We are in a small music venue in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. It's hot, and it's full of people talking, drinking, laughing and listening to the loud, intense music.
On stage is a huge, long-haired, bearded man with piercing eyes. He sways back and forth as he beats a little goat-skin drum and, in a powerful, evocative voice, sings of Valkyries, the Asa faith and Norse winter rituals. Alongside him, three sweaty musicians are bent over their panoply of electric lyres, rattling percussion, frame drums, overtone flutes, and bowed and jaw harps, backed by a solitary electric bass.
The man with the deep voice is an Icelander, his name is Gudjon Rudolf, and he is in unusually close contact with the old Nordic gods. The other three musicians are Danes: Jens Villy Pedersen, Aksel Striim and Søren Koldsen-Zederkof. Their collective name is Krauka (The Raven, red.), and their speciality is music from Viking times, although strictly speaking not much is known about how music may have sounded back when the Vikings sailed the seas.
Krauka - Viking music in the 21st century
Since 1999, Krauka have travelled the world with their many strange instruments. They have performed at a wide variety of events, from Asa weddings, winter solstice rituals, and Viking markets, to world music and local festivals, role-playing rallies, museums and Viking centres.
Krauka's fourth album Odin is packed with sagas and myths about dwarves, trolls, elves and gods, and the music is performed as always on a mix of ancient and modern instruments. From the very start, the members of the band have built many of their own instruments using old descriptions, drawings and archeological finds. But the instruments are not the only challenge facing the Krauka musicians. The band's bass player, Søren Koldsen-Zederkof, explains:
"We make our own music; we may have a few new arrangements of traditional Scandinavian tunes in our repertoire, but nobody knows what Viking music sounded like." He continues, "The remains of ancient Viking instruments have been found, and we have taken inspiration from them, but we compose our own music and so what we present is our own take on what Viking music is today!".
Jens-Villy Pedersen plays lyre, flutes, bouzouki and diverse forms of percussion in Krauka, and he describes how the band withdraws for two or three days at a time to find peace to compose.
"We get together and improvise, then pick the best of the resulting music. Some of it ends up as songs. Gudjon, our singer, works on the lyrics, sometimes taking up to six months, to produce a song. It's a long process, but it's a sound way of working."
Using this procedure, Krauka develop their repertoire, and that's the way they always have done it since the early days in Lejre in 1999. Actually, it all began on a trip to Greenland, with a group of musicians and story-tellers travelling round to perform at various functions, among them a Viking market set up in Narsarsuag, and later at a reconstruction of Erik the Red's seat, which is situated at Brattalid. Thereafter they toured southern Greenland for fourteen days. "The story-tellers had their work cut out then: no-one understood the Danish language. But everyone understands music."
The Old Instruments and Band History
"It all started as a story-telling thing," relates Jens Villy Pedersen. "We had two story-tellers, and they needed music to set the mood for their narratives. Gudjon and Aksel knew each other, and I knew Aksel, and suddenly we had a trio. It began as fun, but then took off as we learned to build and play these weird instruments. We would just do a couple of jobs, we thought. Our first gig was in Greenland, and that was an adventure – we all wanted to see Greenland. After the Greenland trip, we were all hooked, so we went on playing. It was fascinating to work with these primitive instruments, making music with so few notes. Think if you are used to playing normal instruments, which all have all 12 notes, then find yourself with a lyre with only 7 notes. After our third album, we were at a juncture where our sound had grown 'heavy' or 'broad' and we were obliged to face the fact that there was something missing in our live performance. We needed a bass. We knew Søren, who in actual fact played guitar, but proved to be an excellent bass player. In 2006 we persuaded him to join the band, and he plays on our latest album Odin."
Inspiration from Elves, Trolls and Gods
Krauka is a band suited to many different kinds of performance situations. Viking weddings and solstice rituals are just two of the possible contexts where Krauka's music fits the bill. In Denmark, the Asa Faith and Neopaganist Forn Sidr society has around 600 members – so we are not facing an enormous threat of social subversion – and the band do all manner of gigs in many different countries. But it is no secret where the source of their material lies. Krauka's singer Gudjon Rudolf has filled the roles of both lead vocalist and chief researcher. Søren Koldsen-Zederkof tells us about him:
"Our lead singer, Gudjon Rudolf from Iceland, has studied Icelandic and Nordic mythology, the old tales of the gods and Viking times. This is very important for our musical universe, since his lyrics are steeped in the world of myth and its creatures, elves, trolls and of course the gods Odin, Thor, Freja and Frigg..."
Jens Villy breaks in: "...Iceland is a very special place. In Iceland, people still believe in elves, trolls and the other creatures. If they are building a new road and its path is blocked by a big rock that has to be blasted to clear the passage through the countryside, it's vital even today for them to consult particular men and women who are in close contact with these powers. If they omit to do so, misfortune can fall upon them, and they face the risk of having to live with an unlucky road!"
Krauka and the Future
This coming summer Krauka will tour many of the Viking markets held in the Scandinavian countries. In the autumn, they fly to Minnesota and North Dakota, where they will meet up with the Native American flute-maker and story-teller Keith Bear. Together they plan to visit and perform in Native American reservations, with their combination of Nordic and North American roots music. Then Krauka are flying to Iceland to begin work on their 5th album, a fresh blend of the acoustic music the band have hitherto played and recent years' experiments which introduce electric music to the sound.
Krauka is in demand, and the Scandinavian Vikings are used to long-distance travel, so keep an eye out for them in the programming of your local music venues. Catch the news, watch the internet, and be prepared to invite your family and friends to a Krauka concert. Suddenly the shout will ring out: "The Vikings are coming!"
English translation by Rod Sinclair.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Krauka (from website).