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Sunday, 2 August 2015

This nyckelharpa kills fascists: Swedish folk musicians stand up to the racist right

Several months ago I was sent an academic paper written by an American called David Kaminsky: hat tip Jim Good, a Canadian musician now apparently living in Berlin. This was a seriously international undertaking as the article was about folk music in Sweden and how it has become entangled - much to the disgust of many Swedish folk musicians - with the far-right.

Woody Guthrie, 1943

Kaminsky's article, published in the Journal of Folklore Research in 2012 and called Keeping Sweden Swedish: Folk Music, Right-Wing Nationalism, and the Immigration Debate, can be read here.

It's an interesting paper, though a little short on specifics. The gist is that Sweden's folk scene is vulnerable to the far-right - "Sweden for the Swedish" etc - as a result of a slightly half-hearted folk revival in the 60s and 70s that left the country's 19th-century nationalist folk repertoire mainly in tact, myth of cultural purity and all. Think less Dirty Old Town and more Green Grow the Rushes, O. I guess, according to this thesis, racists find it easier to imagine white people in an imaginary rural environment than an imaginary urban one.

The context is that Sweden currently takes more migrants as a percentage of its population than anywhere else in Europe and that there is an international migration crisis taking place: four million people displaced by the Syrian civil war alone, which puts the 3,000 people currently estimated to be camping out in Calais in some kind of perspective. It is, let's face it though, mainly a crisis for the migrants themselves, not for western Europe, which has the resources to help if it chooses. Sweden chooses to help.

An attempt to find Swedish folkies to speak to foundered initially in an illuminating way: my first Swedish folky, whom I shall not name, told me off roundly for not knowing enough about Swedish folk music to deserve to speak to him and for believing that the Swedish band Baskery - whom I first saw at the Shrewsbury folk festival in the UK - might qualify as a folk band. I say "illuminating" because it is easy to see that if a folk scene is elitist and exclusionary it could be easily captured by one group of people. 

However, through the miracle of Facebook and specifically by posting a question on this blog's Facebook page (followed by all the most cosmopolitan folkies), I found myself being handed between Swedes until I was in touch with Anna Gustavsson and Jenny Franke, who are directly involved with the "folk musicians against racism" movement.

This was a familiar idea to me as there was something similar in the UK abut six years ago called Folk Against Fascism, although this organisation doesn't seem to have adapted itself very well to way the UK immigration debate has evolved and the reality of the 2015 election result, in which Ukip received 12% of the national vote. I guess it's lucky that Nigel Farage has no interest in music.

Anna, Jenny and I organised a chat on instant messenger but unfortunately on Monday - the allotted evening - Jenny had to go and earn a living at the drop of a hat. So I spoke with Anna and this is how it went...

Tell me a bit about yourself, Anna: are you a musician?

Photo: Joel Höglund

"Yes, I play the nyckelharpa and am currently a student at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. I'm from the countryside outside of Uppsala - a small place called Börje - and I'm 24."

Did you have a chance to read the essay by David Kaminsky?

"Not the whole text, but some of it."

And what did you think of it? Is his analysis correct? He was saying that there is a problem in Sweden involving folk music and the far-right. 

"If that is his analysis, he's right. That was the start of the folk musicians against racism movement."

Could you be a little more specific? 

"It began really when the leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson wore a traditional costume when entering parliament in 2010."

"Many parliamentary people have worn the national costume to the opening but when Jimmie Åkesson did it in 2010, it became clear that the aim was political and that the clothing was worn not only as formal wear. The same has been done by the deputy speaker, Björn Söder [another Sweden Democrat], and various Sweden Democrats also did this at public meetings, electoral work and the like."

The Sweden Democrats are the far-right party?

"Yes exactly. I believe the English organisation Folk against Fascism has a similar story. It's not only happening in Sweden. Many countries in Europe struggle with this."

Folk against Fascism was a response to a rightwing politician turning up to some gigs and his party selling folk music on its website, I understand.

"Right wing is also a nationalist party?"


