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Rued: Nyckelharpa master player
Making sweet music on Swedish instrument
Manteca Historical Museum docent Victor Gully has a close encounter with the nyckelharpa being played by Manteca musician Tim Rued. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
It looks like a violin with a wide neck brace. One needs a bow to play it, but it’s not a violin. It has frets, but it’s not a guitar. And the sound that emanates from this wooden musical contraption is like no other.

Tim Rued’s unusual-looking musical instrument with a sound all its own is called a nyckelharpa.

It was this combination of audio and visual oddity that made Rued a major attraction when he played minstrel at the Manteca Historical Museum art show this past summer. Everyone was intrigued by the wooden gadget that produced quite a loud and clear sound that floated over the din coming from the crowd and from the busy traffic on the street.

The nyckelharpa which is an instrument that originated from Sweden, looks quite complicated to play. But Rued says it’s actually easier than playing the mandolin.

“I used to have very hard calluses from playing the mandolin all the time from pushing them hard. On the nyckelharpa, it’s such a light touch; it’s like a flute,” he said.

The retired postal worker, who plays more than a half-dozen musical instruments, taught himself for the most part how to play the nyckelharpa.

“I just learned from other players. I already play the fiddle – it’s very similar – and I just got the tune in my head and just practiced, just practiced. It looks harder than it is. On the nyckelharpa, there’s all these keys, and on these keys are little pieces of wood and that’s the fret,” he explained.

“It’s a wonderful sound,” he said of the music that comes out of the nyckelharpa. “You can play beautiful things on it that you can’t do in any other instrument. It’s impossible to recreate (the sound) with another instrument. It’s a wonderful thing if you play it in the right mood; you can project the joy, the sadness. I play it at weddings often, and I’ve played it at funerals.”

However, when he advertises his music for weddings and states that he plays the fiddle and the nyckelharpa, people are not really enthused.

“But when I say that I also play the harp, then they say, ‘oh, I like that.’ That’s one of the reasons I took up the harp,” Rued explained.

The music that he plays on the nyckelharpa is of the traditional genre, so the tunes that he plays on the instrument are “mostly instrumental rather than songs” that have been “handed down from player to player,” he said.

“Some of the music is 50 to 80 years old and you don’t even know where they came from. Of course, a lot of it had been written down on paper,” Rued said.

And that’s what he did when he lived in Santa Rosa where he sang with the choir. He took some of the traditional Swedish music and wrote some of the songs for the choir.

The nyckelharpa remains a widely popular part of the culture in Sweden, Rued pointed out. “When Pope John Paul II went to Sweden in the 1980s, the first time a pope went there, some of the music that was played during his visit was done on the nyckelharpa.”

Not Swedish, but loves to play the nyckelharpa
The odd thing about Rued mastering a Swedish musical instrument is that he claims he does not have even a single drop of Swedish blood in him.

“I’m very American,” he laughed. “I have one grandfather who was born in Switzerland. I had great-grandparents from Ireland and from Bohemia and Germany. And way back, I had ancestors from Texas, Virginia, Scotland, Ireland, and England. But no Swedish.”

In the 1970s, he went on a backpacking trip to Sweden to learn more about the nyckelharpa traditional music. He had been studying electrical engineering in Seattle, but soon left college to work for two years with the City of Glendale.

“I was doing fine, but then music just called me. I quit and went to Sweden. I wanted to go to a lot of other places and learn their music,” he said.

He spent a short time in Scotland, and a “little bit of time” in Norway, but it was the Swedish music that he “loved so much; there’s so much in the Swedish music.”

Rued’s love of music did not just happen. He was born with music in his blood. All his life, he was surrounded by it.

His grandfather from Texas was a musician. His father was a fiddler, and so was an uncle.

“My grandfather grew up with fiddle players,” he said.

When he retired, Rued was a teen-aged high school student. Retirement meant his music-loving grandfather was then at liberty to “travel around to meet other fiddlers.”

