Lena Willemark – Blaferdi (Blue Journey) / a RootsWorld review

Blåferdį (The Blue Journey) is a mesmerizing album from an always adventurous Swedish singer and violin player. Lena Willemark was inspired to write music for a Euroradio Folk Festival commission, after reading Siri Hustvedt’s book ”The Shaking Woman.” Hustvedt (a Norwegian studies professor) wrote about a recurring neurological condition which, when it occurred, would leave her shaking. As she undergoes treatment, Hustvedt wonders about her condition. Is it physical? Solely ’mental?’ Both? Or a manifestion of memory? In short, what Willemark seems to have taken away from Hustvedt’s work is the concern for the outward life, and the submerged inner life. Willemark includes a quote from Hustvedt in the liner notes:
“Around and beneath the island of that self-conscious storyteller is a vast sea of unconsciousness, of what we don’t know, will never know, or have forgotten.”

The listener, then, is bound to be caught up in this crucial tension: we hear the stories brought to life by the musician, but who can say what the words and music will stir in each person, or in the next moment?

To realize Blåferdį, Willemark wrote a series of poems, in Swedish and in Älvdalska (also called Elfdalian, an ancient Swedish language) which she set to the sounds of a quintet (Willemark, vocals and violin; Emma Reid, violin; Mia Marin, 5-string violin; Mikael Marin, 5-string viola; and Leo Sander, cello), plus a percussionist (the wonderful Tina Quartey, on numerous drums and bells).

The texts themselves are beautiful, deep zen pieces.
For example, from “Blåferdį”
In the blue water
my journey began
Sweeping strains of memories flowing
I breath close to you
You who are the one I never leave…

Or, from “Swart (Black)”
Black as a forest lake
Above the water
the moon hangs
I am waiting for a whole new life
I am waiting
And the heart yearns for the light.

Everywhere nature interacts with human questing; on “Du so oller glemmd åv (You, Forgotten by All)”, “Fragments of memories. Streams that die away, to be a person without one’s self. Love is your star(“Balistienną”); a fiddler plays, and mountains tremble while deep seas roar (“Du spilmann,” O Fiddler). Lyrically, this is elemental, organic material. Symbolically, Willemark is taking us into shadow worlds where human emotions grow and die.

The music and singing is quite simply, astonishing. The strings act like roots, anchoring these songs, the cello another dark timbre. Quartey’s percussion never overwhelms the delicacy and force with which the quintet maneuvers through Willemark’s compositions. And Willemark is a magician, swooping in full-throated, whispering, calling out encouragement to the musicians. On “Swart (Black),” Willemark begins by intoning the lyrics, but then draws out deep breaths; one can almost imagine clouds of blackness escaping from her mouth, as a stringed instrument adds a resonant thrum under her. Willemark then heads up into her upper register, and the quintet joins in, circling, wary; the musicians drop away, leaving Willemark vulnerable, with minimalist support. The quintet rejoins with dynamic flourishes, but the cello changes the direction to a melodic dance before an emphatic ending which has Willemark keening and shouting.

And that’s just one example of the craft displayed on Blåferdį. Willemark also includes two instrumentals, “Swartpolską (The Black Polska),” and “Wissą-walsn (Waltz of Certainty),” both clearly derived from the Swedish instrumental tradition of magical, swirling strings and melancholy. On “Edh byres snart (It Begins Soon),” the strings and percussion lightly caress each other, calling and responding. After a minute and a half, Willemark’s vocals enter (At night, I wait in the depths — like a cry.), and suddenly the tune becomes clipped as she cries out, the tune dropping away, glistening like the top of waves touched by the moon.

And the moon makes an encore, on the concluding track “Ra weg”: Let the moon follow you at night, till the sunrise sings and joy returns –right away! “Ra weg” lets the string quintet actually rock, with its bluesy, sassy swagger. Willemark coaxes the group along, repeating Ra weg, sounding out the notes of the quintet as if she were engaging in Indian takadimi, and then eating the song alive.

An easy contender for album of the year, Lena Willemark and her “wish list of folk musicians” have created an outstanding artistic statement. Incredibly, Blåferdį feels as if it has always been there – the unconscious music of dreams, waking up. – Lee Blackstone