There is a lot of fiddle music out there. As with any instrument, some of it is very good, some of it is bad and some of it is – let’s face it – just plain ugly. But the fiddle has suffered unduly because of preconceived ideas. Like the tin whistle, it is sometimes seen as the preserve of ultra-traditionalists or misty-eyed boozehounds – an instrument of binary capabilities, perfect for twiddly jigs or dirge-like laments but nothing in between. But unlike the tin whistle it has enjoyed comparative success as a crossover instrument. Folk-influenced violins have played an important role in everything from hard rock to avant garde composition.
So the time is ripe for a fiddle renaissance, particularly in the British folk music scene where there seems to be a niche for an artist or group who can play traditional material with sympathy and a sense of history whilst also having enough energy and artistry to push their own compositions into the limelight. It’s a delicate balance, but if anyone can pull it off then the Rheingans Sisters certainly can.
Rowan Rheingans has a lot on her plate. As well as being one third of the fantastic Lady Maisery, she has also been part of Nancy Kerr’s band, played alongside Swedish låtmandola player Marit Fält and is currently working as part of quintet Trip The Light, bringing traditional European dance tunes to a wider audience. Her sister Anna is no less sought-after and just as well-travelled. She currently lives in the south of France, soaking up the rich musical heritage of the area. Both have also studied and performed in Sweden.
Whereas most musicians simply play their instruments, it’s fair to say that the Rheingans practically live theirs. Their father is a violin maker and both sisters play his creations. This extraordinary level of engagement coupled with their pan-European musical scholarship is instantly evident on the French Bourrées that open Already Home, their second album as a duo. It begins with one lissom, melodic violin playing over and around the creaky near-drone of a second instrument, which in turn becomes more melodic. This trading of jaunty phrases owes almost as much to musical and sisterly affinity as it does to individual talent (which, by the way, is considerable).
Peyrat’s Cat – another instrumental – is more subtle but no less supple. The melody is sinuous and sedate, though not averse to flights of fancy, given free rein by the simple, spare backing. The first vocal track on the album is Mackerel, a song inspired by a tragic story Rowan encountered during time spent near the Arctic circle. The sisters harmonise beautifully over plucked strings in a way that recalls that other English sister act, the Unthanks. Refreshingly, for an album that sounds traditional even when during the bits that are not, field recordings crop up more than once. On Mackerel they take the form of the cries of sea birds and the constant roll and roar of the ocean, making an already atmospheric song even more so.
The French and Swedish influences converge on Anna’s Slängpolska Pour Une Auvergne, a spry, highly strung dance with an undertow of minimal percussion and banjo. The tautness of the musicianship here reflects the energy of the Swedish dance that gives the song its name. The banjo and percussion are stripped away completely for Dancing In The Cowshed, leaving a plaintive fiddle which is sweet, sad or uplifting, depending on your viewpoint.
The most ostensibly French track on offer here is Adieu Privas. It is also one of the most spine-tinglingly melancholic. Even for someone with practically no knowledge of the French language, the longing in the song is palpable, and this can only be due to the smart arrangement and more importantly the expressive vocal performance. It is with this song that the disparate strands of the album begin to come together, or rather you notice that the strands are not quite so disparate as you imagined: Adieu Privas is from the repertoire of Limousin violinist Léon Peyrat, who was also the inspiration behind the earlier track Peyrat’s Cat. Peyrat also collected Bourrées, and Limousin borders the Auvergne, also mentioned earlier on. Far from being an arbitrary collection of tunes, Already Home’s tracks begin to arrange themselves on repeated listens as the branches on a musical family tree. This constant interlinking of influences is always important in folk music as a way to cross-pollinate ideas, and to see it done over the course of an album is thrilling and heartening.
A reflective variant on Cuckoo uses the old song as a jumping-off point to showcase Rowan’s own songwriting, and of course the deftness of their violin playing which, by the end, is almost as lyrical as the singing. Banjo Branle gives a jolt to a somehow familiar-sounding French dance tune by adding a banjo and sprinkling of off-beat, almost jazzy percussion – the record is full of surprising little details like this. Another such detail is the repeated use of two violins together to create what is almost a drone. Sortitz Sortitz, a French wedding march, proceeds unhurriedly along these lines, moving at a leisurely pace where often the temptation with fiddle music is to send everything down at a breakneck speed or slow things down completely – feast or famine, dance or dirge. Luckily the Rheingans Sisters know the importance of occupying all the more interesting points in between.
Sjung I Stilla (a devotional hymn whose title translates into ‘sing in the quiet moments’) is another Swedish-influenced song, beginning with minimal two-note plucking and growing into a stately mazurka for fiddle. Rainy Day Polska, a tune by accordion player and composer Steve Turner, begins with representative plinks and plashes and develops into something almost like the Incredible String Band. It is one of two slightly more experimental tracks that end the album, both of which are highly successful. Already Home bows out with the lengthy Keep The Whole World Turning. Beginning with birdsong and dissonant fiddles that slowly emerge into harmony, it rides the wave of an optimistic vocal passage. There is still time for the layer, billow and peak of the extraordinary violins and another vocal refrain, reflecting the circular and cyclical nature of the song’s lyrical concerns before another one of those almost-drones brings the record to a close.
Already Home might seem like a misleading title for an album with as much geographical reach as this, but really the Rheingans Sisters palate is so broad, repertoire so interesting and their skill so refined that, musically speaking, they would probably be at home just about anywhere. Their ability to incorporate threatened or obscure musical forms into their own evolving style means that this is not only a beautiful and exceptional record but an important one.
Review by: Thomas Blake