Gabriel Fliflet: a kaleidoscope of folk music

Few can match the musical diversity of the Norwegian accordionist, singer and composer Gabriel Fliflet. A peerless conveyor of folk music from across the world, his contribution to the general widening of musical horizons in Norway cannot be overestimated.

Listen to and download Gabriel Fliflet's releases here

Gabriel Fliflet (Foto: Tønnes Gundersen)

At the Førde Folk Music Festival we will meet him in two different roles: One as host for the summer edition of the folk club Columbi Egg, which he normally organises and hosts in his hometown of Bergen. The other as composer and lead character in the performance of his piece “Elvemot:” a far-reaching and deeply arresting amalgam of music; voicing notions and emotions from many places and times.

“Elvemot” (where rivers meet) was met with jubilation when it was first performed at the Osa festival in Voss in 2006. And the ensuing record, Rio Aga, received the same unequivocal acclaim. Elvemot/Rio Aga was simply something different; an unprecedented achievement many felt, in the way of creating a piece of music both infinitely diverse, reaching far and wide into the world, and still with a deep reverberation of unity.

-When I was asked to compose a piece for the Osa festival two years ago, my first reaction was dread, mixed with the honour, says Fliflet.
- Up until that point I hadn’t really composed music, certainly not on any larger scale than a few individual songs, so I was nervous and took care to make the organisers minimise the requirements of the commission. But sitting down and committing myself to the task resulted in a wholly unexpected experience. Ideas, melodies and tunes came effortlessly, and their concord, or belonging-together, seemed natural and in place from the start. And so Elvemot became something more and bigger than I had thought when I took on the commission.

So what surprised you more; the ease of the process or the success of the product?

-Well I was surprised and excited that I found it natural and rewarding to compose. But I think a lot of it had to do with maturity. I had written before, but I had often felt that my quest for complex and interesting melodies got the better of me, and I gave up. At the time of composing Elvemot I guess I had overcome that problem and felt comfortable with simpler ideas and melodies. I think that the ability to work with a limited basic idea opens up for freer and ultimately more truthful music. I’ve always liked melodies that are simple but still stand out. And that is perhaps something I managed with “Elvemot.”
As for the response I was really taken aback. I was happy with the result, but the degree to which it struck home with others was overwhelming.

Do you feel that “Elvemot” is a very personal piece of music; all the while it is hugely eclectic yet at the same time comes across as a carefully moulded entirety?

-All music is personal, at least folk music. But sure, I see that the different strands and traditions that interweave in that piece are a reflection of my musical identity. My ideas come into being from a broad background.

Fliflet is known as an adventurous musician who defies limits of genre and brings into his own music and projects an amazing cultural variety. He has indulged in Norwegian folk music of course, but strong are also the influences from Finland, the Baltic region, Hungary and the Balkans, as well as from the Shetlands and from America.

Can you shed some light on how you came to be such a diverse musician and cultural conveyor? What in your background gives you this boundless superfluity of musical vantage points?

-My father travelled widely in Europe –mostly by bike- and he was a great lover of music and a talented amateur. He experienced music in every corner of Europe and brought it home. I would learn from him Swedish tunes, shanties, Hungarian songs and gypsy tunes. And since my mother is from Finland the Finnish and Baltic link was natural. Another influence was my sister, who was very into American dance music. My childhood had a lot of music in, and I would learn songs from all over the place, from my father but also from records. A little later I started going on interrail in Europe every year, and I would always buy records and bring them home to listen to in detail. I guess I just really loved and wanted to explore all the music I could get my hands on.

Was the accordion, which is your main instrument, part of the picture from the start?

-No I started that later, and the rule has always been that I’ve rehearsed very little and played a lot. In high school I got into Norwegian traditional music, and early on I discovered the music of the Shetlands too.

Back to” Elvemot,” did you ever have a record in mind when you started composing the commissioned piece?

-Not at all, that was the last thing on my mind! But the immediate response was so great that I guess the idea appeared soon after the première. Rio Aga, the record that ensued, has a lot to do with the absolutely fantastic band that I was lucky enough to have with me. The music, and the emotional dynamic that it contain, really rests on having such magnificent and sensitive musicians. I’m a practical kind of composer –actually I’m not comfortable with the term composer at all- which means that I don’t sit down and write a tune out in detail. I have ideas and melodies, and I know the direction I’m after, but I need the participation of others to find a song’s final form.

What about you’re role as host of the Columbi Egg folk club, does that also entail being a kind of musical leader? Will you be playing at all?

-Perhaps a little, but not much; it’s not something I decide in advance anyway. My role is not necessarily so visible, or audible. I help create a program in collaboration with the festival. I give advice as to who I think is best suited for the concept and I try to have a notion of communication and poetic strength in mind.

The original club concept in Bergen is the biggest scene for folk music in Norway, and it is special in its effort to bring in musicians from all over the world and create a vibrant hot-spot, not just for folk musicians but for music lovers in general.

-The main characteristic of our audiences in Bergen is that everyone is genuinely interested in alternative music. Apart from that there are almost no common traits; it’s a really mixed crowd. We’ve quite simply become a scene where people know they get to hear music they won’t hear elsewhere. All the concerts, about half of which are with foreign acts, become very intimate experiences since we don’t have a stage, and they’re almost always full.

So what are the criteria you work from when you organize the program and book artists?

The main criterion is that whoever is to play must be good, not only as musicians but also as live performers and communicators. That is part of our concept and what we’re known for. Further, I always try to have a notion of form and unity in mind, and also a degree of poetic strength. But really, I think that we’re very liberal and welcoming to all kinds of expressions. The only absolute condition is that the music must be a hundred percent acoustic, because that is integral to our definition of folk music: we want intimacy and to open up for those special, arresting experiences, for both musicians and audience.

Gabriel Fliflet is something akin to a musical kaleidoscope: so many facets, so many emotions and so many different roots swirl around in his music and his projects. His is a special fingerspitzengefühl for the magic which is particular to folk and traditional music, and as a conveyor he has opened infinitely many ears to this magic.

Recommended listening: Rio Aga
Elvemot/Rio Aga on the web:

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