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30 years of music in Finland

by Susanna Välimäki

"It is mind-boggling to think just how much Finland and Finnish music have changed over the past 30 years."

From the Eastern bloc’s next-door neighbour to EU Member State, from Cold War to globalisation. From Walkmen and a choice of two channels on TV to digital music and the vast expanse of the Internet. From hymnal reform to heavy metal mass, from spectral music to sound art, from Suomirock to Sámi rap. It is mind-boggling to think just how much Finland and Finnish music have changed over the past 30 years.

The year is 1985, the first year of the Finnish Music Quarterly. Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union, the miracle of perestroika is born, and détente blossoms at disarmament talks between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva. Finland’s first commercial local radio stations go on the air, and rock music becomes ubiquitous. Magnus Lindberg’s orchestral work Kraft energises the classical music scene with a neo-complex outburst of industrial, junk and noise aesthetics. For a couple of years now, the Sibelius Academy has been training jazz and folk musicians alongside its classical programmes. There is progress in the air and a genuine confidence in the future.

But in that same year, the ozone hole above Antarctica is discovered, acid rain falls and nuclear power is hotly debated. Pentti Linkola, the outspoken extremist environmental philosopher, condemns the way of the world and advocates using any means, not excluding violence, to fix it. AIDS is spreading. Finnish musicians raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia, singing the anthem Maksamme velkaa (Repaying a debt).

And now, 30 years later? The new world order includes global warming and the eco-apocalypse; hunger and poverty; a global economy and neo-liberalism that exacerbate inequality; wars and conflicts; unimaginably rapid developments in information and communications technology; and a life increasingly bound up with the media. The drivers of change are the same in Finnish music as in every other sector everywhere: world politics and technological advances. To be sure, we are living in interesting times.

Above all, Finnish music has become multicultural, pluralist and technology-oriented, and all these factors are linked.

A gaggle of genres

Symphonic music and traditional opera; rock music and schlagers in Finnish, known as iskelmä; traditional folk music. These were traditionally regarded as the quintessentially Finnish musical genres up until as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. By the 2000s, this venerable cluster of cultural identity had been penetrated by more recent arrivals: metal music, rap and ethno music have thoroughly revised our concepts of what Finnish music, the Finnish psyche and Finnish life and culture might be.

At the same time, art music has become conceptually detached from classical music. Art music is no longer understood as a genre as such (i.e. classical music written by contemporary composers) but as an exceptionally ambitious way of creating music, focusing on the intellectual content of the music and how that relates to the sonic substance. This approach spans many genres. The age-old dispute about art vs. entertainment and high vs. low has shifted its goalposts yet again.

Increasingly, music is found as part of mixed media: in installations, performance art, media art, games, cinema, theatre, circus, environmental art, and so on.

The foundation of Suomirock

The foundation of Finnish rock music, or ‘Suomirock’, was established in the 1980s by musicians and groups who are now household names: Eppu Normaali, J. Karjalainen, Tuomari Nurmio, Ismo Alanko and many more. On this foundation rests a multitude of subsequent layers, performers and styles whose common feature is a prominent role given to lyrics in Finnish, drawing on Finnish literature. Musical styles range from punk to pop. We need only mention such examples as the grunge-influenced hit Anna mulle piiskaa (Whip me, 1997) by Apulanta, an astonishing success on the Finnish singles list, or Ei (No, 2003), an album by Maija Vilkkumaa that plays around dramatically with the traditions of rock music and is one of Finland’s best-selling albums of all time.

On the one hand, traditional Suomirock has drifted closer to the nostalgia-tinged iskelmä genre. Old rock stars now sing iskelmä and iskelmä singers venture into rock music; both reflect a general yearning for the past and an ostensibly simpler life. On the other hand, Suomirock has also drawn closer to pop music. Examples include the merger of art pop and experimental iskelmä on the album Kun valaistun (When I am enlightened, 2011) by Chisu and the emo-tone ballad Vapaus käteen jää (I am left with freedom, 2013) by Haloo Helsinki! The latter is the theme song in the film 8-pallo (Eight Ball, 2013), directed by Aku Louhimies, which is about disadvantaged young people in today’s Finnish society, overwhelmed by loneliness, substance abuse and concrete suburbs.


