Covering 50,000 square kilometers, with beautiful fjörds, mountains, and forests, it’s surprising more people haven’t heard of Jämtland –– if not for the fiddle playing, then for the sheer beauty of its countryside. Jämtland lies sandwiched between Sweden and Norway and has, at various times, belonged to both countries. Yoyo-ing back and forth between them, Jämtland was finally annexed to the Kingdom of Sweden in 1645, and has developed its own culture with a unique style of fiddle playing.
If there’s one name synonymous with folk music from Jämtland, it’s Rickard Näslin who has done much to publicize a centuries-old tradition of folk fiddle music of which he’s justly proud. Owner of the prestigious title of Riksspelman and the Lapp-Nils medal for his contribution to Jämtlandic folk music, Rickard is keeping the tradition alive.
Following in the footsteps of Lapp-Nils (1804-1870), the legendary folk fiddler from the mountains of West Jämtland, Rickard is passing on the tradition to an exciting new generation of fiddlers. Leader of a fiddle orchestra, the Östersunds spelmanslag, and teacher at Birka Folkhogskola, Rickard has brought many of the old traditional Jämtlandic tunes to life on albums from the classic Lekstulaget Mitt uti Jämtland (1976) toRödöpolskor och andra spelmanslåtar efter Ol Persa I Vike (2005).
Jämtland seems to have a rich tradition of folk fiddling. When did fiddle playing first become a part of Jämtland’s folk music and how has it changed over the years?
The first violins that we know of appeared in Jämtland in around 1700 and within a couple of years, cheap German violins were imported and sold all over the country. Some people made their own violins and the first tunes that were played were waltzes and things you might call “gesunkenes kulturguts” from the French violinists in urban orchestras in Stockholm. The music of the upper classes was transformed by unscholared fiddlers into dance-music, like polskas or waltzes with a local dialect.
During the nineteenth century, Jämtland was very crowded with fiddles. It is mentioned that a church priest came to a village called Haggsjovik and noticed there was a violin at almost every wall in the houses that he entered and he said, “There must live a very ungodly people in these areas!” The fiddle was seen by the church to be “the instrument of the devil” since it tempted the youth to sinful dancing and meetings where a lot of unwelcome cradles were set in movement!
Why fiddle playing was popular has much to do with how much time there was in daily life for amusements and pleasures like dancing and playing. In Haggsjovik, the farmers were quite rich in those days and had a lot of spare time to nurture those interests. But today these are deserted areas. People left with industrialization and urbanization and many people who still live in these areas think it’s backward thinking and living to play these tunes! But many of their descendants in the bigger communities and cities put more value into these old traditions –– like me, for instance!
I understand you were awarded the Lapp-Nils medal for contributions to Jämtlandic folk music in 1998. Can you tell us why this meant a lot to you and explain a little about the award itself?
Well, of course, it made me glad then but all these things give you temporary satisfactions and then you never think about them! (But I have a small guesthouse where I have some of my diplomas on the wall, so who is without vanity!) As far as the Lapp-Nils medal is concerned, it is given to those who have made some sort of contribution to the folk music of the region.
You became Riksspelman in 1978. How important is that for a Swedish folk musician? Can you tell us a little about what being a Riksspelman means and how this title is earned?
You are supposed to learn a special tradition and dialect, and to play in the proper style of that dialect and to have knowledge into that tradition. Then you must play before a special jury called Zorn-juryn and if you are lucky you can gain the title after three or four attempts. Some people never get it and others get it quite fast. About ten new Riksspelman are appointed each year and we have a total of about 200 in Sweden as far as I know.
On the first of January 2006, I became chairman for the folk fiddler association in Jämtland, and will be working with different plans and projects. For example, at the end of February there will be organized a folk music competition called Gregorieleiken. Heimbygdas spelmansförbund has a homesite where gatherings, concerts and so on are scheduled.
I understand you run a Jämtlandic folk music summer course?
During the years, I have participated in lots of summer courses but this summer I will join a course for youths as a guest teacher in connection to our spelmansstämma in Vemdalen. Well, it is fundamental to offer young people the opportunity to learn Jämtlandic folk tunes so that the tradition will survive. That is our number one task! At the courses you learn by ear and this summer course we have twenty-five pupils between ten and twenty years old. So that is in fact ten more young folk musicians than last summer joining the course! Very satisfying indeed! But this is a constant challenge with the increasing impact from the commercial forces that want us to play the same music all over the world!
[For the full text of this article, as well as Rickard’s tunes “Schottis fran Rödon” and “Tibrandsmarschen,” purchase the Fall 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[For more information on Rickard Näslin and the fiddle music of Jämtland, as well as downloads of sheet music and mp3 files, visit www.Jamtlandica.com.]
[Petra Jones is a freelance writer and musician based in England. Besides being an avid fan of fiddle music, Petra has a house full of musical instruments from bass guitars to banjos, and five strings through to twelve. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Acoustic, Bass Guitar, Just Jazz Guitar, and a host of other music publications on both sides of the Atlantic.]