worldly folk music from Finland

album review
and exclusive interview
with lead vocalist Jenny Wilhelms

Review and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2001
all images used with permission of
Formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
Last updated: 06 May 2001
Tommy Mansikka-Aho  Jenny Wilhelms   Christopher Öhman   David Lillkvist  
click on image to visit artist's website | Image © Gjallarhorn 2000

We originally came across Gjallarhorn, a four person world-music oriented folk band from Finland, during their United Kingdom debut at the Gosport and Fareham [Easter] Folk Festival supporting Capercaillie earlier this year. (review). The band is fronted by the stunning vocalist and violin player Jenny Wilhelms, a classically trained musician who is presently continuing her studies in Helsinki. Also performing were Adrian Jones (viola, mandola, kalimba), Tommy Mansikka-Aho (didgeridoo, slideridoo and Jew's harp) and David Lillkvist (udu, djembe, darabouka, shaman drum and other ethnic percussion). Our review of the group's latest album Sjofn incorporates an exclusive interview with Jenny. Further information and soundbites are available at Gjallarhorn's official website.

From the notes accompanying our promotional package, "Gjallarhorn features world music with rootes in the Swedish folk music of Finland. A personal and talented echo of the ancient folk music tradition of Scandinavia with its mythical medieval ballads, whirling minuets, prayers in runo-meric chanting and ancient Icelandic rimur epics. Most ancient music cultures have similarities and use different elements for the same function in their music. Gjallarhorn has found a way to combine these elements. The vocals feature ornaments and microtonality from the traditional Scandinavian style of singing, with moments of improvisation and influences from Indian classical music. The arrangements of the voice layers bring out the harmonisation of the Scandinavian folk music.

The Australian digerdoo—a major element of Gjallarhorn's music—features one of the basic elements of Scandinavian music, the drone. It keeps up the constant shamanistic pulse of the old tunes, traditionally produced by the Jew's harp and sympathetic strings on the instruments. And the 2001 season of the popular CBS (USA) television show Survivor has memorialised and popularised the instrument beyond words.

Gjallarhorn's Afro-Cuban, Indian and Middle-Eastern percussion brings back the drum to the music, while the fiddles are the most common instrument in the folk tradition. The viola brings a depth and variation to the second voices and support the old sound of octavation with twin fiddles."

Jenny Wilhelms
Jenny Wilhelms
Image © Gjallarhorn 2000


MD: Jenny, please tell us a little bit about your background.

Jenny: I grew up in Helsinki and Vasa, both coastal towns with the sea and archipelago very close. My mothers family is a musical one, my granny went to the same musical academy as I am studying in. Mum and my aunt used to play music together with me when I was little. I started with the fiddle at the age of 8, but by the time I was fourteen I had so much music coming out from me, a natural sense for improvising that my classical teacher had a hard time finding material free enough to keep up my interest in the classical music. When I decided to play only folk music he told me that I might as well burn all my etude and scale books. I feel that I really started to get into the instrument after that.

I was fascinated by the Scandinavian fiddle tunes, by their ability to make you addicted to them immediately! Something with the modes used combined with the personal interpretation you have to give the music is just right. I started with singing on an aware basis in high school, I have now studied for several folk music teachers in Sweden, Norway and Finland, with classical technique exercises but with a strictly modal repertoire.

Who are your favourite artists, I mean, those that you find yourself listening to all the time?

From home, and in my late teens I had the Swedish 70's folk revival groups like Filarfolket, various groups with Ale Möller etc., but my first really big experience with the medieval ballad that has come to be my main source for now - was when I heard Norwegian medieval ballads with Kirsten Bråten Berg and Arve Moen Bergset some 10 years ago, they both use old archive material that is very, very fascinating. Actually when it comes to research I prefer to look up the archive source myself directly, to get my own opinion, instead of my colleagues' recordings, because folk music is so personal, and so much lies in the interpretation of each individual.