Equality is pop

Looking back, it seems incredible to remember that in the 1980s women were not considered of any significance in the Suomirock genre. There were just a couple of ‘girl bands’ on the fringes of the genre, Tavaramarkkinat and Ilona. At the same time, journalists writing about classical music made a big deal out of composer Kaija Saariaho being a woman. Remembering this quickly turns nostalgia to anguish. Improved gender equality on the music scene, in both training and music-making, was achieved on the crest of the wave of social change in which the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland decided to accept the ordination of women (1986) and the Finnish Defence Forces extended military service to women (albeit on a voluntary basis, so not exactly equal; 1995).

In recent years, the big equality issue has been that of gender-neutral marriage, commonly referred to as gay marriage. One of the most popular Finnish pop songs of the 2000s addresses this topic: singer and songwriter Jenni Vartiainen recorded a stylised electro-pop song named Ihmisten edessä (In front of everyone, 2007) about a couple whose love is disapproved of by society around them. The song received a whole string of music prizes and also a merit award from SETA – LGBTI Rights in Finland, a human rights NGO.

Language and music

Only about five million people in the world speak Finnish. Our strange language does not belong to the Indo-European language family whose languages dominate the Anglo-American, European and Slavic music cultures. Beyond the borders of Finland, music with Finnish lyrics is mainly listened to by Finnish expatriates and long-established populations that still speak Finnish in northern Sweden, Norway, Ingria and the Republic of Karelia in the Russian Federation (and also Siberia and other places where Finnish speakers were exiled to by the Russian and later the Soviet regime). Before Estonian independence (1991), Finnish music was also of interest to Estonians as a familiar brand of ‘Western’ music.

For a long time, the only Finnish music to reach a wider international audience was classical orchestral music – which of course has no lyrics.

Suomirock was keen to export itself, but this required a language change. Hanoi Rocks, a pioneer in glam rock and gender-bending, switched to English in the early 1980s and enjoyed a measure of international success; but the real breakthrough did not happen until the advent of the metal bands of the multicultural media era: HIM, The Rasmus, Nightwish and Children of Bodom. In the 2000s, Finnish music can have lyrics in English yet still retain its Northern character.

In an interesting reversal, some English-speaking fans began to study Finnish after discovering Finnish metal music in Finnish and ancient Finnish mythology. While in the 1980s and 1990s foreign music scholars and students came to Finland because of Sibelius or classical music in general, today many come to Finland because it is a haven for heavy metal.

National Romanticism today

Metal music has also entered the mainstream of Finnish popular music and is now ‘accepted’ in a way that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. The most extreme metal music styles are marginal subcultures; the mainstream includes more melodic variants such as progressive metal, folk metal and power metal, although influenced by the fiercer growl of black metal and death metal too.

Finnish heavy metal is firmly rooted in the national heritage, the ancient Finnish mythology, Symbolist art and the Northern mentality that emerges from a sparsely populated land, harsh living conditions and an Arctic climate. The emotional core of heavy metal finds strong resonance in the melancholic, tenacious and unpretentious psyche of this remote nation of the dark North. The world and its great power structures are irrational and violent. Heavy metal delves into the wisdom and mysticism of generations past for empowerment, seeking experiences and feelings that are often hidden in standard culture and everyday life.

Small wonder, then, that the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is of great importance to Finnish heavy metal. A case in point is the progressive metal band Amorphis, with albums such as Tales from the Thousand Lakes (1994) or My Kantele (1997). As a famous poem published in the lyrical folk poetry collection Kanteletar puts it, “music’s made of melancholy, shaped of sorrow and of sadness”. Finnish heavy metal is the National Romanticism and the Symbolism of the 2000s.

The ethos of Kullervo

Kullervo is an anti-hero in the Kalevala, a thoroughly abused and humiliated child who grows up with huge powers and a terrible thirst for vengeance. There was something of the ethos of Kullervo in the air when Finland, after repeated humiliations for decades, won its so far only victory in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. (For more on Kullervo’s new adventures, see News on p. 7.)

When Finland suddenly emerged as the victor, it was not with a run-of-the-mill Eurovision ditty but with monster metal from northern Finland. Moreover, Hard Rock Hallelujah performed by Lordi won with a record-breaking points total. Many Finns instantly concluded that metal music must represent primeval Finnish tenacity. It is no coincidence that the song most frequently played when a goal is scored by the national team of the most-watched sport in Finland, men’s ice hockey, is Taivas lyö tulta (Fire from the sky, 2005) by the heavy metal band Teräsbetoni.

The Eurovision coup of the glam monsters also reminded many that there is room in heavy metal for a carnival attitude and humour. After all, in what other genre of music would we be likely to encounter reindeer mummies?

