The circumstance was Vasa Drängar’s 20th anniversary celebration and concert on May 22. The pomp was kept up by Dean Gottschalk’s proud snare drum in some of the rhythmic songs at the concert, and by the choir, singing its roaring Swedish snaps songs at the party later in the evening.

But let’s start from the beginning. In 1996 seven guys, members of the Nordic Lodge #708 in Atlanta, met to practice a few songs. They were asked to sing at the upcoming crawfish party. So they did. And after singing a couple Swedish folk songs and a few snaps songs (that included the drinking of a snaps or two) they felt they wanted more — singing. So they continued practicing, took the name “Vasa Drängar,” and started to sing at every possible Swedish and Scandinavian event. At first they sang in Atlanta only, but later on they traveled and sang out of town, such as in Thorsby, Alabama. Thorsby was founded by Swedes from Värmland. They eventually established their own Swedish festival — to which the Vasa Drängar were invited to entertain.
For 10 consecutive years the group performed in Raleigh, North Carolina, at its annual Scandinavian Christmas Fair. The Vasa Drängar always looked forward to this first Saturday in December — and they had a lot to do: the opening ceremony with national anthems, a concert of their own and the Lucia celebration. And most of all, they were full of expectation for the Christmas party in the evening with their hosts, Rae and Jim Gulick.
Four years ago the Vasa Drängar went up to New Haven, Connecticut, to participate in the AUSS’s (American Union of Swedish Singers) convention together with singers from all over the United States. The men were specially invited to perform at the first night’s gathering. They did pretty well, reinforced when they over heard a singer in the audience say, “Now I have to go home and practice …”
Twice the group has been chosen to sing the Swedish national anthem at the openings of new IKEA stores, first in Atlanta and later also in Charlotte.

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Twenty years wiser, stronger, better
Now, 20 years later, three of us who started Vasa Drängar are still with the choir: Sten Ekberg, Dale Nordin and myself. Our repertoire has grown from about 10 songs in 1996 to 216, in 10 languages.
As we thought about how to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we decided to give a concert and then travel to Chicago to attend another AUSS convention. We soon realized we could not afford this so we started to look around for sponsors. And thanks to Scandinavian Festival, Nordic Lodge, SWEA and private donors we were able to go ahead with our planning.
We engaged a nine-piece ensemble from our Atlanta Balalaika Society, including the maestro himself, David C. Cooper on the balalaika, Angelina Galashenkova-Reed on domra and Alla Melnik on the Russian buttoned accordion called bayan. From the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, we brought over tenor Niklas Björling Rygert to sing with the choir and perform a number of solos accompanied by pianist Gabe Granitz. Niklas got international attention for roles in Wagner operas and has been singing regularly with renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. Yes, if you wonder, Niklas is my son!
The concert included Swedish, Russian, Italian, Norwegian and American songs as well as balalaika ensemble solos and it all went extremely well. We enjoyed a standing ovation and had to sing two encores. I am very proud of the singers! At the party afterward, we could all relax and enjoy good food and drinks. With lots of snaps songs!

By Göran Rygert
Photographs by Pam Minton

Vasa Drängar in action (L-R): Adrian Popescu, William Nestor,
Jay Lutz, Erik Kind, Sten Ekberg, Dale Nordin, Hans Hörnfeldt, Jim Gulick, Sven Lovegren, Magnus Edlund and Kirill Chernoff. Göran Rygert conducts, Gabe Granitz is at the piano. Photo Pam Minton

Soloists Niklas Björling Rygert (right) and Jim Gulick in the Russian song Smuglyanka. Photo Pam Minton

The Atlanta Balalaika Ensemble (R-L) as they sit: David Cooper, Kirill Chernoff, Dean Gottschalk (percussion), Alla Melnik, David McCullough, Irene McCullough, Jan Rygert and Angelina Galashenkova-Reed. At left on contrabass, Göran Rygert. Photo Pam Minton

Vasa Drängar’s president Sten Ekberg presents a plaque to conductor and founder Göran Rygert. Photo Pam Minton