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April 2009 · Bimonthly

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Shiela Morris

Honing your Hambo - Part One

by Sheila Morris

Writing about musical styling is about as easy as.....talking about musical styling! It's not a subject that lends itself to words, but I'm about to try.

The Dance
The hambo is a Swedish dance that came into being in the early 1900s. It falls into the category of gammaldans, which means "old dance", though it is only old compared to other 20th-century dances, and includes waltz, schottis [the Swedish version of the American schottische] , polkett (a calmer version of polka) and snoa (a dance in 2/4 with a pivot on each beat). Hambo derives from the Swedish polska, a category of dances in 3/4 that vary widely from province to province and even town to town. And of course, the dances vary along with the music.

The best-known hambo style is the one from Hälsingland, a province in east-central Sweden. It is called the Hälsingehambo, and is the one you'd be likely to encounter at a dance in the US, though some variations have cropped up over here. For one thing, most hambos I have danced to at contra dances are played much too fast - the dancers need time to put the 'svikt', a sort of vertical dip or bounce, into the dance. As with polska, there are many variants of hambo, each province or village tending to give it the character of the local dances. Some areas change the introductory pattern, some use different steps for the turn, some even add a counter-clockwise turn.

Hambo most often consists of a försteg ("pre-step") or introductory pattern, followed by 4 or 5 turns (depending on the style and who's counting....). This all takes 8 bars of music, and then the dance starts over. The dance is very much wedded to the phrasing of the music, and most hambo tunes have eight- or sixteen-bar phrases. There's a very nice demo of the Hälsingehambo here:

(Don't be thrown by the 'funny' instrument--it's a Swedish nyckelharpa or keyed fiddle, played by a true master. Learn more here:

The Music

Hambo is three-beat music, and often consists of the basic pattern: quarter, quarter, dotted-eighth/sixteenth, or quarter, dotted-eighth/sixteenth, dotted-eighth/sixteenth. This is not always reflected in written music, often written as even eighths--teachers in Sweden rarely use written music, preferring to teach by ear so that students pick up the rhythm along with the notes.

Count it "One, Two, Three-and, One, Two, Three-and....", even though the 'and' is short, being a sixteenth. Swedish fiddlers usually only tap their foot on One and Three, which helps the dancers keep their place in the music. There is a strong stress on Beat One, to help the dancers with the svikt or 'dip'. ("Dip" is the more correct word, although the usage is a bit blurry. "Swing" in the music translates roughly to "dip" in the dance.)

To play these tunes properly, you have to feel the right kind of bounce in your body. The best way is to learn the dance, but failing that, try this exercise. Stand with your weight on both feet, back straight, knees slightly bent, just enough so they aren't locked. On 'One', bend your knees, keeping your back straight. On 'Two', straighten your knees back to their not-locked position, on 'Three-and', bend and straighten your knees. You can't go as far down on "Three-and" as you can on 'One', because there isn't time. Don't make this down-up movement too abrup. Iit should be a smooth, easy thing. Do this for a while, until you think you have the feel for the dance. Now, play a recording of a hambo, and practice this down, up, down/up movement to the music. You can even walk while keeping this movement going, but only step on One and Three.

The point of this exercise is that the bowing does exactly the same thing! It's a technique called 'polska-bowing' and is used on most eighth-note polskas and hambos. We'll get into this in depth next time.

About the author

Sheila Morris dabbled with many instruments over the years before discovering her true love, the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed fiddle),. She has traveled to Sweden several times to study with the "old masters". Sheila plays for the Scandinavian dance groups in Boulder, Colorado, and performs with the trio "Trolls", together with fiddlers Mike Palmer and Erica Rice. She teaches nyckelharpa and enjoys spreading the word about this remarkable instrument.

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