Today I find myself listening mostly to jazz fusion of different kinds for inspiration. And African cora music makes me relax because it is so different from anything I have ever done, constantly flowing. It gives you time to think and not analyze.

How did you develop your vocal style? Can you elaborate on your your musical training and education?

As mentioned in earlier, I studied for various teachers in Sweden, Finland and Norway. When it comes to folk music you have to pick the teachers yourself, those who you feel have something in common with your kind of voice or taste of music. Classical education is necessary for a folk singer in my opinion, you use the same strength and muscles all the time, breath controlling etc. is just as important, I have had two classical teachers so far, one at the Conservatory in Karleby and one at the Sibelius Academy. But really, when it comes to my work today I am my own teacher, I look up all my material in the archives all around Scandinavia.

Sjofn [front cover] | Image © Gjallarhorn 2000


Sjofn, an ancient Scandinavian goddess who awakens love and passion between people, is the title of Gjallarhorn's latest album. The album has captured the hearts of many folk music listeners if the obvious interest at Fareham is any indication. Gjallarhorn write, "She is the guardian of this recording where the lyrics feature meetings between lovers of both a human and spiritual kind. She is also a protector of the annual spring feasts that were celebrated in the Nordic countries in days of old. Bonfires were lit to honour both her and her other fertility goddess sisters every spring, in the hope that they would sow seed of love and growth in both man and soil, brining love and a good harvest to the people.

Sjofn is also the title of Gjallarhorn's latest album (RANARCD-1, 2000); comprised of thirteen mainly short tracks, there are also two longer numbers. The album opens with "Goddess of Spring" which features layers of Jenny's over light percussion before the Gjallarhorn-characteristic digeridoo and rhythmic percussion emerg. It is a Runo song from Karelia and an invocation to welcome the goddess of spring and fertility of the earth. A strong similarity to traditional Celtic music exists in a number of Gjallarhorn's recordings; "Tova and the King," a Swedish ballad about a King who leaves his realm to live with his beloved, with fiddles dueling with Jew's harp, is one of them. Layers of Jenny's sweet and crystalline vocals carry the tune nicely.

The constant droning of the digeridoo, reminiscent of Survivor episodes is clearly broken by the fast paced vocal and string work of other band members in "Degelill and Lagerman," a ballad from Korpo about two lovers who defy society. We especially enjoyed the fiddle work during the instrumental bridges and the powerful and high pitch soaring of Jenny's voice. It is incredible to see and hear her do this on stage as well. Two fiddle-based instrumentals are joined with other special and digeridoo effects in the "Minuet from Jeppo / Polska" that follow.

Gjallarhorn is actually very varied in their style of music. What has influenced the group's sound over time?

Everyone contributes with their musical background. The places we go to have an impact on us sometimes—Australia, Iceland—as seen on last album. The next album will probably be influenced by my research in Norway besides the Swedish speaking Finns' musical tradition.

"Come Holy Spirit," a chorale from Mora, Dalama in Sweden is sung almost a capella. Jenny's crystalline voice soars above everso light accompaniment and carries the entire melody of this obviously religious hymn. The upbeat folk number "The Water-Sprite and the Maiden," a ballad after Hilma Ingberg from Pojo about the mutual attraction of nature-beings and humans, romps with layer upon vocal layer joining robust instrumentals. "Su Ru Ruskadirei" is a lush vocal number with layers of choir swirling over Jew's harp and light percussion. The Celtic flavoured "Mountain Haunted," the mountain-folk call a fair young man, is dominated by fast-paced fiddles and varied tone percussion until the digeridoo and an array of female voices introduce Jenny's stunning lead vocal. Her voice soars well above the digeridoo—producing the call in the song's description. A lovely fiddle-based instrumental concludes the track and blends nicely into the "Oravais Minuet."

Please explain the various sequences you go through when writing your music and tell us a bit about the studios that you use in different stages.

