To preserve a tradition in music, one must pique the interest of the up-and-comers out in the field. For folk music in Denmark this process would seem to be well under way; there is a steady stream of working musicians coming out of the conservatories there who have embraced their traditional folk music and adapted it into other realms.
Take, for instance, Zar, a top-notch example of this trend: a band that has come forth with a polished folk style that is quickly attracting a following in the music's niche scene. In Copenhagen I had a chance to sit down with Andreas Tophøj, the group's fiddle player, to rap about the traditional scene in Denmark, his own personal tastes, and life as a working musician in general.
Andreas's beginnings as a musician stem from Denmark's unique after-school system. It was at one such "efterskole" where he was allowed to cultivate his talents and where, after first balking at the instrument, he was inspired to pursue the violin thanks to the encouragement of a fellow musician. "She told me about this guy Harald Haugaard, who she had as a teacher," says Andreas, explaining that the accomplished educator, "was definitely the one who really kicked me in my behind. He was such a big inspiration; he had tons of energy."
In a cross-cultural twist, Andreas started getting into American bluegrass music. While studying in the States at Berklee College of Music, he was able to cruise through the various scenes around the country, soaking in all the roots music he could. "I think, actually, Michael Cleveland is my big icon. But there are a lot of good cats. I started being very much into Ricky Skaggs and his band, and a little bit into Alison Krauss and Union Station."
This connection makes perfect sense, of course, as bluegrass was in part an import from Northern Europe. Yet the music also allows for improvisation over the melody, an influence bestowed from the jazz tradition. It's no wonder then why Zar decided on Gary Paczosa to mix Der Uraender en Ild (A Fire is Burning).
Tophøj's playing on the award-winning album sweetly complements singer Sine Lauritsen's soothing melodies. Listening to the instrumental "Kontraserjre," the third track, his crisp mastery of the folk modes is evident. Altogether, the music on the album is a sumptuous blend, pop and trad, like a warm cup of late morning chamomile tea in a Copenhagen café.
When I asked him about the attention the band was getting of late, Andreas commented, "Zar has potential for being a little bit bigger than traditional Danish music. But winning that award [with Zar] was actually pretty intense. I didn't think it would be that big a deal for me personally. But, when we won it, I remember being very happy to put it mildly."
Along with Zar, Andreas is also active in two other more straight-forward traditional acts, Basco and THG, which keeps him busy gigging on and beyond the festival circuit. He has played up and down Europe from Norway to Italy. And when not performing, he teaches, passing down the goods and starting the cycle once more.