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Two head and shoulders portraits: a woman facing the camera and a man facing left.
Emma Björling (left) and Petrus Johansson (right)

Homegrown Plus: Emma Björling and Petrus Johansson

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By now, experienced readers know the deal with these Homegrown Plus posts: we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with the duo of Emma Björling and Petrus Johansson, who perform beautiful arrangements of Swedish and other Scandinavian folksongs.

Their path to performing in the Homegrown series was rather unusual. It began when Jennifer Cutting and I saw Emma perform several years ago at the Folk Alliance International conference. Most years, the two of us attend the conference, a meeting of musicians, producers, promoters, folklorists, and others with a stake in the art and business of folk music. On our annual trip several years ago, Jennifer and I saw and heard Kongero, a four-woman Swedish a cappella singing group, which includes Emma Björling. (Find the Kongero website here.) We spoke to them about appearing in the Homegrown series, but it wasn’t possible at that time.

Four women sit on the steps in front of an ornate wooden door
Vocal group Kongero (l-r): Anna Wikenius, Lotta Andersson, Emma Björling, Anna Larsson. Photo by Sara Björkegren.

In 2020, we were delighted that another of Emma’s groups, the Skye Consort and Emma Björling , was performing at that year’s Folk Alliance International in New Orleans. (Find the the Skye Consort and Emma Björling website here.) We were also glad that two more of our colleagues, Theadocia Austen and John Fenn, were able to attend as well.  On that trip, we discussed the idea of having both Kongero AND the Skye Consort in the series.  But (you guessed it!) right after we got back to DC in January 2020, the pandemic put an end to the idea of any live music at the Library.

Thea persisted, of course, and re-tooled the concert series into Homegrown at Home, in which the artists submitted videos of themselves. Sadly, none of Emma’s bands was able to perform in the series. In fact, Emma lives in a different country than the other band members in both bands we saw her with; she lives in Denmark, while the rest of Kongero is in Sweden and the rest of Skye Consort is in Canada. This made performances impossible during the pandemic. However, as one of the foremost singers of Swedish folksongs performing today, we thought Emma might be able to perform in a different configuration. Emma has been singing in choirs since the age of six, and studied both jazz and classical music before following her heart back to the traditional music she first heard her grandfather play on the fiddle. She holds university degrees in Swedish traditional music (Royal College of Music in Stockholm), voice pedagogy, music theory, and ensemble teaching (Ingesund College of Music). Emma teaches at a folk music college and at The Department of Music and Media in Piteå, conducts workshops in traditional Swedish music, and writes arrangements for choirs and vocal groups. In addition to Skye Consort and Kongero, she is a member of Lyy and Baravox, and has also toured extensively with the well-known Swedish folk band Ranarim. Perhaps among all those bands, faculties, and choirs there was a small ensemble that could safely perform together.

Five people: a man, standing, plays the nyckelharpa; a woman, standing, plays the violin; a man seated by a small drum kit, a woman stands with arms folded; a man standing, plays guitar.
Lyy (l-r): David Eriksson, Anna Lindblad, Martin Norberg, Emma Björling, Petrus Johansson

So we asked Emma, inquiring if there was any small group she could perform with. Happily, she said yes, and elected to perform in a duo with the fabulous guitarist Petrus Johansson. Petrus is in neither of the groups we had seen perform, but he’s an integral member of Emma’s other band, Lyy. (Find the Lyy website here.)  Petrus got his interest in music from his father, who was a professional flute player. Petrus started playing guitar and bass, mostly jazz and rock, when he was quite young. During his university studies he met Emma, and together they started playing Swedish traditional music. This led to a greater interest in the guitar as a folk music instrument, using it to provide bass lines. He is a trained guitar and bass teacher and has worked at Ingesund College of Music and several music schools. He also works as a freelance musician and has played with Mats Berglund, Svante Turesson and others. We were very impressed not only with Petrus’s guitar playing, which combined techniques of guitar and bass, but also with his harmony vocals, which allowed the concert by two musicians to sound like a larger ensemble.

By now, you’re dying to watch the concert!  See it in the player below!

In my conversation with Emma, we talked about her life and career, and the different bands she’s performed with. We talked about the state of folk music in Sweden and the Nordic countries, including the support for folk music from universities and governments, and also from the general public. We also discussed some of the songs in her concert, including the process of setting to music a poem written by a member of the Swedish royal family!  Watch the conversation in the player below.

You can find both of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link and the oral history at this link.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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