Funi - Keeping the folk tradition alive
Funi are Bára Grímsdóttir & Chris Foster, consummate performers of the traditional songs of Iceland and England. They are both powerful solo singers, but when they sing together, especially in the unique Icelandic 'tvísöngur' harmony style, the resulting blend of voices - enhanced by stunning musicianship and beautiful photographic projections - is a spell binding mix.
Bára and Chris have been working together since 2000. They have pioneered the blending of English finger style guitar, with kantele to accompany the modal melodies of Icelandic traditional song. They also both play and are actively promoting the revival of Iceland’s two traditional instruments, the 'fiðla' (Icelandic violin) and the old fashioned string instrument 'langspil'.
Since 2001 Bára and Chris have performed and taught at festivals, concerts, summer schools and on radio and TV in Belgium, China, Eire, Hungary, Netherlands and the USA as well as throughout Iceland and Britain. In 2009 they started the first degree level course on Icelandic traditional music at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts.
Iceland Music Export (IMX) hand an Interview with Chris Foster:
Who is in Funi and when did the band form?
We are a duo, Bára Grímsdóttir and Chris Foster. We also work on an occasional basis with Helga Jónsdóttir and Arnór Hermannsson from Vestmannaeyjar as a 4 piece called "Mandal".
How did you (Bára and Chris) meet?
We first met exactly 10 years ago at a festival Chris was organising in England. We met up again the following spring and started working on songs together and just carried on from there. We did our first live gigs in summer 2002.
What are your respective backgrounds?
Bára is one of Iceland’s best traditional singers. She is also widely respected here as a composer, especially of vocal music. She grew up surrounded by the folk songs of her parents and grandparents in the family farm Grímstunga in Vatnsdalur in the north of Iceland and her father Gímur Lárusson in particular was also a very good lyric writer in the traditional style. Later on the family moved to Reykjavík and got involved with Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn. Bára studied at Tónlistarskólinn í Reykjavík and later did 5 years post grad. composition studies in Holland. In her role as composer and arranger, Bára continues to draw on the well of traditional Icelandic music, while as a performer she invests the traditional songs that she performs with a natural authority born out of her having been surrounded by them from birth.
I grew up in Somerset, England and got involved in folk music from childhood onwards. I studied painting at art school and then became a full-time musician touring solo around the UK and in Europe and a bit in the USA. After almost 10 years on the road I stopped touring and worked as a community artist combining my visual arts and music interests and working with other people; drama workers, dancers, textile artists, photographers and so on. I also carried on as a solo performer, singing and playing guitar and also playing bass in a couple of blues bands in England until meeting Bára and eventually moving to Iceland in 2004.
Your music is informed heavily by indigenous Icelandic folk. Many would be surprised to learn there is such a thing...what can you tell us about it?
While there are obvious connections to the traditional folk music of Scandinavia and the British Isles, Icelandic folk music is unique in many respects. I guess mainly due to the country’s geographical isolation, small population and extreme poverty compared to the rest of northern Europe until well into the 20th century. The music is almost entirely unaccompanied song based and there are several special types. Rímur (rhymes), which date back to mediaeval times, are very long story songs with complex lyrical structures. Kvæðalög are short songs using the same tunes and lyrical structures as Rímur. Tvísöngur are songs for 2 voices singing in parallel fifths with the special feature that the voices cross over so the harmony voice is by turns above and below the melody. Þula are songs for children without a normal verse structure and they are often funny, with lots of word play and quite surreal images. There is also a surviving body of old religious music, which came from mainland Europe, then passed into and evolved in the oral tradition.
You work with traditional instruments like the langspil and the 'fiðla' – can you tell us what they are?
These are the two Icelandic traditional stringed instruments. Fiðla is basically an Icelandic violin, a box about 75cm long and 20cm wide with 2 strings, in the old days twisted horse-hair, stretched end to end over a bridge, there’s no finger board and it’s played with a bow. Its origins are unknown but it probably dates from mediaeval times. It died out in the 19th century and there is very little evidence about how it was played and no old recordings or music so we have to make it up for ourselves. It has a gutsy, earthy sound, so although it can’t do a lot, it adds a nice colour to our sound palette. Langspil is more sophisticated, a member of the zither family, a bit like an Appalachian dulcimer. It´s also usually played with a bow. It does have a finger-board for one of its 3 wire strings, so you play the tune on that and the other strings are drones. It died out before sound recordings could be made, so again we have to use our own ingenuity to figure out ways to play. I think of langspil as the instrument that missed the 20th century, but could make a come-back any time.
