Local musician plays, carves rare Swedish key fiddle
Failed violin lessons led Bill Dahl onto a new musical adventure: the nyckelharpa.
The traditional Swedish instrument is a “key fiddle,” originating as early as the 1300s.
“I tried to learn the violin at 60, but found out old guys can’t hear,” he says. “Sixty-year-old guys often get the delusion they can play violin and sadly persist in that delusion.”
Dahl, a member of Loon Country Carvers, knows of only two people in the nation who handcraft the 16-stringed, wooden instrument.
He’s one of them.
“Nyckel” is Swedish for “key” and “harpa” is a generic word for “stringed musical instrument.”
The modern chromatic nyckelharpa has 16 strings, four of which are played with a short bow in the right hand. The remaining 12 strings vibrate sympathetically, giving the instruments its unique, resonant sound.
It also has 37 keys arranged in three rows. Much like a piano, when a key is pressed with the left hand the small, wooden post comes into contact with the string.
“It’s arranged just like a piano,” said Dahl.
Even the tonally deaf can play the nyckelharpa and play it well, Dahl explains, because the keys are exacting.
“It’s kind of a cross between an accordion and a violin,” he said.
Nyckelharpas were on the verge of extinction, but made a resurgence in the 1960s with the renewed interested in folk music.
Today, there are roughly 10,000 nyckelharpa players in Sweden and about 175 in the U.S. Minnesota boasts the most in the nation with its dozen nyckelharpa players, including Dahl. They mostly reside in the Twin Cities area, but Dahl joins them for performances.
Known as the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag, the group formed in 1998 to practice and perform Swedish folk music. Their repertoire is drawn mostly from folk tunes in Uppland, Sweden, where the nyckelharpa tradition has its roots. The group is affiliated with The American Swedish Institute.
In performance, members of the group wear folk costumes modeled after clothing worn on special occasions in the 19th century. Their special events and guest-led workshops are posted on their website: www.tcnyckelharpalag.org.
Every June, Dahl travels to Nisswa for a three-day Scandinavian Folk Music Festival to perform and dance.
He describes himself as a “reverse snowbird,” moving north in the winters from St. Cloud to his cabin near Mantrap Lake when he had sled dogs. Now he and his wife spend their summers in Park Rapids as well.
Dahl, a retired boatmaker, began making his own nyckelharpas about 15 years ago. He’s handcarved a dozen of them, so far.
“I’ve always liked music, so when I retired I decided to make a violin,” he said.
He bought a book and took lessons from a fellow in Brainerd.
“And, by God, I finished one. It’s not a great violin by any means,” he said.
He gave it to his wife and she still plays it to this day.
When a Swedish musician brought a nyckelharpa maker to Minnesota, Dahl spent two weeks learning how to craft one.
“He provided me with a set of plans,” Dahl said. “I had to build six before I found one I liked.”
Dahl carves the nyckelharpa’s body out of spruce. He boils the wood and bends it over a pre-formed mold to form a curved, cylindrical shape.
Spruce is a soft wood, but it’s difficult to carve, he said. It has a really long grain that wants to push the carving knife off course.
Dahl fashions most of the moving parts from maple. He even constructs his own curved bow, using horse hair.
He has sold some of his creations through the years.
“For a long time, I built one every year, but then I didn’t have time to play,” he says. “I’m more interested in playing.”
Tuning the instrument can be challenging, Dahl says.
“Some blame the Japanese for the nyckelharpa’s resurgence,” he jokes, pointing to his Seiko electronic tuner which makes the process easier.
“As it turns out, I’m one of the 10 best nyckelharpa players in Minnesota...because there are only 12,” Dahl quips.