by Rita Leydon ©1996
Leif Alpsjö, of Viksta in Uppland, is a well known and respected name in the Swedish traditional folk music and dance culture—a riksspelman (national fiddler) since 1974, a nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle) virtuoso and international ambassador for our rich musical heritage. He has performed for and shared his skills with ordinary folks the world over, as well as with the King, the Pope, ambassadors, other dignitaries and such. He is the primal point in the rekindlement of interest and passion for the nyckelharpa as the “national instrument of Sweden.” In other words—he is a Swedish national treasure.
I missed him on his last swing through the US two years ago because I was in Sweden at the time, but my husband, Chris, had the pleasure of encountering Leif when he came to our regular Thursday night dance (Skandinöje dancers in Highland Park, NJ, led by Joel Remde. Chris met me at the airport on my return, and of course, we swapped experiences. He was brimming over with the enthusiasm of having experienced this person, Leif Alpsjö. I couldn’t help but absorb and internalize Chris’ extremely positive reactions. He later showed me a dance that Leif had taught—Schottis from Viksta. In this dance, the woman jumps up high in the air and lands with soft punctuation. Beautiful.
Imagine our delight when Joel announced that Leif would visit us again. His scheduled appearance coinciding with Halloween—a double pleasure for me as it meant escape from all the trick-or-treaters and avoidance of the sweet tooth mania that surrounds that event. I decided to over-indulge in Leif Alpsjö instead.
My dear friend, Andrea Larson, invited me to stay with her in her Manhattan apartment if I cared to partake of Leif’s two engagements in NYC the day before Halloween. Absolutely. Yes. No pondering required.
Andrea is a lovely young woman struggling with life in the Big Apple. Her passions are firmly planted in music—she has the voice of an angel and the burning desire to become a great fiddler in the Swedish tradition. A month or so ago when she visited us in Bucks County, we took her to the stone barn where we regularly practice our dances. As she stood erect in the center of that enormous space, fiddle perched under her chin and with music cascading freely from her instrument—we were stunned by the acoustic brilliance that resonated in the space. Our very bones rattled and goose bumps rose. Composing ourselves, we broke into a gliding Bingsjö polska, whirling around Andrea and her fiddle. She had met Leif before and shared the following with me in a note: “The first Swede I danced the hambo with was Leif Alpsjö, and I’ve been a little bit in love with him ever since.” I’m as much of a romantic as my friend and certainly understood this sweet testimonial.
The first Big Apple event for Leif was a demonstration in the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Andrea met me there. A modest number of chairs had been set up in a corner of the silent, musty ancient instrument area. I chatted amiably with a guard who told me that very little ever happens in the music department and that Leif’s appearance was highly unusual. I smiled. The room gradually filled—some folks I recognized from the dance world—one professorial type came because he had searched the Internet for information about hurdy-gurdys and happened upon this event. He thought it sounded mysterious and intriguing. A standing-room-only crowd was treated to an hour of intimate music, talking and sharing with Leif who is very comfortable and accessible. He oozes welcome and enthusiasm, has a glint in his eye and a mischievous edge, yet maintains the scholarly and serious discipline demeanor that is required both to play with focus and to carry authority. A particularly poignant piece Leif shared with us was the desperately sad wedding polska composed by Byss-Kalle—a country fiddler of the last century. Byss-Kalle had loved a maiden. The love had been frustrated by the maiden’s father who had pre-arranged a marriage with the neighbor’s son such that their two farms could be joined. Byss-Kalle was asked to compose the traditional wedding polska, and his broken heart did so. Even hardened New Yorkers—a century later—could feel Byss Kalle’s pain.
Andrea and I then retired to her home at the southern end of Manhattan—our conveyance being my Jeep. I was fascinated by the audacity and arrogance exhibited by the city drivers along my route; of necessity I quickly caught on to the push and shove required to advance block by block to my destination. A receding personality probably could not drive in New York. The city mouse was proud of the country mouse.
Fortified by a wonderful dinner served picnic style on a tablecloth spread out on the bed (Manhattan apartments can be very small), Andrea and I walked north to East 14th Street where the synagogue that houses the NY Scandinavian dance enthusiasts is located. Andrea participated with perhaps a dozen or so others in a one hour music workshop with Leif before the dancing.
