Swedish Folk Drumming: An Interview with Petter Berndalen
One wintery evening in 2013, I randomly emailed Petter Berndalen, who is arguably Sweden's most famous 'folk' drummer/food blogger. I said I wanted to write an article about him for The Drummer's Journal (it was submitted, but never published). At this point, I was already a huge Berndalen fan and was profoundly influenced by his drumming and creative musical projects. In retrospect, the article was a convenient vehicle for me to reach out to the only drumming idol I've ever really had. Luckily, Petter is a very friendly guy and agreed to talk with me over Skype. Here is the article with some photos used from Petter's website, www.berndalen.se.
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Something amazing is happening in Sweden, and Petter Berndalen seems to be at the center of it.
In the country’s diverse and exciting folk music scene, drummers and percussionists play with a striking degree of subtlety, minimalism, and boundless creativity, inventing new traditions in the process. You see, Swedish folk music does not typically have percussive accompaniment, so drummers have been intently coming up with ways of performing it without trampling on the music’s intricate melodies and time-honoured traditions. (Some excellent examples of this kind of playing can be heard in the work of Olle Linder, Terje Isungset, André Ferrari, and Magnus Lundmark, just to name a few). Of course, Sweden is full of fantastic drummers, famously so in the genres of hard rock, punk, and jazz. For myself as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, two of my biggest heroes were Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake and David Sandström from the legendary post-punk group Refused.
However, Petter Berndalen is operating at an entirely different level. The Stockholm-based percussionist, record label owner, and acclaimed food writer (!) has spent the last 15 years expanding the technical, textural, and melodic possibilities of the drum kit with a musical voice that is unlike any other in the world today. He crafts his own sticks and he designed an ingenious, one-of-a-kind drum set (in collaboration with Tobias Drums) that is arranged around a plastic-headed tambourine. Petter is also a key figure in the Swedish music scene, not only performing as a solo artist and with numerous ensembles in the country, but he also records local bands and releases records through his label Playing With Music. More than anything, what Petter has done is help create a new space for the drum kit in traditional music settings. This is no small feat, considering the historical significance of folk music for both performers and listeners, often representing complex ideas about of nationhood, culture, and identity.
What distinguishes Petter’s playing is that his drumming is completely embedded in Swedish folk music, communicating its distinct musical language with a contemporary twist. Focusing on the melodic functions of solo fiddle performance, Petter’s drumming may seem slightly puzzling for first-time listeners. However, once you start delving into Swedish music and hear its characteristic play on groupings of three, things begin to make (a bit more) sense. Texturally, Petter’s sound is quite unique, featuring an ethereal twinkling of tiny bells and pitch-bending techniques on his drumheads. The problem is that you can’t just plough through a Swedish polska with a standard rock or swing beat—this isn’t the type of fiddle music that easily lends itself to the big, four-on-the-floor grooves that characterized the Celtic music craze of the 1990s, for instance. Chatting with Petter over Skype, I learned about his musical journey and the immense work that he devoted to learning and performing Sweden’s beautiful folk music in such an original way.
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[Me] I recently checked out your TED X presentation online and I think you really put it well about how groove-centered drumming could conflict within a folk music context. Is adopting a more melodically based approach a way for drummers to contribute something new to folk music?
[Petter] Yeah, definitely. But this idea came up much later. It took many years before I discovered this and started to work with more melodic playing. I was playing a kind of ‘comping’ [accompanying], you know. More, kind of beats and ostinato things for many years, because that’s the way you learn. So first, when I started at the Royal Music Academy in 2001, then I realized that, okay, if I’m going to learn this music properly I’m going to have to [study with] a teacher who knows the music. Before, I always had drum teachers, really good ones. So, I learned kind of the basic techniques and stuff, but I still didn’t know anything about the folk music I was going to play because the rhythmic structure of folk music is something completely different. So, a key thing with my journey was that I started to have violin teachers instead of drum teachers—so, I did that for many years.
What were you learning with those violin teachers? Were you playing violin as well?