"In that case, it seems like the same kind of issues."

But the British National Party - which is specifically what Folk Against Fascism was against - was never a big political force in the UK: it didn't have any MPs. So I think it is a bit more serious in Sweden?

"Yes, you have a different way of counting votes I think, so it's maybe harder for new parties to enter the parliament? Since they are in the parliament in Sweden it is, I believe, more serious."

Do you know what percentage of the vote the Sweden Democrats got in the 2014 election?

"About 12 %, I can check up the exact number. They are the third biggest party now..."

That's interesting. It's exactly the same as Ukip - our most prominent far-right party - but because of our electoral system Ukip only got one MP out of about 650. 12% is quite a lot.

"Yes, they doubled at the election last year. Before that they entered the parliament with 6%." 

And does the government change every five years?

"Every four years. Here's last years result. So 12.86 % ..."   

And apart from the leader of the SD turning up in national costume, have there been other events that have made folk musicians alarmed?

"Nationalistic papers have visited folk festivals in Sweden and sent 'journalists' to report about the 'true Swedishness' of the event and written about how good and 'white' the folk scene is."

I think David Kaminsky mentioned one of these at the beginning of his article.

"But do you mean only Sweden Democrats or the other nationalistic parties/forces also?"

How many are there?

"We have some more parties, which are not in the parliament. National Democrats and The Swedes' Party."

And do they all have an anti-immigration agenda?

"Yes. One National Democrat tried to infiltrate Umeå folk music association to ban all world music bands at the big folk and world music festival in Umeå one year."

Wow. That's serious. So he/she didn't want any non-Swedes at the festival?  

"Not performing at least. It didn't get through, of course. But it's really terrible that it even happened."

Could you send me a link to something that was written about that?

"I was told this by a friend from Umeå, who said it was 2009-10. I have tried to find anything written about it but not succeeded. I will write to see if she has a link. I do have an article about the Swedish party coming to another festival."

Where was that one?

"Korrö, in the south of Sweden. What I think is important to say, is that the folk music scene is progressive in many ways. And such a long way from the narrow-minded thinking about folk culture that these nationalistic organisations have."

Sure. It's unusual to be a musician and be rightwing, perhaps?"

"Yes, it's not very common."

Are there any right-wing Swedish bands?

"Noooo. Not folk music at least. Maybe some rock bands? There/s a band called Ultima Thule that I think is a right-wing band. But that's more rock I think. That's the only one I know but I'm sure there are others."

So there were no folk musicians who expressed any sympathy with the right of these "national socialists" to be at the festivals?

"No. I know of one folk musician who is a Sweden Democrat. But otherwise I feel that we are united in our cause of developing our culture in many ways, and being a progressive movement."

Which year did folk musicians against racism start? 


And are you an official of the movement?

"I'm not sure what an official is, but we have no one in the movement with some kind of title like chairman."

So how did it start?

"We are a so-called grassroots movement: it actually started with some students at the Royal College of Music. But now there are people all over Sweden that are in this all together. Everyone can join if they have the same beliefs as our statutes."

Are there membership cards?

"No, it is very unofficial."

It has a Facebook page?

"We mainly communicate on a Facebook page. "

Your Facebook page has more than 5,000 likes! 

"We are better at keeping the Facebook page, but here's a link to our website too."

So is folk music closely linked to wearing traditional costumes in Sweden? We don't really have this in the UK. Is it usual for Swedish folk musicians to dress in traditional costume?

"Well, it depends, but if you are at festivals in the summer you will definitely see some costumes. So it's a part of the folk culture 'kit'. Some people like to wear them, some don't. I believe it's different to England."

And does folk musicians against racism (FMR) organise any events?

"Here is a video of one of them: an anti-racism demonstration on the subway. It was in response to the Sweden Democrats talking about organised begging there."

How frequent are these events? Could I go to one this month in theory?

