summer Kitchen Stage with Georganne Hunter.

We know Georganne because I did a book with her husband, the eminent North Shore herring fisherman Stephen Dahl. But such connections didn’t help when we tried to get past the Viking gate-keeper into the Summer Kitchen, a log cabin just half the size of Dance Barn, if that. (We listened at the window for a while, and Georganne later filled us in on the gist of the stories they were telling in that cozy space. Something about a jilted sister whose bones were fashioned into a harp, which later revealed the nasty deception at the wedding, etc. )

Out on the Allspel Stage, veteran Finnish soloist Arto Järvelä also put on quite a show, drawing some delicate stuff from the fiddle and letting loose on one or two raucous vocals. He later took the stage with the American group Kaivama—one of the few groups with both a guitar and keyboard (though never used at the same time).

As you may have guessed, I couldn’t tell a polsk from a jenkka or a hambo from a nigvals, not if my life depended on it. (I could easily distinguish between a siguiriyas and a soleá, but that’s a different story.) Still, I love the music—both the cheerful “regular” tunes and the strange, irregular ones. Something precise and lively and as simple as a children’s game, yet steeped in piney forest mists and the brooding spirit of Swedenborg and Hamsun.

How can you really explain it? Yet music and dance and food and landscape and heritage must come together from time to time. At the Nisswa-Stammen they do.

At the smorgasbord we sat across from a Francophone couple from Thunder Bay who’d come down for the entire festival—a ten-hour drive. We got to talking about the Acadians in Louisiana and they told us about a Celtic festival held in Thunder Bay every year. Later we all headed up to the town hall at Pequot Lakes for the big dance. You can’t miss the place: it’s just off the highway, under the water tower painted to resemble a giant fishing bobber!

This blending of music and dance is the essence of the experience, of course. If you add the ambiance of a cool summer evening—with or without nighthawks—the memory sinks deep. And if you can’t do the dances, you can still enjoy watching. They do some “mixers” that everyone screws up, due to how crowded the dance floor is (and also due to the fact that some people just can’t count to eight). But it’s fun, regardless of the confusion, to find yourself dancing with an eminent fiddler or a twelve-year-old girl with braids and braces for a few minutes, before the routine carries you on to your next partner.

But that's not the end of it. After a lovely nightcap in your room at the Rodeway Inn in Brainerd, loooking out toward the dumpster behind Papa Murphy's and the big white Kohl's sign beyond, you drive back to the Cities the next morning and begin searching through the Itunes store for music by Pernille Britt Frøholm or Jensen and Bugge. You download. You listen. The sound is better than anything you heard under the pines at the Pioneer Village in Nisswa. Something remarkable going on here.

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