It's as Swedish as meatballs. The reasons for hauling out the nyckelharpa is only limited by your imagination!
—Ellen Boryen, nyckelharpa player
The nyckelharpa will be front and centre this weekend at the Scandinavian Cultural Centre's 50th anniversary celebration in Winnipeg. Performers include Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag, Finn Hall Band, Diane Jarvi (Finnish harp) and the Sill-i Tones.
So what's a nyckelharpa, you ask? SCENE wondered, too, and put some questions to Ellen Boryen, who plays nyckelharpa with the Sill-i Tones:
Could you describe the instrument?
For a "Wanted" poster I would have to say it looks a bit like a violin, except the neck has been exchanged for a complicated work of 3 rows of wooden pegs/keys that when pressed, gets in contact with the string to change the note. Some people have described the instrument as "a cross between a fiddle and a typewriter."
How would you describe the sound?
It has 16 strings of which I can only manipulate three with the keys. The
rest of them are sympathetic strings which resonate when I play the
instrument. It gives a fuller and deeper sound than a regular violin. It
is also played with a short bow, instead of a normal bow for violins.
What makes it unique?
It has a colourful and long history in Sweden, and nearly disappeared altogether. In the 1970s a handful of folk musicians took an interest in it, made some modifications to the original instrument to accommodate today's music scales and use, and it became incredibly popular throughout the "folklore" years of the '70s and '80s. All nyckelharpas are hand made.
Why is it called the "nyckelharpa?"
The nyckelharpa, or keyed fiddle (Ellen Boryen)
A few centuries ago all stringed instruments in Sweden were referred to
as "harp," no matter what they looked like. "Nyckel" simply means "key." Its English name is "keyed fiddle."What is the attraction for you? Why did you want to play the nyckelharpa?
I appreciate the sound of a well-played nyckelharpa, I grew up in a musical family, and the music it is intended for seems to be inside of me, anyways. The instrument is Swedish, and so am I, so why not?Is there a particular story or legend associated with the instrument?
At some point in history it was banned by the church as an instrument of the devil. However, nowadays almost every church, it seems like, has a wedding march in folk music style named after it, often played with nyckelharpas in the band.Can you explain how the instrument fits into cultural expression/traditions?
It is as Swedish as meatballs. It covers all kinds of traditional crafts; wood working, playing folk music, writing folk music (lots of music is written today specifically for the nyckelharpa), singing, dancing, celebrating. The reasons for hauling out the nyckelharpa are only limited by your imagination! ;-)Your group is called the Sill-i Tones. How did you come up with such a silly name?
Yeah, about that... When we first started playing together, we made a light-hearted attempt at finding a name that encompassed all the Nordic countries, and was reasonably recognized in their respective languages. We were left with the word "sill", which means "herring." Sill / silli / sild were the spellings, so Sill-i Tones it was. We have had to explain ourselves ever since!What are you most looking forward to at the festival this weekend?
For me personally, I look forward to the other nyckelharpa players coming up from the Minneapolis area. I met them last year in the States, and it will be an inspiration to all of us Sills! As for the 50th itself I can only say that when five countries with a history like ours can get along for 50 years under the same roof, they deserve their own version of the Union Jack, don't you think?