Askov, MN—It was a Nordic evening at the Pine County Historical Museum in Askov, MN in mid-October when the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag performed for a full house and well-fed audience. The museum’s fundraising festivities began with a traditional Scandinavian meal that featured meatballs, potatoes, strong coffee and rutabagas, which were particularly appropriate as Askov has had a connection to that vegetable since 1910. Volunteers from the museum served the food prepared by the Little Mermaid Café located in the same building. This is the former elementary school, now completely transformed and repurposed for good dining, antique shopping and experiential learning through local history and the arts.
The program was called, “More than Nickolina,” and opened when a somewhat exaggerated folk character Viktoria Borgessen entering the large auditorium with a fair amount of off-key singing and rustic folk dance moves as she made her way to the stage. After introducing herself and providing a glimpse of a type of “Olle i Skratthult” comic character often associated with Scandinavian music and humor, she set the stage for a contrasting look at music from Sweden. Members of the nyckelharpalag then processed through the auditorium and onto the stage. From this point on the group performed music, shared information about their instruments and demonstrated dances such as the polska, hambo, waltz and skottis.
According to program information, “The modern nyckelharpa is an achromatic instrument with 16 strings: three melody strings, one drone string, and twelve resonant strings…. While the instrument almost became obsolete in Sweden during the late 1800s, probably because the fiddle had become the folk music instrument of choice, it regained popularity during the 1960s and 1970s…. Sweden claims to now have over 10,000 players.”
There are about 250 such instruments in the U.S., with approximately 50 in Minnesota. Members of the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag own most of them. The group recently celebrated its 15th anniversary with a concurrent exhibit at the American Swedish Institute (ASI) that focused on the folk instrument. Performers demonstrated at the exhibit, giving ASI guests an opportunity to ask questions of musicians and providing them with a chance to really understand how the various melody, drone and resonating strings functioned.
Askov, the town in which the nyckelharpa music resonated throughout the museum walls, was established as a Danish settlement in 1906. The community calls itself the “Rutabaga Capital of the World” and continues its connection with the root vegetable through a rutabaga celebration every year on the fourth weekend of August.
Mass production of this cross between a turnip and wild cabbage came to an end following its 68-year history when a warehouse fire in 1978 destroyed the vegetable waxing system. A taste of rutabaga, however, is available. During all but the deepest winter months, visitors can purchase rutabaga malts at Lena’s Scandinavian Gifts, Coffee Bar and Garden Center on Merchants Street. Lena also offers German and Swedish coffee, brewed to the appropriate European strength, and just right to accompany a couple krumkakor. Plus the Little Mermaid Café is open seven days a week and serves the Scandinavian specialties of aebelskiver and Swedish pancakes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, respectively.
For more information about entities in this article, visit the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag on Facebook or at Lena can be reached at

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A portion of the evening of music and dance program in Askov provided information about dräkt and folk costumes. Here Mary Crimi and Elise Peters of the Twin Cities Nyckeharpalag show their costumes inspired by dräkt from Hälsingland. Photo by V. S. Arrowsmith.

Elise Peters answers some questions about the nyckelharpa with audience members following the concert. Photo by V. S. Arrowsmith.

Cecelia Hokanson shares information about playing the nyckelharpa with concert attendees in Askov. Photo by V. S. Arrowsmith.

Gaylen Hokanson gets a lesson from Mary Crimi on the correct position for bowing when playing the nyckelharpa. Photo by V. S. Arrowsmith.