No, no. I’ve never touched the violin (laughs). But, for example, rhythms exist in all the instruments; it’s not possible to play music on any instrument without playing a rhythm. So, there are rhythms all the time. I had to find a way to translate what I heard on the violin and translate it to the drums. That was the biggest thing for me because if I heard a phrase on the violin—and my violin teacher would say, ‘Oh, here’s the phrase’—it’s some kind of a slur over the first three beats. Then he started to play the phrases and I had to find ways of treating my drum kit so they sounded as similar as my teachers as possible. And this formed a totally new technique for me because I was trying to imitate something that was completely different. So, these small exercises of trying to imitate every single little phrase in the fiddle melody formed small elements, like some kind of a bank or library of phrases and different techniques. So, I started to build up my library and I knew that when I heard a specific phrase, I had maybe two or three different ways of playing it after a while.
So you’re compiling this memory bank of Swedish folk music, but you also started studying and integrating some influences from South Indian music, too.
Yes. But mainly, what I got from the South Indian music was the idea of oral-based translation, because they have to sing the rhythm before they can play it. This tradition of doing that, I used that a lot in my work because I learned to sing the melody with notes and everything. And after that, I just took away the actual notes, the pitch. Suddenly, I was singing the drum version of the tune. I just met a teacher from India for one week at the music academy and I heard of these syllables before. You know, the ‘Ta Di Ke Da Dum, Ta Di Ke Da Dum’ things. I never tried it before I met him. Then I realized, okay, I can do this on my own music.
How did you develop the pitch-bending technique that you use on the tambourine?
I was hurting my wrists, which was quite a long time ago, but I got tendonitis. So, do you see my hands [motions a match grip stick movement]? I couldn’t do it like this because it hurt too much. I could only use fingers, but I couldn’t stop playing. Then I started to play like this [motions palm down with fingers tapping] instead of playing the other way. So, I played that way for a couple of months or something, and in this period I met a drummer named Björn Höglund from the band Hoven Droven. He said that he learned from another drummer named Björn Tollin and he played in [the band] Hedningarna. Because I hurt my wrists, I put the drum on a stand and started to play on it with two sticks. Then, when I met André Ferrari, he also had exactly the same frame drum on a stand, but he played with one hand and one stick. So, it was from him I got the idea of doing that. So, that’s why I started to play it on a stand there.
The technique I use is with the left hand, playing with the fingers and bending the skin while the right hand is playing the stick. So, basically André showed me two things: one thing was that one hand could play like this [motions with fingers] and the left can also bend the skin. Björn Tollin, who I met at the same time as I met André and had lessons with as well, I bought the same frame drum as Tollin and I was studying this technique from him. Ferrari had a frame drum with a REMO Fibreskin. So, I took the drum from Björn Tollin and the technique from André Ferrari. This Tollin drum really sounds like a tabla, but that wasn’t my intention, its just coincidence because Tollin’s drum and André Ferrari’s technique of bending the skin with the wrist. Those two things put together is just a coincidence.
The injury thing was only going on for six months or something, but in that period I started to play that frame drum. But, it’s important that I got the injury; something happened there that is kind of important. It made me do a couple of turns that brought me to where I am now.
(Left: Live performance of "Huvet i Sandlådan" with NID)
Are you still playing on a more traditional drum kit?
No no no (laughs), I quit with that. I did it for quite a long time, but now it’s been about ten years since I sold the last normal drum kit. Once I got better and better playing my own kit I realized that I made something that’s kind of special. When my playing really started to become something, I realized that, okay, why not? Why can’t I play this and somebody else can play the normal drum kit? I tried and tried for many years to sound like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams; I had my Dave Weckl period and everything. But I never managed to… Elvin Jones, no matter how much I tried, was still more Elvin Jones than me (laughs). It was impossible to achieve something, and if I did achieve something, it was just a copy of something that was better. I realized that with the drum kit, it would be a little bit like a prison—I cannot go anywhere because no matter where I go, someone else has been there before. And of course, there can be a new Elvin Jones and you can come up with new things, people still do that. You can find new ways. But, it was so much more exciting in the folk environment because in the folk music scene, nobody knows anything about how drums should be played because there have not been any drums there before.
It sounds like a very exciting time to be a kit player in folk music, but do you think that there is a sort of stigma against drummers in folk music scenes?
In fiddle-based traditional folk music, it’s the fiddle player that is the kind of timekeeper and groove-keeper. So, I think if you put a groove on top of another groove that’s going on, you kind of flatten it out because of the groove of the fiddle in old time music. For example, Bruce Molsky, an amazing American old-time fiddle player—if you put a drumbeat on top of his playing you’re destroying those beautiful Bruce Molsky grooves. I think maybe that’s the thing they’re afraid of. They hate drums because if I’m going to play a drum beat on top of Bruce Molsky old time fiddle playing, I have to know the music and the melody as good as Bruce Molsky does. Otherwise, I would make him fall of the road and push him in the wrong direction if I don’t know about the ground he’s walking on, I think.
