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'Music can break boundaries, but it can also create borders'

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'Music can break boundaries, but it can also create borders'
Owe Ronström. Photo: owe.ompom.se
06:59 CEST+02:00
The Local contributor Rupali Mehra interviews musician and ethnologist Owe Ronström, who was recently awarded the title of Riksspelman – a badge given to master Swedish musicians – for his contribution towards preserving folk music in Sweden.

When it comes to music, Owe Ronström's energy and passion is infectious. He can get everyone in the room tapping their feet in moments. The musician and ethnologist is a strong believer that music is for everyone, and cannot be the repository of an elite few. As we settle down for the interview, Ronström goes back in time to how it all began.

For the first time in 71 years a Gotlander has been awarded the title of Riksspelman. Tell me about your journey: what got you interested in music?

My mother liked to listen to a trumpet player who played a very special song that was composed by Svante Pettersson, one of the three other people from Gotland who have been awarded Riksspelman. He wrote a song that was elected the centennial best Schalger.

That song was played on a trumpet and so my mother sent me to learn the trumpet. That did not work out well, so I changed to played the trombone. That too didn't work out well. So my two brothers sold my trombone without my knowledge and bought a guitar for me. Here in Gotland, as a child I heard traditional music of different kinds, but I never really reflected on that because it was a part of everyday life. The thing we had reflected on was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones because that music was really different. We wanted to do something similar, so the guitar came home and we started to pick tunes on it. Then after moving to the mainland [Stockholm] we met a lot of people who could really sing well, so we thought let's give that a try as well.

In Stockholm my Russian teacher, who was just seven years older to me, was also a musician. So we would play blues on the piano. Then we thought, why don't we start playing Russian music? We went to the rector and the school bought us five or six instruments but we had no clue how to get started. So we went back to the music shop and the shop owner introduced us to someone who could teach us. It was that simple!

In January 1973 this person called and asked my brother and me if we would like to be a part of their band Södra Bergens Balalaikor. At that time it was a really famous band and we were touring all over Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. So from one day to the next I was suddenly part of this orchestra even though I didn't know much. So I practised a lot even with bleeding fingers.

I often use the term 'sliding on a banana peel', because you don't know where you will land. So I slid into this banana peel and landed up touring in a bus with really good musicians. One of them was a Danish guy who played music from Romania and Hungary and Yugoslavia. The other guy was a Swedish fiddler. They said let's go to this fiddlers gathering, which was not a festival or competition or concert, but just a place where people met and played Swedish folk music.

There were some 20,000 people out there. I had never heard such amazing music. So in a sense a whole new world opened to me. From then on I started to play the violin really eagerly. I also started to dig deep into Russian, Slavic and Swedish music. It was a very special period in Swedish history.

Our band which had 30 people had its own place. It became a hub for all sorts of creative, crazy people; musicians, artists, painters, people working in circuses, dancers, composers, directors, filmmakers. In many ways it was an artistic tumbler.


Owe Ronström on stage. Photo: owe.ompom.se

You have got an interesting career as an ethnologist and a musician. How do you manage the two worlds, or are they both intertwined?

That is an interesting question. In my early days we toured with a band called Orientexpressen. We became the most hard-working band in Sweden because we played even more than musicians in a symphony orchestra. We played 300 gigs a year, while having full time studies. We played all over Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Holland, Bulgaria. We also introduced Hungarian musicians, Bulgarian musicians, musicians from Georgia and Yugoslavia in Sweden through our touring. So most of our studies were in the back seat of the tour bus.

Interestingly, nearly all of us eventually became ethnomusicologists. But over the years it became difficult. Because if you love something and get too near to study it, the love dies in some way. So I quit studying music and went into other things and kept music more as a precious thing that I can do myself. Then I became an ethnogerontologist or a person who studies ageing. Then I studied heritage politics and island studies. Now I just like to enjoy my music.

In 2013 you performed the Belle Sounds concert, one of the world's largest live concerts. Tell me a bit about the idea

That was an amazing project. Musicians have a joke that says that (Richard) Wagner's music is better than it sounds, because it is so full of meaning that you cannot actually hear. Sounds ironic, but the same goes for Belle Sounds. We wanted to explore, what music is and where the border is of what you can conceive as music. So I conceptualised the idea and worked with one of the most famous Swedish composers.

We had no idea of the result. So in many ways we were exploring the borders of sound and music. Also the sound of bells connect us to the oldest of sounds. This is the oldest instrument that still sounds the same. In some way we can listen to the sounds that were heard in the 14th century. There were also more layers of meaning connected to Belle Sounds. The idea was to show that small places (like Gotland) can have big voices. For the project I had to recruit 350 volunteers. We taught them to record with smart phones, which was a new technique for us then. We had a person placed in every church with a slip of paper counting the seconds. Each one used a clock with the exact time they had to ring the bell. Of course nobody could be in contact with each other and there was no physical presence while conducting because there was no place to be seen or heard. So we conducted the whole thing in the studio. And a volunteer broadcasted the live sound from their smartphone using an app that could transform the smartphone into a broadcaster.

