Kata: 1902

December 8, 2021

Silver Linings

Listening Post 328. The Faroe Islands are shrouded in subpolar isolation, tantalizing mythology and stubborn clouds, but their rugged terrain and spectacular landscapes are accessible to travelers, and examples of the archipelago’s fascinating culture are just a few mouse clicks away. One good starting point is the women’s vocal ensemble Kata. 1902, the group’s second album, is an extraordinary collection rooted in mystery and history, with dramatis personae remote yet somehow familiar. Most of the 11 tracks are based on the earliest recordings of Faroese songs, captured on phonographic cylinders in 1902 by Danish ethnomusicologist Hjalmar Thuren and later published in three volumes by Danish conductor-musicologist Marianne Clausen. In folk, classical and baroque colors, the five members of Kata sing of common people, warriors and courtiers, of courageous, creative and credulous women, of communal and communicative fauna, all composing a musical portrait of a small but flourishing civilization. Humanity and nature are in sync in the forest matchmaking song Her gongur hindin heiðin (We Have Caught a Wild Doe, video 1). Individualism shines in traditional society with Klæðatáttur (Clothes, video 2), about an imaginative maiden who gives quirky names to her garments, footwear and personal items. The household women are mobilized for breadmaking in Eldurin fór at loga (The Fire Began to Burn, video 3); while the birds chattering in Krákan situr á steini (The Crow Sits on a Rock, video 4) may be plotting murder as well as offering insight into the English collective noun applied to their species. The homicide is more palpable in Sigmundarkvæði nýggja (Sigmundar’s New Poem, video 5), recounting excerpts from the legend of rival chieftains who vied for leadership of the islands more than 1,000 years ago. Listening to the choral chants, ballads and children’s rhymes from these seraphic voices—almost entirely a cappella—is a bracing, mystical and cloud-clearing experience. (Tutl Records)

Note. Today the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, have a population of 53,000. The musical portrait in 1902, however, reflects a community of just 15,000 in a time of transition, of growing economic independence, political awareness and rising interest in preserving the Faroese language.

Related post. Kata: Tívils døtur, Listening Post 136, February 5, 2018. https://worldlisteningpost.com/2018/02/05/kata-tivils-dotur/


Her gongur hindin heiðin / We Have Caught a Wild Doe
Melody probably sung by Maren Malene Eliasen, Klaksvík, 1902
Solo: Unn Paturson

(All songs performed in Faroese)

From the album notes: We have caught a wild hind and now we need a stag. We try to lure the stag by telling him about the fair maiden he will receive.


Klæðatáttur / Clothes
Melody sung by Henriette Høgnesen, Oyndarfjørður, 1902
Solo: Arnfríð Lützen

This is an amusing ballad about a maiden with a lively imagination and a strange hobby: She names her clothes and other personal items in her own peculiar way. There are many names: “halfway-round” for a cap, “warming-house” for socks, and “foot-mug” for shoes. She would have made a good entrepreneur and neologist back in the old days, when books were scarce and tales were passed on by word of mouth.


Eldurin fór at loga / The Fire Began to Burn
Melody sung by Elisabeth Jacobsen, Nólsoy, 1961

The fire began to heat, Gorsa began to knead, Brita went for water. Sigga rakes the fire, and the old woman plays with the children.


Krákan situr á steini / The Crow Sits on a Rock
Melody sung by Maren Malene Niclasen, Hvalba, 1902
Solo: Eyð Steinbjørnsdóttir

The crow is said to be one of the smartest birds in the world. Although not a songbird, it makes varied sounds depending on what it wants to say, e.g.: “krá, kra, krov, korr, klá, karra”. One who understands the crow’s language is said to learn much that will happen in the future. In the Faroe Islands it was believed that crows held assemblies and passed sentences of death. Hopefully, the crows in this version do no such thing, but it is difficult to say what they are cawing about. There are many variants of “Krákan situr á steini” and various melodies. This skjaldur (children’s rhyme) is still sung in kindergartens and primary schools.


Sigmundarkvæði nýggja (yngra) / Sigmundar’s New Poems
Melody sung by Niclas Langgaard, Sumba, 1902
Solo: Birita Adela Davidsen

“In the Faroe Islands, two chieftains live / Tróndur and Sigmundur are their names.” Jens Christian Djurhuus (1773-1853), also called Sjóvarbóndin, wrote this ballad based on “Føroyingasøga” (The Saga of the Faroe Islands) about these two chieftains. After years of strife between the two, including blood feuds, struggles for power and wealth, and especially the fight over whether the Faroe Islands should become a Norwegian tributary and adopt Christianity, Tróndur decides one last time to seek revenge. He sails to Skúvoy, breaks down Sigmundur’s door and sets fire to Sigmundur’s house. Sigmundur manages to escape by swimming to Sandvík. There, as he lies in the seaweed, he is killed by Torgrímur the Wicked and his men.



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