One that can be very interesting thing for drummers in general is that the timing of these different types of music, like in Appalachian, Irish, and Scottish music; music from Great Britain, and also from all of Scandinavia. In all those fiddle-based traditional music, there is another kind of ‘quantized’ issue. As drummers, we learn to play quantized—we are very good with playing with exactly the same distance between every sixteenth note. But in all this [folk] music, there is nothing like that type of perfection; it does not exist. It’s agogic timing: flexible. The easiest way to talk about it is liquid time, or floating time, or some kind of ‘gravity’ timing. Because for the fiddle, when the bow is going down there is gravity; when the bow is going up, it is also because of gravity. So, when you play down up, down up, there is a difference in the timing of the bow. But, we drummers, we’re just erasing that little difference.
(Left: Live performance of the song "What What What" by This Is How We Fly).
You're really engaged in all aspects of your instrument, designing your kit, adding personal touches like the bells on the cymbal stand, and even making your own drumsticks. What has that whole process been like?
Well, the main drum of the kit is the 10” tambourine and I still use the same drum skin as Björn Tollin. Actually, every single folk music drummer in Sweden nowadays, they use that same skin and tambourine. But, the youngest guys, they don’t know about it (laughs). They don’t know that it was Tollin that invented this thing. But, my age and guys a little bit younger, we know that it comes from him. Many young drummers, they are imitating me, so they maybe say that this is the Petter drum and try to play the same way as I do. But, it comes from Björn Tollin; I think it’s important to tell where you’ve gotten everything from. The 10” tambourine, that’s the main drum; that has been the only thing there since the very beginning. Everything started from that drum. Everything you hear when you listen to me today, everything started with that. It’s a really mass production drum; it’s very cheap and it’s extremely good.
Are all the drums single-headed on your kit?
Yes, except for the snare drum. I have an 8” snare that’s very small, but the interesting thing is that in my kit, the snare drum sounds like a real 14” snare drum. But, in my sound environment, everything is small, so then you don’t realize that the snare drum is small because the other sounds are big; you just think the snare drum is big as well. And there’s the bass drum, an 18” also with one skin.
Why with only the one skin? Are you manipulating the sound somehow?
Yeah, the skin is very dampened with gaffer tape. Acoustically it has almost no sound and it is very dry and short tone; it’s just a little ‘bap.’ It actually doesn’t sound like much at all, but with a very close micing, it’s very powerful with microphones. But the good thing is that it is so quiet that the other microphones do not take up the sound of the bass drum. It still has to have some kind of body. I had one that was just one inch deeper, but that was not as good; it was too big of a mass. The one I have now is much better and is shorter. The idea is that in the tambourine, I brought the very low and high sounds so I can play low, high, low high. And I can also leave out the tambourine and play the tom and the snare low, high, low high. So, I can play everything I can play only on the tambourine; the rest of the kit is just orchestration. That’s the basic idea of everything.
Finally, I wanted to ask about the project This Is How We Fly, which has quite the following in Canadian jazz and folk music circles. What is it like working with the dancer/percussionist Nic Garreiss and how did that whole collaboration start?
The fiddle player (Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh) got a request from the Dublin Fringe Festival. They said to him that they wanted to hear something they never heard before (laughs). So then he just contacted me and Nicky Garreiss, the dancer, and Seán Mac Erlaine, the horn player. Nobody knew anything about what was going to happen; we just met two days before the concert and then we had a 90-minute concert (laughs), but it was a total match from day one. It was a lucky combination and, for me, the most amazing thing musically in that group is the connection I have with Nicky Garreiss because he has done the big work I’ve been doing translating Swedish fiddle music to percussion. He had done exactly the same thing with American music, but he’s translating it with his feet and I with my hands. So, we have done the same thing but on our own, and when we play together, all the questions I’ve asked myself for 20 years—questions about how to understand fiddle rhythms—I can hear in his playing that he asked himself those questions and that he also got answers. The connection is amazing. I’ve never experienced it with another percussionist ever before. It’s very, very exciting.
Check out more of Petter's
music and writing at www.berndalen.se,
as well as his award-winning food blog www.husfadern.com.
Petter plays Tobias drums and Bosphorus Cymbals.