by Rita Leydon ©1998
I set my alarm for five a.m. to get myself to Stockholm’s international airport, Arlanda, and meet Chris who was arriving on the early bird flight from Newark. The man was a sight for sore eyes as he swaggered into my field of vision. No doubt about which continent spawned this one. As American as they get. Sharp boots, blue jeans, a fine western hat, trimmed with silver conchas, a rumpled Time magazine under the arm and a nyckelharpa in the backpack. Ready for action, he was.
I had arrived in Sweden two weeks earlier and immersed myself in the nyckelharpa course at Ekebyholm, and Chris was now joining me for some serious Swedish dancing, including the Hälsinge Hambo competition. We covered our two weeks apart over coffee, me listening with rapt attention and adoring gaze as Chris narrated his musical debut at Newark Airport just twelve hours earlier. Chris is not a musician who should debut anywhere. He’s a play-at-home-or-strictly-among-friends musician. We both are.
It happened to be the Fourth of July in America and the airport management had engaged professional musicians to liven up the place in honor of the occasion. The huge terminal was infused with rhythms and sounds which pulled Chris like a magnet. After checking his bags he migrated front and center and simply allowed himself to be sudsed up and rinsed clean by the music. At the end of the set he thanked the band in his characteristically enthusiastic manner. Musicians can sniff instruments through lead walls, and these were no different.
“What’s that you’ve got there on your back?”
“It’s my nyckelharpa.”
“Nyckelharpa. Here, I’ll show you.” The towering Chris swung down his case, unzipped the bag and let in the light. A harpa is an exotic assemblage of knobs and knockers, strings, keys, tangents, and deep, dark “f” holes. It resonates rich chocolate pudding tones just laying there peeking out at you from its case.
“Wow! Can you play it?”
“Ladies and Gentlemen . . . ” proclaimed the band leader into the still live microphone, “ . . . we have an unexpected special treat for you . . . ,” and she proceeded to introduce Chris as a fellow traveller who plays this totally bizarre stringed instrument from Sweden. Chris had no time to get nervous and he was awfully curious about how the acoustics of the terminal might respond to a nyckelharpa. Powered by adrenaline and audacity, Chris gets right into that musical Uppland frame of mind with pluck and mettle.
Four tunes later Chris bids adieu and catches his flight to Stockholm. The impromptu concert caused a hundred or so harried travelers to pause. Chris was able to tell a bit about his beloved instrument and share some of his joy and exuberance. If he’d had five minutes to think about it beforehand, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
Twenty four hours after the debut we are settled around Leif Alpsjö’s kitchen table in Viksta, slurping coffee and crunching knäckebröd. We are among Leif’s numerous American “babies,” meaning our nyckelharpa point of origin is Leif. We both love him very much.
After hearing Chris’ tale, Leif announced somewhat studiously that he had his own airport story to share. It should be borne in mind that Leif is an esteemed master and Chris is an eager wanna-be. Glasses perched high on his smooth noggin, Leif began his tale: Once upon a time a fiddler was waiting for a flight at Arlanda. The flight was delayed. The hour was late. The fiddler was bored. “Ah,” thought the fiddler, “why not pass the time with some tunes?” Instantly rejuvenated at the thought, he started whistling some tunes as he got out his fiddle. In short order, Arlanda was alive with pulsing rhythms and the fiddler was happy. It wasn’t long before an ill-humored and tone deaf member of the airport silence patrol came by and dutifully pulled the plug on the happy fiddler. Doused the flame. Nipped the bud. Killed the light. “You are disturbing the peace. Put that thing away.” And so the fiddler did. Then the fiddler flew away.
Newark and Arlanda. Two airports—an ocean apart.
Published in Nyckel Notes, No.13, November 1998