A beautiful river

July 27, 2022

Reading time: 4 Minute(s)

With their debut album, they immediately made it to the best list at the German Record Critics' Award - that's something to be proud of and, above all, to be heard. In the trio Tworna, three newcomers set new impulses for the German folk scene.
Text: Guido Diesing

Some things just need several attempts. When the nyckelharpa player Caterina Other from the Saxon town of Quohren asked her friend and neighbor, the composer Frieder Zimmermann, a few years ago if he would like to do a project with German folk songs, his reaction was anything but euphoric: "Really now?" Then came the documentary Sound of Heimat, with it for the neighbor the realization of how beautiful and powerful singing folk songs can be, and the change of mood: "Yes, we'll do that!" With singer Katharina Johansson, the trio Tworna was born, named after the old Slavic village name of Quohren.

That was in 2013. When, after a few years, the singer decided to emigrate to Sweden, Jessica Jäckel from Berlin took her place and completed the line-up, which now makes you sit up and take notice with the group's debut album. Among the thirteen pieces are many classics of the genre: songs like the "Heideröslein", "Es ist ein Schnee gefallen", "Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen" or "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär'". But something is different in Tworna's versions. Original modified harmonies, surprising time signatures, an unusual instrumentation - while listening, one constantly wavers between "I know that!" and "What are they doing there?

Photo: Ray van Zeschau

"I don't want this music culture to be lost, I want it to be lived again."

The peculiarity of the interpretations is related to the musical backgrounds of the band members, who all found their way to folk late in life. Zimmermann's earlier aversion to folk songs has already been mentioned. He works as a film and theater musician and, in addition to the guitar, brings his talent for atmospheric soundscapes and musical dramaturgy to the band's sound. Other has a classical music education behind him. "Violin lessons and parents who were in the orchestra. Folk didn't play a role there at all." And Jäckel was at home on rock club stages for years as frontwoman of the Berlin band Skin Diary before discovering the forest zither as her new instrument. "I come from rock and pop and had no connection to folk at all. I got into it very fresh because I thought it was sad that we Germans don't have that connection anymore. That's when I felt the call inside me to get into it."

The arrangements of Tworna's pieces may sound sophisticated, but to a large extent they grow out of spontaneous interaction. "It comes about very naturally and easily," Jessica Jäckel enthuses about the rehearsal work. "It's a very beautiful flow, the way we make music together. If it has a certain complexity, it's because it just happens that way." Caterina Other agrees, describing the way they work, "We don't plow around in there, but it emerges in a session flow, which is wonderful. Frieder takes the songs back to the melodies, strips out the harmonies that are traditionally underneath, and comes up with new ones. So it's still the original song, but it gets a whole different vibe. I then look to the nyckelharpa for interludes and appropriate melodic turns." The results are highly interesting reinterpretations that give new color to the familiar melodies and are also characterized rhythmically by original ideas.

Photo: Sebastian Daenel

 It contributes to the expressiveness of the album that Tworna are not afraid of pathos and drama. In the song of the reaper death, for example, it is allowed to become threatening when the forest zither proves its suitability as a rock instrument in an outburst, before a calmly bowed nyckelharp melody ends the song. Even more powerful turns out a rousing version of "Heißa, Kathreinerle", contrastingly followed by the almost spherically still "Kume, kum geselle mîn" from the Carmina Burana. Pop influences are unmistakable, especially in the singing. Many an old folkie will probably wince at some of the notes grinded from below. When Tworna works on songs like "Der schwere Traum" (The Heavy Dream), the sonic models are not to be sought in Zupfgeigenhansel or other protagonists of the German folk revival of the seventies and eighties. "Portishead was clearly the inspiration for the guitar part," recalls Other, and Jäckel confirms that she also had their singer Beth Gibbons in mind in the studio.

This is not for purists. Nor should it be. But perhaps Tworna appeal to an audience that doesn't even know they like this music yet, precisely because they themselves only came to folk songs in a roundabout way. At least that's how Caterina Other sees it: "I also play in other bands, but the way Tworna touches the audience with their songs - that doesn't happen with other bands. I find that very special. Somehow you have the German tradition in it, even if you are not aware of it. When people come to the concert and that is exposed, so to speak, and a connection is made to traditional roots that you weren't even aware of - something just happens. Sometimes people really go home differently than they went to the concert. They then have a different view of folk songs and their own tradition." And finally, it's also about not leaving the field to self-proclaimed preservers of German culture on the right-wing fringe, says Jessica Jäckel: "It always sounds so exaggerated, but we all have a small educational mission who make these songs. This musical culture should not be lost, it should be lived again. We don't want to let it be ruined by some fucking Nazis."

Current album:
Tworna (Lœwenzahn Media, 2021)

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