Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Norway’s Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra taps traditions

Norway is, of course, known mostly as “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” but if the duo that’s the basis of Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra have their way, it might someday be referred to as “The Land Down Home.”

That’s a stretch of course, but founding members Joakim Borgen and Rebekka Nilsson are determined to share their brand of bluegrass regardless. The two met when they were acting students, and they subsequently left school simultaneously after a year and moved together to Oslo. At that point, they started making music together – as Borgen says, “to escape the boredom and insecurity about what to do next in their lives.”

Whatever the reason, that joint decision gave them the impetus to explore their musical horizons. 

Joakim, who was already adept on guitar and piano, took up the mandolin. Rebekka, a skilled singer to the core, began honing her own skills on autoharp.

The pair say that their decision to pursue bluegrass kind of came naturally. “Rebekka in particular had long been drawn to Nordic folk music,” Borgen explains. “To what we in Norway call ‘Americana’ — a range of connected genres including American folk, blues, country, rock, and more. It was especially the singer/songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s that influenced her in her early life.”

Nevertheless, it was a film of all things that proved the deciding factor Nilsson brought Borgen to see a Belgian Oscar-nominee movie called The Broken Circle Breakdown. It featured a soundtrack that consisted almost entirely of bluegrass music, and as a result, the duo decided to make the same sort of music on their own. A day later, their band — HBO for short — was born. 

“The mixture of pain, tragedy, longing and hope in this film, and in this music, pierced our hearts,” Nilsson recalls. 

Ironically, the duo found certainly similarities between bluegrass and Norway’s native folk traditions, especially those sounds that connect them by way of British folk music and the traditional hymns. “The fiddle — or more precisely the Hardanger fiddle, a Norwegian version that includes a double set of resonating strings — is very central to Norwegian folk music, along with a number of other harp-like string instruments,” Borgen explains. “But above all, the human voice and the heartfelt and often melancholy melodies, with its trills and its blue notes, and the telling stories of loss and longing, is a key similarity between the two.”

Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra draws heavily on that combination of traditional music and bluegrass for their means of expression, while also trying to incorporate the essence and emotion of their native music into their sound as well.

Happily then, their efforts have gone over well.

“The Norwegian audiences have been very enthusiastic about our music,” Nilsson insists. “Norway is a small country, and needless to say the music scene for this kind of music is quite small. But we have seen that we attract people from the folk/Americana/bluegrass community and beyond. People often tell us that they love the musical combination of fun, fast, pulsating music with the feeling of tenderness and melancholia. You can laugh, dance and cry at our concerts.”

Borgen concurs. “I think this music strikes a chord with the soul of the Norwegian culture, the hardship of our history, and the beauty of our nature,” he muses. “We have come a long way since the days where over a third of our population escaped starvation and poverty and fled to America, but the underdog soul still lingers in our culture.”

In a broader sense, HBO finds a common connection that goes back several centuries. “I think that bluegrass, like most old folk music and like the early classical music of the renaissance, shares something that speaks very directly to the human soul,” Nilsson suggests. “It is simple, but virtuosic, heartfelt, but never pompous, and it communicates a longing that sits at the core of what it means to be human. Whether you long for a higher meaning — religiously or politically — or for the love that will make you feel whole, or free of the things that cause you pain and hold you down, longing is at the centre of our human experience. And I believe that this longing can be felt especially clearly in the music that springs from the folk music around the globe, particularly bluegrass.”

So far the group has made an effort to share their sounds beyond their native environs. They made two trips to the Netherlands in 2015, and another to Ireland in 2017. The latter was by plane which made transporting their instruments something of a challenge. “The airline was obviously not familiar with traveling upright basses,” Borgen notes. “It was first given a regular seat in the airplane with us, but as it would not fit into the seat, it had to be carried down to luggage and treated with special care, as we had not invested in a hard case yet.”

Fortunately, the group is making progress on other fronts as well. They’ve created five videos for YouTube, including their latest, a full length live concert, on September 15th. They accumulated a number of original songs, several of which will be included on their debut album which is due for release on November 7th. 

“We are already in the process of writing new material for a second album,” Nilsson notes. “With any luck our second album will take less time to complete than our first. That took five years!”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.