And since Rued enjoyed music as well, “he took me with him and I’d go and meet with musicians all the time.”

Everyday after school, “my grandparents and some other friends and myself would go and play music – with my sisters sometimes – and we’d put on little musical programs at rest homes, singing old songs grandfather taught me,” said Rued.

Soon, he learned how to play the ukulele, the guitar and the banjo.

“Grandfather used to take me around to meet fiddlers around the country. And the more I played the fiddle, the more I liked it,” Rued recalled.

When he went to college in Seattle, he “fell in with groups” that loved going to folk dances. He knew some of the college students who went to these dance parties, “so six nights a week, I’d go out to play.

“That’s how I did my social life in college – going out to all these dances and meeting all the other musicians and dancers and just playing all the time.”

Even though he held on to a job and then quit to travel in Sweden, Rued eventually realized his dream of becoming a full-time musician.

“I played only folk music, the only music I liked, for 12 years,” he said.

But once again, reality intruded. During that time, “I started developing a family and needed money, so I went to work for the post office, first in Petaluma, then in Stockton and Modesto, and the last couple of years in Manteca.”

He retired in December of 2009.

And like his grandfather before him, retirement was liberating. “I’ve gone back into music full time,” said the father of three grown children.

The youngest, who is 20, is going to Delta College in Stockton. The middle one is working in Livermore, and the oldest one is married and living in Modesto. The eldest daughter at one time, when she was eight years old, learned to play a child’s nyckelharpa that she borrowed from someone. Today, she plays the fiddle.

Folk music, though, is not as lucrative as the other music genre, Rued pointed out.

“This is not commercial music. In fact, it’s very hard to make money with folk music because it’s not as good in recording as it’s live. It’s so personal and it’s not for mass production. Whoever I play it for, I’m playing for them,” he said.

His wife, Marjorie, “plays the fiddle some,” but does not do it much.

“She plays the piano with me (on the nyckelharpa) sometimes, but she doesn’t like to perform in public. She just does it for fun. I’m the extrovert, the one who loves to play all the time, and I’m glad she likes to hear it,” Rued said with a laugh.

Oskar Sundstrom, master Nyckelharpa maker
At the historical museum art show, Rued brought two nyckelharpa instruments. One of them was a gift from a man named Oskar Sundstrom, an immigrant from Sweden who was an instrument maker.

“He gave it to me about 15 years ago because he was a very nice person and he liked my playing,” Rued said.

They met while Rued was playing the nyckelharpa at the Renaissance Faire in Novato where he played “for about seven years straight” about 35 years ago.

“He came by one time and heard me playing the nyckelharpa. He was so interested because he came from Sweden and built harps. We got to know each other and he showed me his stuff.”

Rued said Sundstrom was a master instrument maker. Back in the old country, he was a builder of church organs. When he retired, he came to the United States and took up building other instruments including the nyckelharpa.

“He made various things. He made a French-type of instrument he called hurdy-gurdy, and he also made some smaller organs. In Sweden he made the big pipe organs. He did lots of woodcarving and made lots of furniture. He loved working with redwood. He’d get redwood whenever he could and used it for making things.”

One day, the then octogenarian Sundstrom asked Rued to play two of the nyckelharpa he made and “asked my opinion about which one I preferred.” Rued played them both then told him which one he preferred.

“He was a little disappointed and said, ‘I thought the other one was better;’ then he said, ‘you can have it,’” said Rued recalling how he obtained the instrument he was playing at the historical museum art show.

Sundstrom passed away about two years ago. After he died, his wife moved back to Sweden taking his ashes with her to bury in his hometown of Iena, the area where the nyckelharpa came from.

Rued, who is a charter member of the Knights of Columbus at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Manteca, said he considers his innate talent in music, especially his ability to play the nyckelharpa, a divine gift.

“I thank God for the ability to play that he gave me. It’s just a joy to play and I’m very grateful,” he said.