I start with research in archives, sometimes I spend weeks or months at a time going through tapes and notes, It usually takes one to two years before potential material for a new album is collected and composed. We work together in the arranging process, but I do the main structure and present it to our viola player so we can do harmonization together before the rhythm section is added.

In the studio we work as a team in sessions until the material is ready, we don't work with tight hour limits, because this type of sessions can't be made within a certain number of hours a specific day, but rather when we feel it's right to record something. We have recorded all our material in the Martin Kantola Audio studio near Vasa on the western coast of Finland. Martin is really an expert on acoustics, and on recording acoustic instruments, and the studio is large enough for using the natural echo and delay of the recording hall as well.

Sara Puljula, my friend at the Sibelius Academy plays the double bass on the new album. Wincent Högberg has co-produced the percussion. When it comes to style and harmonization, we produce everything ourselves together with Martin. The fact that everything is acoustic on the recordings is a result of us being very spontaneous and having a lot of fun while inventing new sounds all the time.

Do you have a career or work outside music?

No we don't, not any one of us. We all work with music. I do some teaching with vocal groups, and some composing, but not much. Martin is a sound engineer with a studio. The others are freelance musicians and teachers like me. The longest time I have ever worked with something else was two months when I needed fast money for my hardangerfiddle, I worked in a mall at the music department, I felt like a fool, just could not keep up that commercial smile for very long. I don't think I did very well at the counter either!

Please tell us what you think about your live performances and the audience's reaction to your on stage personna.

Total focus. In the music, that's what it is. I might not be the right person to ask about that, being on the stage all the time, but the usual reaction I feel from the audience is immediate presence and interest mixed with the feeling of curiosity: "what are they doing, what is happening?" Emotions seem to be involved. For most people it seems to be something they have not heard before.

The dance polska from Sweden entitled "Dance a Little ..." is sung lightly and everso evocatively over Jew's harp and percussion. The fiddle parts perfectly compliment Jenny's lead and harmony vocal layers. "Hjaðnigarima," an Icelandic rune poem about trolls, giants and witches, with richly produced vocal layers varying from soaring high pitched almost-screams to whispers, is dynamically performed and highly enjoyable. "Dolphin Calling" is certainly the standout track of Sjofn. The band blends captured sea, whale and dolphin sounds with traditional percussion to produce the backdrop for Jenny's most lovely lead vocal part. Her widely varied selection of harmony vocals add a lovely texture to this stunning jazz-influenced track. She can really soar!

Our final question: how has the internet influenced your musical career and the promotion of your music. Do you think that your web site will bring you many new fans?

It is very helpful when it comes to getting people informed fast, festivals and reporters can find what they want there, and it is definitely a good tool to give new distributors a proper picture of our business. The web site has definitely become our link to the fans, and yes it has brought us new fans and many fantastic letters.

Martin: The internet is actually the one thing that has given us the freedom to work as our own production and recording company, so it has had a lot of influence. We can reach out to all the corners of the world.

From my point of view, our web site does not really bring fans, but like Jenny said, works as a two-way link between the band and our friends all over the world. I'm trying to make a place where you can get a good picture of what Gjallarhorn is all about, in text, pictures, video and sound.

I'd like to add—to the Napster debate perhaps—that if an independent band like Gjallarhorn could find a way to get a very small amount of money every time a full MP3-version of the album was downloaded, or copied, it would be a fantastic way to distribute our music. Say $1-$2 USD per download, or something similar.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Sjofn album. Read further reviews and order the album from amazon.com here. The band's earlier album Ranarop: Call Of The Sea Witch is also available at amazon.com. Read reviews and listen to soundbites here. While several of the tracks—"Dolphins Calling," "Hjaðnigarima" and "Su Ru Ruskadirei"—will have universal appeal, Gjallarhorn's latest recording will be most appreciated by world music enthusiasts and those that have seen the band perform live on stage. Explore the soundbites at their website; worth a journey, the album is a very nice listen!

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