How does Funi approach Icelandic folk?
We come at it from a perspective that it is alive, vital and as relevant today as it ever was. It is only dead when it isn’t performed. We are not into presenting museum pieces. We listen to old recordings of ‘source singers’ and dig through old written collections looking for stuff that speaks to us in our present day reality. There is loads of material in various forms if you go looking for it. We take whole songs or maybe texts, from for instance Bára’s dad, which we fit music to, either old tunes or new ones we make up, or we might take fragments and build them into new songs with instrumental accompaniment. We always try to respect and work in the spirit and style of the source, while still being ourselves with our own musical identities. Obviously Bára’s background is a crucial part of this.
What other music forms are Funi influenced by?
We listen to all kinds of stuff from all over the world, particularly singing. From blues to baroque, English folk to fado…and on and on. The alliterations started to run out before the examples.
What does the name mean?
It’s an old Icelandic word for fire or flame, but it was also the name of one of Bára´s grandfather´s favourite horses, which her grandmother wrote a poem about and which we sing.
You carry out workshops - can you tell us more about those?
We think it’s a real shame that range and richness of Icelandic folk music is so far below people’s radars, even in Iceland, so, like the Blues Brothers, we are on a mission from God to do something about it. We have a sort of motto, “Icelandic traditional music has been hidden from the folk and world music communities of Europe and beyond for far too long. It is time for it to come in from the cold.” We have run workshops based on Tvísöngur, which is a very accessible way into group harmony singing, at summer schools in the USA and the UK and we have also run Tvísöngur workshops with community choirs in the UK. We have done a couple of school tours in the UK, where we introduce the various styles of Icelandic folk music and the old instruments. We have run workshops on Kvæðalög and the old instruments at the Siglufjörður Folk festival here in Iceland. We run a folk music course at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts and also run a monthly free singing session at an arts centre here in Reykjavík. You've also recorded some albums…
We did our first album called ´Funi´ in 2004. The one we are half way through now is the successor to that. In the meantime we have been working on other projects. Bára recorded a CD of kvæðalög style settings of poems for a book written for children by Þórarinn Eldjárn in the old Rímur style. We also made a CD to accompany a show about ravens, which we devised for kindergarten kids. There’s lots of folklore and songs here about ravens. This summer we just did the music for an ‘in the car’ CD guide to Vatnsdalur, where Bára comes from. So it’s been a bit of a case of the side projects slowing down the main Funi recording. I also recorded a solo CD ‘Outsiders’, which was released in 2008 and Bára was involved in that one too.
What’s the state of play with the new one?
We’re half way through recording the new CD and we’ve issued 6 of those songs as an EP. Composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is engineering and taking care of the technical end. The big development is the step from a primarily guitar based accompaniment to the full on use of langspil and fiðla and also kantele a little 10 string lap harp from Finland. In the studio we can overdub to create combinations of instruments and a soundscape which hasn’t really been heard before, even before the instruments died out. The material is drawn from the songs we have been gradually adding to our repertoire over the years and covers a pretty diverse range of Icelandic traditional music.
What else do you both do besides Funi?
Bára is a composer and has a steady flow of commissions. She has written a lot of music for choirs, but also instrumental pieces ranging from a solo piece for violin to larger ensemble pieces. She teaches at a local music school and is also conductor of Valskór, the choir of Valur sports club. I perform and record solo and I teach guitar on a regular basis both privately and at Gítarskóli Íslands in Reykjavík. I still do solo tours in the UK once or twice a year. I also keep on producing art work and struggle to indulge my English gardening habit in our north facing Reykjavík garden.
What are your plans once the new album is released (other solo projects, tours, workshops etc)?
Well obviously we’ll need to do all we can to promote the new CD and that really eats into your time. We hope to have the full CD completed in time for a UK tour we are doing in late February. Then later on we will be going to the States in the summer, where we will be doing some gigs including a festival and teaching a week long summer school in Maryland. We have some funding lined up to start recording the music we have been developing with Helga and Arnór in Mandal, so we need to get on with that. Later on, I have a solo English tour in November.
Source: Iceland Music Export (IMX)