About starting a festival, about the folk music scene in Minnesota and about how one can hold a Scandinavian festival for seven years without inviting Danish musicians.

By Morten Alfred Høirup..... translated by Maryann and Robert Eliason, Nisswa, Mn.

It is a nice, warm and sun filled Saturday morning in the little town of Nisswa in the heart of the American state of Minnesota.  The region’s many tourists begin to gather around  the small souvenir shops on the main street, and conversations occur.  The men talk about golf, fishing and hunting; the women exchange experiences about the clothing shops, food experiences, and about the town’s hotels.  All is as it usually is.  And then.  Suddenly it crawls with people clothed in beautiful Scandinavian folk dresses.

Nisswa-Stämman runs each year during the first weekend in June and offers workshops, concerts and dances with about 150 musicians from Scandinavia and especially from the USA.  The festival was started by musician and instrument maker Paul Wilson and his wife, musician and singer, Mary Abendroth in 1999, and it has since then presented Scandinavian and American musicians like the Finnish accordion queen, Maria Kalaniemi, the Finnish violinist Mauno Järvelä, Swedish Älvdalens Spelmanslag, Rättvik Spelmanslag og Draupner, the grammy nominated American trio, Hoag, Kelly & Pilzer, the local group Skålmusik, the Norwegian violin duo Huldra, (and trio Flukt) and many, many more… .

So, this year was the first time that Danish musicians visited Nisswa-Stämman.  Together with violinist Harald Haugaard, this article’s author represented Danish folk music at the festival, and in this connection I talked with Paul Wilson about the background for the festival, about the Scandinavian music scene in northern USA, about how one can hold a Scandinavian festival for seven years in a row without having Danish representatives among the performing musicians.

Paul Wilson explains:

Interest in Scandinavian Music

“In 1990 it was clear to me that there were finally enough local Scandinavian musicians that one could start a dedicated festival; so I did.  I began to play Scandinavian music in the middle 1970s, and at that time there were very few locals who played this type of music.  During the following years, interest in this music increased among the local folk music circles, especially in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area.  Our first Nisswa-Stamman was a pure local festival with 61 musicians on the program.

I grew up in a musical home, but it wasn’t folk music we listened to then.  My mother and father were both wild about jazz and big band music, music of their youth.  My mother is herself a musician; she plays the piano by ear and exclusively in F# major.  But she can play whatever.  I simply love music – with it can one express so much which words can’t.

In the 70s, I became interested in music from other world cultures, and I began to focus on my own roots.  Both my mother’s parents were from Sweden, and my father’s grandparents came from Norway.  I listened to the music, and it fascinated me deeply.  Some of it was really wonderful.  It was then I became really captured by music.

Here in 2007, we have a really good and lively local Scandinavian folk music environment, except perhaps Danish music.  We are on track with regard to Swedish violin music (ASI Spelmanslag), Swedish nyckelharp music (Twins Cities Nyckelharplag), Norwegian Hardingfiddle music (Twin Cities Hardingfelelag), Finnish dance music (Finn Hall Band), pan-Scandinavian musicians organizations (Skål Klubben and Nordisk Jam) and many smaller ensembles and soloists.

On the Danish front it is somewhat quieter.  We have a local band that is called Ballade.  They perform at a few festivals each year and not much more.  Unfortunately, they could not play at our festival this year, but there is a local Danish-American center in Minneapolis which has many members and which helps with distributing information, etc.”

A Unique Scandinavian Festival and Its Benefactors

Danish folk music is quite clearly under-represented in the area.  Besides, during the course of the festival, it is obvious that Nisswa-Stämman is in the same situation as many others of this type of Scandinavian festival; their audience consists, by and large, of folk over 50 years old.  And as many other festivals, one deals with this problem.  There is, in and for itself, nothing wrong with attracting a mature audience.  They are interested and engaged; they are quality conscious and demanding; at the same time they often understand the importance to support the young and the beginners.  Also, they have the desire and means to go to concerts, take part in workshops and buy CDs.  In all respects, the older generation is important when it concerns keeping the wheels going.  But, therefore, one also desires that the young become interested in influencing the development of folk music and folk dancing – also in Minnesota.  This year there were more children and young people at Nisswa-Stämman than ever before both among the performers and in the audience.  One could maybe go even further to provide support for attracting a broader audience, but it is not that kind of festival Paul Wilson wants:

“I venture to assert that Nisswa-Stamman is a pretty unique Scandinavian music festival here in the USA.  Most Scandinavian festivals here belong to the category ‘Heritage’ festival.  Heritage festivals in the USA attempt to emphasize everything that they think is special to their specific culture.  Serbian festivals, Hmong festivals, Latino festivals, etc.  They revolve around music, dance, crafts, summer cottages, wine, food, language, clothes, seasonings – all else in the same vein.

I am a musician, and my single reason for starting this festival was to create a workroom, a platform, where my musical colleagues can perform their music – nothing else.  I go after an unambiguous focus on music with an outstretched hand to dance, which so often goes hand in hand with the traditional music.  Ultimately, we have for practical reasons included a little Scandinavian food, but this is the only compromise we have had to enter into.  So, Nisswa-Stämman is in reality a traditional Scandinavian folk music festival, likely the only one of its kind in the USA, or one of very few, and it resembles very much the corresponding  music festivals in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.

We receive financial support from the local government and sometimes from different American-Scandinavian funds.  But the festival survives especially on account of a pair of special businessmen and sponsors – yes, they are more than pure simple sponsors, I will nearly call them benefactors or guardian angels.  They have been very interested and generous through the years.  This year we have had the largest number of visitors ever, namely more than 1700 paid admissions, and more than normal were of Danish heritage – maybe because we had you visiting?!”

What became of Danish music?

The sun beats down on the little town, Nisswa, in the northern part of the state of Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes.  Over by main street a varied flock of musicians in Scandinavian folk dress move along followed by a long train of locals and tourists, children and grownups.  Here and there Swedish, Norwegian and even Danish flags appear, and now folk no longer talk about golf and fishing but about nyckelharps and beautiful folk costumes and last night’s traditional dance.  In the lead of the parade, a gray bearded, music dedicated soul, Paul Wilson, dressed in his Swedish folk costume and with his old violin under his chin.  For eight years he has, together with his friends, created a festival, which, with local and foreign musicians, pays homage to Scandinavian music and at the same time supports the local music scene.  But how, for such a long time, could they be without Danish folk music?

“Oh, many of the musicians, whom I have invited to perform in Nisswa, are musicians whom I have met through the years at different Scandinavian festivals.  And I must admit that I haven’t met many Danish musicians at these.  Ultimately, we have limited finances when it comes to providing transportation for foreign musicians to Nisswa.  We can only fly four or five musicians over; so each year there is discussion and choices are made about whom we can invite, and there are simply SO many fantastic musicians in the world.  It is, at the same time, a fact that some far away musicians simply come to Nisswa-Stämman because they have heard so much good about the festival; so they come paying their own way.  When that happens, I try my best to treat them well, and I try often to provide extra gigs in the area.”

-Will there in the future be Danish music at Nisswa-Stämman?