YOU MAY regard it as a benign reversal of those bad old Viking incursions or, more accurately, a sign of Scotland’s ever expanding musical interests, but there has been a marked migration of notable fiddlers from these shores to Norway in recent years.
Highland player Sarah-Jane Summers is now ensconced in Oslo, Shetlanders Kevin Henderson and Mark Laurenson also live there at the moment, and the latest to make the crossing is another fine Shetland fiddler, Catriona Macdonald, currently studying the many-stringed Hardanger fiddle in its Telemark heartland.
As from tonight , however, Macdonald, who has established her reputation with two fine recordings under her own name as well as 12 years of roistering with the band Blazin’ Fiddles, brings it all back home, embarking on a major UK tour in the inspired company of award-winning Perthshire fiddler Patsy Reid and Norwegian mandola player Marit Fält. The trio goes by the name of Vamm – not an explosive scouring powder but an old Shetland word meaning to bewitch or charm, which, as its eponymously titled debut album demonstrates, is just what this tight little outfit with a surprisingly big, string-driven sound does.
The project, says MacDonald, started two years ago after she left Blazin’ Fiddles. “I’d had a great time with them, but basically I wanted to do something at the other end of the spectrum, in a smaller line-up, using my instrument in a different way, concentrating more on harmony and chords.”
She approached Patsy Reid, whom she’d known a long time, having taught her in fiddle workshops and who has since made a name by becoming the youngest player to win the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship and playing in the formidable pipes and fiddle front line of Breabach. “Like myself,” says Macdonald, “she’s someone who likes harmonies. She’d left Breabach around the same time so it seemed like serendipity.”
Looking for a third instrument, the two fiddlers settled for the mandola, or to be precise, the låtmandola, a recent Scandinavian take on the instrument, played by Marit Fält, whom Macdonald had taught in the traditional music degree course she heads at Newcastle University, when not on her current research leave in Norway. Fält, a Norwegian of Swedish parentage, now lives in Edinburgh, and plays regularly with Highland fiddler Rona Wilkie. Her mandola proves strikingly versatile, providing melody, percussive or drone accompaniments, chiming out harmonics or delivering runs that would do justice to a bass guitar.
The album sees the trio range vivaciously through largely contemporary folk material. Much of it, such as the opening Duchess of Yell reel set, or some nimble jigs, is exhilaratingly up-tempo, but leavened by the stately, mazurka-like Felgubben or the gentle Lurkas, led off by the almost lute-like plucking of the mandola. “That really rich string sound is something I’ve always loved,” says Macdonald, “and it’s something we’re using to the best advantage in Vamm.”
The 17-gig tour will be demanding in more ways than one for Macdonald, who as well as her fiddle will be packing her 18-week-old daughter, Inga – although, she says, husband Gordie is an understanding babysitter (as well as having a Cape Breton islander’s fiddle empathy).
Macdonald appears to have her hands full, domestically and musically. Apart from Vamm, she’s working on an album with Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien, and also plans her third “solo” album, on which she hopes to breathe new life into some of the more neglected Shetland tunes she has been trawling from the archives. “There are a good few tunes that have gone by the wayside and definitely need resurrected,” she says.
• Vamm play the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline tonight, Eastgate Arts Centre, Peebles, tomorrow and tour Scotland and England until 26 May. For details see www.vamm.co.uk