It is sometimes an advantage to come from a small country, a small community and yourself be a minority. Annbjørg Lien (26) is a minority. She looks like a top model, has the whole world as her workplace and is an élite Hardanger fiddle soloist.
If she had lived in a larger country, she would probably have been a crossover monster and long since have recorded her “....plays music by candlelight” CD. Then she would really have done what she was accused of at the beginning of her career, i.e. been a traitor to her roots. Annbjørg Lien’s roots lie in Sunnmøre, an unforested region of the country with minimal folk music traditions. Naturally, this is the centre of the Norwegian furniture industry and naturally this is where Norwegian stubbornness originated. Annbjørg Lien decided as a child that she was not going to allow any arbitrary zip code to determine her interests.
Today Annbjørg Lien is the most prominent ambassador for the Hardanger fiddle after becoming a star overnight in a TV show when she was seventeen. Her first CD, Annbjørg, was released the following year, and the traditionalists reacted predictably to her experiments with jazz arrangements of folk music. Just imagine, a Hardanger fiddle, drums (!), electric guitar, synthesiser and saxophone, all at the same time! She had sufficient musical ballast to withstand the critics. She had been learning violin at the municipal music school since the age of five and the Hardanger fiddle since she was seven. As she advanced, she had to choose her instrument because the techniques were so different. Annbjørg and the Hardanger fiddle gradually became an item. At the annual Norwegian Folk Music Championships, she won fifteen prizes in a row in the C class for musicians between the ages of 8 and 18. When you are eighteen, you are allowed to enter the B class, unless you accept the challenge and aim for the élite class. She accepted the challenge and was the first female fiddler to win for many decades.
She became used to the adjectives “first and only” being attached to her name. On her second solo CD, Felefeber (Fiddle Fever), she was a pioneer once again, this time playing religious folk songs accompanied by church organ and guitar. Since she comes from a region with no strong ties to traditional music, the music has always been more important than the stories behind it. She has been apprenticed to fiddlers like Hauk Buen who believe improvisation and musicality to be as important as tradition and history. When she began to compose herself, she was audibly influenced by contemporary music, but never forgot her roots. On her most recent CD, Prisme (Prism, Grappa 1996), she allows the music to be coloured by the literature that affects her, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories, and the fact that folk music is actually World Music.
As one of the official Olympic musicians in 1993-94 as a member of the Bukkene Bruse (Billy Goats Gruff) trio, she was an ambassador for Norway at the time when the Hardanger fiddle actually became a world language. She has played in Bhutan and Sri Lanka, in New York City and Bosnia, and had one of her most impudent jam sessions with six drummers and a flautist from Lagos. When she has “ambassadorial meetings” with the Chieftains from Ireland or Catriona McDonald from Shetland, they discuss between gigs how to further promote the cause of folk music. And they have only just begun…