"Yes, we organise not only demonstrations and debates but also concerts with themes including 'Folkculture without borders'. This month, yes! We are on at a folk festival in Stockholm: we have a tent there with information about us and will have some different things going on. Me and Jenny (mostly Jenny) are doing this festival - Stockholm folk festival - in a week. And I have been organising a meeting at Womex in October, but that's not settled yet."

Is there ever any trouble at the events?

"The events I have been to and organised have been peaceful, but I know of one in Gothenburg where musicians played folk music while Jimmy Åkesson was talking. I was told they were described as 'left-extremists' afterwards in the newspapers. Also, we had to stop playing when we demonstrated in the subway (video above), but there has been no violence that I know of. People are often very happy and it's a nice vibe around our events - though they are serious." 

So what happened at the Swedish Democrat rally in Gothenburg?

"There is a short paragraph about it in the article, which is from May 2014. The FMR people turned their backs and played their instruments, it says. They were demonstrating against nationalist forces attempting to kidnap the concept of folk culture. FMR wants to show that folk culture is about equality and diversity. Then Sara Andersson and Ebba Larsson danced - they also turned their backs to the SD's meeting. 

"The article quotes Sara Andersson saying: 'For me it is important to stand up to SD, to stand up to the normalisation of the party that has taken place, even though they have a fascist ideology. I'm not sure if it benefits the matter, or if it benefits SD. I really do not know why, it's just a feeling I have, it feels wrong to yell aggressive things."

I guess that's why they were playing instruments instead? And did Jimmy Åkesson respond?

"According to the article he said 'I could hold my speech, but it was bad that the police could not prevent all the yelling and screaming,' before he hurried off to the plane that was taking him to Stockholm for Saturday's third and final appearance in the run-up to Sunday's EU elections. 'I hope that all those interested in our message could hear what I was saying. But the police must ensure that those who simply want to prevent or sabotage our meetings do not get as much space'."

The whole event reminds me of this event in the US, where a tuba player followed a Ku Klux Klan march

So do you agree with David Kaminsky that Swedish folk music is vulnerable to nationalist politics because there was no real folk revival in the 60s and 70s? 

"He said that? There was a huge folk revival in the 60s and 70s! It was part of what we call the 'green wave' - you know the hippies and environment and unisex and anti-nuclear movement?"

That sounds very like what was going on everywhere else in the world. So could you give me an example of something from the Swedish folk revival of the 1960s and 70s?

"This is one of the most influential bands in the Swedish folk music scene from that time."

And what is the translation of the title please?

"There lived a farmer at the harbour, I think that would be. Or seashore maybe."

And the musicians are called Folk & Rackare?

"Yes, it's a band."

What does rackare mean?

"Buster/rascal. A person that likes to joke but also can be a bit mean? Maybe, its kind of an old word that we don't use any more."

It crosses my mind that maybe she is making Kaminsky's case for him? And what is the best band on the Swedish folk scene at the moment in your opinion?

"We have Väsen and Frifot, but they have played for 25 years now...

Do you know Baskery?

"No. English band?"

Swedish. They went down a storm at the Shrewsbury folk festival.

Are you surprised? I think I have discovered is that the definition of "folk" is pretty different in Sweden and the UK. When I contacted Baskery about this they told me that they also do not consider themselves to be a folk band, although they play folk festivals in the UK. 

"Never heard of them, but I like it! In Sweden we have a quite narrow meaning of folk music - it's often the same as traditional music."

And that's Kaminsky's case in a nutshell. I sent Anna videos from YouTube of Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman, both of which she liked very much. But she also said that even Bob Dylan would struggle to get himself a "folk" tag in Sweden and would, instead, be called a "troubadour".

In response she sent this by a band called Hoven Droven, which is at the most non-traditional end of the Swedish folk scene.

  And then this

Which would probably tip over into being called "world music" in the UK. In response I sent this

which has elements of both but which, in my mind at least, remains folk music rather than world music on account of it being a traditional English tune. Not that it matters much...
* If you enjoyed this post you may also like this, called Sound of Heimat. Or why the Germans hate their own folk music Or there is also this called Afghanistan, where a violin may arouse
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