FolkWorld Issue 39 07/2009; Article by Eelco Schilder

Mellan Träden
The Truth about Siri Karlsson

When I put my eyes on the debut album of Siri Karlsson, I was wondering what kind of new female singer Sweden brought me. But by hearing the album, I found out that Siri Karlsson is not one, but two persons. Cecilia Österholm plays the nyckelharpa and Maria Arnqvist the alt-saxophone. Together they call themselves ‘Siri Karlsson’. Who, according to the CD booklet, lived between 1896 and 1977 and was chairwoman of a local sewing club. The beautiful music and the description of this woman who inspired Österholm and Arnqvist for this fantastic debut album made me curious and I contacted Sweden for some explanations, which they were more than willing to give.

First of all, I'm curious about both your musical backgrounds? In what kind of family did you grew up, musically spoken?

Siri Karlsson

Siri Karlsson @ FolkWorld: FW #38

Icon Sound @
Cecilia: ‘Actually, we both grew up in a family where music was around. I grew up with a dad who plays trad. jazz (cornet) and Swedish folk music on Nyckelharpa (key fiddle) and cow horn. I followed him around Sweden as a child, visiting folk music festivals, hanging out during jazz concerts, so I kind of grew up surrounded by both styles and began to play the key fiddle myself at the age of 16.’

Maria: ‘I grew up in a family where music and singing was part of every day life. My dad learned the clarinet from Mr Acker Bilk records, mom singing and play the piano and so on. There were several instruments around the house, piano, clarinet, guitar and a prototype church organ from my great uncle who built organs. I yelled for a violin at the age of four but started playing piano instead, later on also the clarinet, church organ and finally the saxophone.’

Can you still remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a musician?

Cecilia: ‘I don't know when, since my dad plays, I've always known I'd be playing music in some way. And since more and more requests of my music has come I've learned that it is something I can earn a living from. But I will never stop playing even when I stop doing any concerts or CD's.’

Maria: ‘Music has always been a natural part of me and my life. There was no point of decision for me or particular reason. Of course there have always been dreams, and still are, music I want to create, accomplishments, reaching out. It’s the dreams that keep you going.’

Can you give me a short overview of both your careers before Siri Karlsson?

Cecilia: ‘I played traditional folk music in different groups and tutored at a national institute for folk music. I also play improvisation music in a band with musicians from various musical backgrounds.’

Maria: ‘I was first pursuing a classical career but it did not feel quite right. Instead I started discovering jazz and bought a saxophone. In my early 20ies I went to Burkina Faso in West Africa to work as a music teacher and playing with local bands that I switched to the saxophone for real. It influenced me also musically. I learnt the saxophone on stage, playing jazz, reggae, African popular music. When I came back I continued playing with bands and exploring free jazz and improvisation. I’ve also returned to West African for collaborations – once with Siri Karlsson. While I’ve always enjoyed Swedish folk music it was first when I met Cecilia that I started to really play traditional Swedish folk music.’

How did you two meet and started to play together?

Maria: ‘We met in Uppsala during our academic studies. We discovered a similarity in attitude towards music and playing. Our instruments matched in a peculiar and new way that we've never heard before. We are joined in the fascination of improvisation and the love of the strong, beautiful folk music melodies. We like to discover new ways of exploring, playing and performing folk music. The views are the same today as when we met, but now we know each other and our instruments inside out. We share a great trust in one another which gives us an incredible liberty and makes us dare and challenge each other in improvisations. We started off with folk music melodies that Cecilia knew. I both played and improvised to those melodies. In 2002 Cecilia asked me if I wanted to join her for a concert in Brazil. I did and there we more or less had to build up a repertoire and started presenting us as a duo, although at that time we used a different name.’

Siri Karlsson, Mellan träden I understand that you have the same ideas about music, can you explain a bit the philosophy behind Siri Karlsson’s music?

