Barbora Xu: Olin Ennen

March 31, 2022

Zither and Yon

Listening Post 341. Like a grand journey to distant lands, Barbora Xu’s debut album Olin Ennen (I Was) explores affinities and contrasts: In her delicate-resonant voice, the Czech-born artist sings ancient Finnish and Chinese poems, for which she composes original music and accompanies herself on zithers—Finnish kantele, Chinese guzheng and guqin. Though the album’s cross-cultural view is modern, the juxtaposed elements give her songs a timeless feel as they evoke nature and humanity, often using bird and water metaphors common to East and West. Xu’s consummate talent almost didn’t take flight: When her parents insisted she take practical university courses instead of music, she chose Chinese in the hope it would satisfy family concerns and also open a path making the impractical inevitable. She began Chinese studies in Prague, won a scholarship to Taiwan, continued her East Asian concentration in Finland and then carried a kantele to China, where she also acquired a guzheng. Ultimately 10 years of preparation went into Olin Ennen; today Xu lives surrounded by nature on an island in the Finnish Archipelago. The album’s title track is a runo-song celebrating rural life, taken from the Alku-Kanteletar, companion volume to the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem (video 1). Lintuseni (Birdie, video 2) is an impressionistic ballad about lovers who have apparently spent the night together. Dating back to China’s Song Dynasty, Hé Shuǐyuèdòng Yùn (About the Shuiyue Cave Tune, video 3) is a poem-riddle about moon and river, symbols of permanence and evanescence. The lullaby Nuku Nuku Nurmilintu (Sleep, Sleep, Grassbird, video 4) seems benign today but in old times of high infant mortality was used for singing a baby to death’s path. And bidding farewell, a poet watches his old friend disappear in the river mists in Huáng Hè Lóu (Leaving the Yellow Crane Tower, video 5). In Xu’s sweeping vision, one journey leads to voyages future and past. (Nordic Notes)

Barbora Xu: Olin Ennen / I Was
Barbora Xu (Barbora Šilhanova): Guzheng, guqin, kantele, voice

Teemu Mastovaara: Cello
Immu Heikkilä: Kantele


Olin Ennen Otramaana / I Was in the Barley Field
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: Barbora Xu

From the album notes: Finnish runolaulu (runosong) music culture is a two millennia-old way of expression present in all areas of life: rites of passage, emotional expression, storytelling, healing and other spells and also daily events. Runo-singers sang, for example, heroic tales, legends, ballads, love songs, war and forest songs or lullabies. Singing runosongs was the main form of musical expression in pre-Christian society in the region of today’s Finland and neighboring areas. I found Olin Ennen Otramaana in a collection called Alku-Kanteletar, an anthology of old Finnish lyrics and ballads compiled by Elias Lönnröt. It was published [as a companion text] to the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, in 1830s.

(From the Finnish lyrics)
I was a six-year-old flower
Lively as a five-year-old
As I sat down, the earth was happy
As I rose up, valleys rose
As I stepped, the earth rejoiced
As I danced, the sky boiled
As I stood, the walls became translucent
As I walked, the forest floor wiggled


Lintuseni / My Birdie
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: Barbora Xu

Album notes: Lintuseni is a curious poem. We can assume it was addressed to the singer’s sweetheart, but since the text is very old, with short sentences and a lack of verbs, it is up to the reader to imagine the original meaning. Our guess is that the song is about an evening two lovers spent together.

(From the Finnish lyrics)
Good evening my birdie!

Dance, dance, my birdie/Dance, dance, my sweetheart
Dance, dance, my lover

Stand, stand, my birdie/Stand, stand, my sweetheart
Stand, stand, my lover

Give your hand, my birdie/Give your hand, my sweetheart
Give me your hand now, my lover

Knees on the ground, my birdie/Knees on the ground, my sweetheart
Knees on the ground my lover

Hand to neck, my birdie/A hug for my birdie
Mouth, mouth, my birdie/Full, full, my sweetheart

Raise up, up from the ground, my birdie/Raise up, my sweetheart
Raise up, my lover

Farewell, my birdie


Hé Shuǐyuèdòng Yùn / About the Shuiyue Cave Tune
Poem: Anonymous hermit from Subei/Music: Barbora Xu

Album notes: Chinese traditional poetry is famous for its multi-layered characters. This popular poem was written any an anonymous hermit in the Song dynasty (960-1279). Traditionally the moon represents stability (Chinese legends around immortality are often linked to the moon), and the river is linked to flowing time and changes. However, this poem challenges the common perception of what is stable: graphically, the Chinese character for water is at the same place in the three first verses, while the character for moon is always in a different spot. The last verse also suggests that the moon goes away, but the water keeps flowing down, and this flow is actually what stays unchanged.

(From the Chinese lyrics)
The moon lies at the bottom of the river
On the water level, the moon floats
The water flows away and the moon stays
But when the moon disappears
The water still flows


Nuku Nuku Nurmilintu / Sleep, Sleep Grass Bird
Lyrics & music: Traditional

Album notes: This song is the only traditional melody on the album — a Finnish runolaulu. Nuku nuku nurmilintu is a lullaby that has existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. There are numerous versions of this song with different melodies, melodic variations and variations of lyrics. Moreover, its functions varied. Today, Finland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but only a century ago living conditions in this harsh winter climate were tough. Infant mortality was commonplace. The Nuku nuku nurmilintu variations were used to sing the baby to the path of death. In Finnish mythology, birds have spiritual significance. In this particular lyric, the singer calls the child nurmilintu, where lintu means “bird” and nurmi means “short grass.”

(From the Finnish lyrics)
Sleep, sleep, loan bird
Tire yourself, tire, wagtail!
Make your nest in the field
Your home in the branches of the birch
Your home in the branches of the birch
Your mansion on the rocks!
Sleep, dreamy on the sleigh
On a tired winter sleigh
Sleep, as I sing you to sleep
Get tired, as I am lulling you


Huáng Hè Lóu / 黃鶴樓 / Yellow Crane Tower
Poem: Li Bai/Music: Barbora Xu

Album notes: The poem Huáng Hè Lóu was written by the poet Li Bai, about the departure of his good friend, poet Meng Haoran. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) poetry was improvised on the spot and often described particular moments in the poet’s life. Since Yangzhou was very far from the Yellow Crane Tower, Li Bai knew he might not see his friend for a very long time. For me, the poem touches on the vastness of space, the limitless nature of time, and the way distance doesn’t always exist between two people who love each other. Traditional Chinese poetry, such as this poem, used to be sung in a melody stemming from the tonality of the lyrics (in Chinese languages each syllable has a tone). The language Li Bai spoke was different from modern Mandarin and closer to Cantonese. Today we are not able to tell what melody he sang and how the pronunciation sounded originally.

(From the Chinese lyrics)
My old friend bid farewell to me at the Yellow Crane Tower
Heading toward the west
Amid spring mists he is on his way to Yangzhou
Now, there is only a distant image of his lonely sail on the vast sky
At last, I can see nothing but the Yellow River
Flowing to the horizon




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