Isn’t It Good? Norwegian World


Norwegian guitarist Knut Reiersrud approaches his music with all the passion and lack of convention of some mad scientist.

What will happen if you mix American country blues with traditional Norwegian folk music? What results when a soupcon of Middle Eastern oud music is added? If that works, then how about mixing in a dollop of West African influence?

Knut Reiersrud (pronounced kin-OOTS RYE-er-throod) plays world music in the truest sense of the term. He’s not some trendy, dreadlocked white guy out to prove his real soul is black by hiring a bunch of ethnic musicians to play on his records.

When gospel greats the Five Blind Boys of Alabama guest on his album, they’re aboard for strictly musical reasons, not to self-consciously flaunt Reiersrud’s keen knowledge of American roots.


Reiersrud brings the traditional sound of his homeland to the table as a launching point--always a good idea--then adds what sounds fitting. The music Reiersrud hears as fitting seems to know no bounds, and, most impressively, he makes it work seamlessly.

In a typically experimental setting, Reiersrud performs Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre with Norwegian folk singer Lynni Treekrem and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, in a concert co-presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

Reiersrud, 36, grew up listening to American blues and let his musical imagination run wild.

“I started out playing blues when I was 10, 12 years old,” he said in a recent phone interview. “You could pick up that type of music in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s on the radio for the first time in Northern Europe. That really shocked me when I was very young.”


Nearing adulthood, Reiersrud had a growing reputation as a talent to watch in his native city of Oslo. He also had the fortune to meet many of his idols.

“When I was 18, I went to concert in Sweden to see Buddy Guy. Somebody in the audience told him they knew a kid that fooled around a little with guitar, and Buddy Guy got me up to the stage. I also met Otis Rush and did a gig with him in Norway when I was quite young. Otis Rush invited me over to Chicago, and I played with him in a small south side tavern called Theresa’s Lounge. I worked there with Junior Wells for a while too, and I hung around Buddy Guy’s club, the Checkerboard Lounge. I was really, really, very, very lucky.”

When he returned to Oslo in his mid-20s, Reiersrud formed a blues band, which recorded for regional labels and toured the European circuit of bars and clubs. He also frequently backed such American performers such as New Orleans R&B; master Dr. John and jump-blues fixture Nappy Brown in pickup bands, more invaluable experience.

Somewhat belatedly, Reiersrud also got interested in the traditional, classical-influenced folk music of Norway.


“I’m not from folk-music background or family; I’m from city, Oslo,” he said. “Oslo tries to be like other European cities, so my upbringing was more American music, American culture, I guess. You have to go to the countryside and fiords to catch real Norwegian culture, and I became heavily interested in Norwegian folk music once I found it.

“But in Norway, there has always been tradition for the jazz musicians to arrange old Norwegian folk tunes, and I was hired to do some arrangements in a jazz setting. After that I was involved with some Norwegian fiddle players in heavy-duty folk area.”

His interest piqued in different sounds, Reiersrud traveled the globe to encounter all manner of music.



On his return, Reiersrud recorded the first of three exceptionally experimental albums that looked like a mess on paper but sounded like a coming together of old friends.

“Footwork,” recorded in 1994 with the Blind Boys and a group of West African folk musicians, mixed disparate and unlikely elements (blues, gospel, classical and ethnic folk music) that, layered, were revelatory in their similarities and inherent harmony.

“Most of the music I play is not written music; it’s aural music, and it’s lived through tradition throughout hundreds of years, handed down from father to son,” Reiersrud said. “There’s so many common grounds when you talk about folk music. I like to try to use different blends and see what happens. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

Reiersrud has since recorded “Clap,” a bluesier affair, and “Himmel Skip” (Ship of Heaven), in which Reiersrud plays a duet with church organist Iver Kleive in a Denmark cathedral. He also contributed to “The Sweet Sunny North,” a pair of albums by American guitarists Henry Kaiser and David Lindley, which poke around the innards of Scandinavian folk music with more traditional instrumentation.


Reiersrud realizes the music he so astutely vivisects has limited mainstream exposure and has realistically modest commercial expectations. But his goals are loftier than any creature-comfort concerns: Reiersrud views his music as a means for greater dialogue and understanding between races.

“I like the idea of working with cultural language,” he said. “In Norway, we have the same tendency as everywhere--it’s getting more violent each year. A lot of kids have nothing to do. We have a saying: When language stops, the violence starts. Music is a kind of way to make language that stops people from attacking each other.”

* Knut Reiersrud with Lynni Treekrem and Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, perform Saturday at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $20-$27. Presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. (714) 553-2422.