Maria: ‘The music we make is very important to us. It is very personal, not only because we compose and arrange it. We think our philosophy, or the core in our music is to always search for a nerve, to be extremely present in the moment and have the liberty to improvise and take new paths as we play. We do not settle once we’ve made a new tune or arrangement but always strive to find new ideas. And we often think we do, even if the tune and overall arrangement sometimes may seem similar to listeners. We like to jump. Working from within the traditional music and experimenting with moving outside. It comes natural from our different personalities, tastes and backgrounds. We are making the music we want to make and are very happy others enjoy it. Well, of course there are other things important to us too, in music and also outside. For Cecilia the traditional music is important as well and is a source of inspiration for her own composing. Related to music Maria also teaches musicology focused on African music and is engaged in work related to culture and development cooperation.’

How do people in Sweden react on your music? It reminds me a bit of the way bands like Arbete och fritid approached the traditional music, is that a strange thing to think?

Maria: ‘No, it’s not so strange and people do. But we hadn’t really thought about our music in that way. People react to our music differently. Our setting, altosaxo and key harp, is the only one in Sweden we think and it usually attracts attention and curiosity. Also, since we go beyond the traditional music but not in the way that is common today – to folk rock, world music or jazz– we seem to attract new listeners, people who are not into folk. Those who are hear something new. With our sound and melodies we seem to hit the nerve of the Swedish soul and culture. People often tell us our music raises memories, visions of landscapes, peacefulness and also joy. We also play with contradictions, distortions and dissonance that seem to raise emotions of nature and urbanity – the punk of folk music some have reacted!’

If I have to introduce the CD to a friend and I was only allowed to play one song. Which one should I play, and what makes that one really Siri Karlsson?l

Siri Karlsson Maria: ‘That’s a tricky question. All songs are real to us and have their special character. What we’ve found very interesting is that different tunes attract different kinds of audiences and people. To this album we invited and cooperated with two great musicians, Tuomo Haapala on acoustic bass and Eric Malmberg on Hammond organ. Since we are so used to our own sound these are special to us, they enrich our sound and give us more space in our own playing. The tune Nästa Bandhagen is for example a favourite especially among listeners who are not that used to pure traditional Swedish music.

Now it’s time you tell me more about Siri Karlsson, who was she and why does she inspire you so much?

Maria: ‘Siri Karlsson is a great source of inspiration to us and still a big mystery. We are getting to know her better and better. Some years ago we heard a story about a woman named Siri Karlsson who played an instrument called psalmodikon. It is a very basic or simple instrument with one string and a resonance box that was used for accompanying singing, most often in poor congregations and schools. Siri, the story told, was the chair woman of a group of women who used to meet to sow they said. But they actually met to play psalmodikon, drink and make up dirty songs about their men. We thought this was quite amusing, imagined what it could sound like and continued to build on this story, creating a rebellious character of Siri Karlsson and decided to take her name as a group. So actually, the story of Siri Karlsson is partly fictive and keeps evolving…’

So what about future plans?

Maria: ‘We keep on creating and are full of inspiration. We are currently working on new material for a new album that we hope to record during the fall. As on Mellan träden (In between trees) we are planning to continue to collaborate with other musicians and are experimenting with sounds and ideas. We have also started using our voices… Then we will be out playing. If you come to Sweden during the summer you’re warmly welcome to listen to us at Ransäter stämman for example, a bigger traditional folk music festival in Värmland. We’re also involved in other projects, both separately and together. During the spring we have plans to cooperate with a hip-hop and electronics collective and also continue to play with the Hammond organ player Eric Malmberg (Sagor & Swing). Cecilia just launched a CD with a band called Maramas with some of the musical heroes from the free form/progg era, like Tuomo Haapala who is also a guest on our album. She also continues to play with a more purely traditional folk music duo, Erika & Cecilia. Maria plays with the jazz singer and songwriter Ingela Jansson who will soon make her album debut and be launch in Japan, Germany and Sweden. She also continues more project based collaborations within free form, hip hop and reggae. We both feel that having other projects together and apart is very inspiring and important for Siri Karlsson and the music we create.’

Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Siri Karlsson (from website).

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