This was the largest ever live concert. We put more than 140 live streams together, which is a lot more than the number of live streams used in the Olympic Games. Belle Sounds was the biggest live project ever done on radio. To make this happen we had to include so many specialists. And we found almost every person we needed here on Gotland. So in a way it also showed the competence of the people here, that we can do great things.

So in many ways it was the combining of technology with tradition, using one of the oldest sound, like the bell, with a new technology like the smart phone?

Yes. You have an old form connected to very new ways. We couldn't imagine the result when we started out. I envisioned the concert in three parts, a common Classical form. The sound was so moving that there were many people who started to cry listening to Belle Sounds.

Later on when I saw the emails, we got thousands of emails from everywhere. Most of these messages were about the emotions people felt that connected them to something of the past. Belle sounds was awarded an international prize [the 2014 Prix Italia]. It was broadcast in 12 countries with five million listeners across the world.

There has been an attempt to revive traditional Swedish music and traditional musical instruments. For instance bagpipes are usually associated with Scotland or Ireland, but Sweden also has an almost forgotten history in bagpiping. What has been your association in trying to revive it?

We know there were bagpipes here in Sweden in the medieval ages. In fact one of the first portraits of a bagpiper is from Gotland. My professor in ethnology had found out that there was one person who could handle a bagpipe in the 1940s. When he talked to musicologists, they however said that there had not been a bagpiper in Sweden since the 16th century. But actually there were in a few places.

So a few of us thought maybe we could revive bagpiping by learning how to make bagpipes and the reeds, which is the most difficult to make. Two years later I went to Bulgaria, one friend went to Galicia in Spain and another went to north Sweden. We learnt how to make bagpipes. Then we held a bagpipe festival in that same village where the last person who played the bagpipe lived. During the concert so many people came up to us and said, “this piece here, can it be for a bagpipe? We have had it in the family for so long, maybe 200 years”. Nobody really knew what it was. So we collected these pieces, made an instrument and made copies.

Today there are some 1,500 really good bagpipe players and about ten good instrument makers. All this from nothing! There was a very popular Swedish band called The Heathens. They toured across the world and made the Swedish bagpipes really popular. So it was amazing to be part of this journey.

Is there a revival of folk music in Sweden and across the world and do you see music from different countries cross-pollinating?

Yes, yes. The Swedish folk music revival couldn't have happened if a similar revival was not happening at almost the same time in other western and non-western countries simultaneously. In the 70s we got invited to play by bands and festivals in other countries and we also invited others to Sweden. So there was a whole new infrastructure supporting each other.

I landed in Hungary in the mid-70s and there I found that the artists were just the same as us, even though they spoke and played differently. It was a group of people who were urban, well educated men and women in the 20s, going out in the villages, doing fieldwork and learning folk music. So it was part of the same movement. So we opened a track between Budapest and Stockholm and had so many musicians and dancers go back and forth.

Other musicians did the same thing with Ireland and Germany. There was also a serious music revival in the 70s and 80s in East Germany. In fact that was the generation who started the process that led to the break down of the Berlin wall. The revival in the 70s was a really important phenomenon.


Owe in Gotland. Photo: owe.ompom.se

As a director of the Gotlands Balalajkaorkester one of your efforts has been to involve not just musicians but also people who have not had prior training in music. What is the idea behind this?

I think part of the joy is the interaction with the music itself. The idea is not to have people socialise with each other but with the music. That experience may not be very well known to you, but when you are playing an instrument for hours it can intoxicate you. I always say this; there is so much to learn in this world, and we can learn by doing things ourselves. But so many people are taught that they cannot do something and it is not meant for them. This just closes them down. The Gotlands Balalajkaorkester is about telling ourselves that we can do it, you can do it.

Globally we are seeing a shift to the right today, and in some countries even far right. This is happening almost simultaneously across the world. When borders gets tighter, can music still break boundaries and bridge differences?

The answer is of course, yes. But on the other hand music can also create borders. My teacher, one of the great Swedish musicologist Jan Ling, always said “you must understand that music can be the best of things but you can also kill with it”. So music is a sort of space where you have to decide how to use it. There is nothing in music by itself that will do something unless you let it happen. You are the agent.

So if music can bridge differences, you must want it to. Music has been used to tell people that they don't belong. For example, classical music has been used a lot to tell people like me, no you can't do it. This is not for you and you shall not be here. But you can also use music in another way. In my band Orientexpressen, for twenty years we experimented with making music with school children and not necessarily for them.

In the 80s and 90s Sweden was very well known worldwide for being at the forefront of musical animation. Today there is almost nothing left of it. But it was thought by many as a great way for people to interact with music. We played a lot of Balkan music, including some wild Bulgarian music, but interestingly the kids they never reacted to the fact that this was strange music or music in a different language. They always reacted to it as, “wow! This is wild and happy music”.

One of the best responses we got was from a nine year old. After hearing the music he came up to us and said, 'wow you are better than Batman!' [Laughs]. And we used that as our logo! Better than batman! We always wanted to connect with the people, not just kids but grown ups as well.

Rupali Mehra is an independent journalist and communications consultant. She has worked with several Indian and international news organizations including Reuters. She can be reached at rupaliatwork@gmail.com. Tweets @rupalimehra

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