I may be 100% Viking by blood, birth and molecular structure—but a bit of my soul is American West. If you see me somewhere it is likely that I’ll be embellished with Navajo silver and turquoise and wearing cowboy boots on my feet. Cowboy boots fit snugly and are a bear to get off—at home I have a “boot jack”—away from home one needs help with the pulling. This can be an amusing spectacle as the “helper” pulls me and the chair I’m sitting on halfway across the room in the process. On this evening I asked Leif to pull my boots off. He was delighted and had a better way—using the logic of physics. Turning his rump to me, he took my foot between his legs and instructed me to firmly place one hand on each of his buttocks and then push him away hard as he pulled on my boot. I was amused and followed his instructions precisely—after all, this man is a virtuoso—and it worked like a charm.
Dancing started after the workshop. Meetings and greetings. High enthusiasm. Since my Chris was not there I had to get myself into an aggressive gear so that I would not spend the evening decorating the wall. Not a problem. Several hours of nonstop aerobic dancing—waltz, schottis, Boda polska, Rättvik polska, snoa, hambo, Bondpolska from Viksta (taught to the group by Leif), etc.—requires a lot of water replenishment. It is amazing how soaked one can become, sweat unabashedly dripping off my nose in a most unlady-like manner. Andrea and I were two happy ladies, both of us equally enchanted and charmed by this music and dance despite our generation of age difference (I’m old enough to be her mother).
We enjoyed a couple of girl—talk hours before drifting off to delicious sleep. The morning broke quickly with bright sun and lots of hustle bustle on the street five flights below. I gathered myself and departed underground through the Holland Tunnel.
Thursday night. Chris and I—together this time—were eager for what we knew would be a fun evening. “Oh, it's you again!” was my greeting from Leif. As we hugged I explained that this was my dancing home—with Joel and these friends. As Chris started to pull off my boots, Leif—not missing a beat—jumped in, demonstrating for Chris his hands-on-the buttocks technique. All were amused and the evening took off from there. This was a more “homey” evening, more intimate and relaxed. Joel and Leif were already friends and Leif didn’t need to be “on” as much. He gave us a little presentation on his nyckelharpa and he taught the Bondpolska from Viksta—but he also danced with the ladies and enjoyed himself. I had two dances with him—a hambo and a bondpolska. The bondpolska starts close, with the woman facing the man, both wrists draped over his shoulders, they proceed walking on beats one and three—woman rearwards and man forwards—then continue with the energetic turns. Leif inhaled a deep swig of air as we started out and instantly became intoxicated by my perfume—commenting on its power. “Shalimar,” I said. “Ah,” he said and then a few words about another woman he’d known who also used that fragrance. Not only has he got an ear—also a nose!
Leif’s manner is one of engaging encouragement, enthusiastic sharing and solemn devotion to the traditions of his culture. As I had written in a previous article about Chris’ and my Hälsinge Hambo experience—we here in America are very fortunate in that we receive as traveling ambassadors the best of the best that Swedish music and dance tradition has to offer. It is simply a matter of keeping one’s ears to the ground and antennas tuned. Leif next heads up to Boston for a similar weekend agenda there, then he flies home to Sweden the following week. Andrea will be in Boston.
Chris and I have an interest in possibly purchasing and learning to play nyckelharpa—Chris can already play four or five instruments by ear—me, I just love the music it produces and if the attempt is an abysmal failure, it really wouldn’t matter because a nyckelharpa is such a beautiful object that if it had to live over the mantle, one could gaze lovingly at it while listening to CDs of others playing. Leif represents several nyckelharpa makers and can facilitate a purchase of an instrument. He explained to us that these are not made in any factory anywhere, each is strictly handmade, one at a time, by individuals who understand and love the instrument, just the way it should be.
When Leif Alpsjö finishes playing his instrument in a presentation, he plants a sweet kiss on its sound box and then holds it up so it can receive its own recognition—all the while smiling broadly at his audience.
Published in Nyckel Notes, January 1997