Poetic flow

Integrating international genres into a local music scene and merging them with folk tradition and other cultures and other branches of the arts is part of the complex mixing of identities and materials that goes into a multicultural society. Finnish rap music is a case in point.

Finnish rap did not enter the mainstream of popular music until the 2000s. Its first manifestations included the urban action and party rap of Fintelligens (aka Elastinen and Iso-H). Paleface (e.g. Helsinki–Shangri-La, 2010) and Asa (e.g. Loppuasukas, 2008) introduced the public at large to social and ecological criticism in rap music. Both draw on traditional music and shine a spotlight on blind spots in the Western way of life with a wild poetic flow.

Under the mainstream is a lively subculture of underground and alternative movements. Rap music in Finland is performed in many languages, dialects and slang. Sámi rap artists perform in languages that are among the most endangered in the world. Amoc, for instance, performs in Inari Sámi, which only has a few hundred native speakers. A disappearing language echoes the disappearing biodiversity of our planet.

It’s all ethno

In the 2000s in particular, Finnish music has undergone multiculturalisation at an exponential rate, as minorities have become more visible, immigrant cultures have acquired a greater foothold, international mobility has increased and cultural equality has advanced. All music is now ethnic music, and Finnish music speaks with multiple voices.

Swedish is Finland’s second official language, and the Sámi language is also important. Music with Swedish and Sámi lyrics is being made in all genres, even though Finnish and English dominate the mainstream. The folk metal band Finntroll sings in Swedish, although according to the band members this is not because their lead singer is a Swedish-speaking Finn but because Swedish is a more “trollish-sounding” language.

Although many genres draw on the folk music heritage, special mention must be given to new folk music, which extends into the ethno and world music genres. Its stylistic range is as broad as the world, and any musical heritage is worth exploring. Pioneers in this genre include the accordion performance artist Kimmo Pohjonen and the band Värttinä (e.g. Oi dai, 1996; Miero, 2006; The Lord of the Rings musical in collaboration with Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman, 2006).

This has resulted in the stretching of the concept of ‘folk music’ to breaking point. Perhaps we should look at this another way and consider that folk music today is to be found for instance in the YouTube postings of ordinary people, such as the parodies of top guitar players and bands posted by StSanders (Santeri Ojala) that became worldwide hits? Or football fan songs, or reality TV music auditions, or home karaoke?

Large orchestras

Classical contemporary music has also become more pluralist. The dominant style today is expressive postmodernism, and orchestral works often probe existential issues (as for instance in the case of Kalevi Aho, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sebastian Fagerlund). Often the music purports to be about mysteries and dimensions beyond everyday reality. We need only recall the Jungian stream of consciousness of Einojuhani Rautavaara (e.g. Symphony no. 7, Angel of Light, 1997), the eco-critical and philosophical melancholy of P.H. Nordgren (e.g. Symphony no. 6, Interdependence, 2000) or the cosmic musical journeys of Kaija Saariaho (e.g. the opera L’amour de loin, 2000).

The Finnish opera boom became a fixture in the 2000s. Several new operas are premiered every year, many of them as independent projects outside the major institutions. As examples of their incredibly diverse range of topics, we may mention the Andy Warhol opera Flash Flash (2005) by Juhani Nuorvala and the human trafficking monodrama Lelele (2011) by Lotta Wennäkoski

The border between music and sound art has also blurred, and a number of composers regard themselves primarily as sound artists (e.g. Petri Kuljuntausta). More generally, written or score-based music has conceded some ground to other types of composing, for instance through digital sound processing technology.


With the advent of the digital revolution, mobile media and networking, we can now listen to almost any music at all almost anywhere at all. The distinction between old and new music is less relevant now that all music from every time period can be found in the here-and-now of the Internet. As recently as in the 1980s, to find new music one had to go to a local disco where the DJ was known to have visited London in the previous week.

On the other hand, live music events have emerged as a new source of psychological empowerment. People do not go to a club or a gig just to listen to something new but to experience something that they cannot do otherwise: a connection between musicians and audience, the magic of presence, the birth of live music in a unique ‘now’ moment. Perhaps concerts and festivals are to modern people what churches used to be – places to stop and contemplate fundamental issues of life such as survival, human contact and community. I believe that no other country has as many music festivals as Finland.

So what is permanent in this constant state of change? I would say it is something that for want of a better word could be described as a ‘spirit’. Without music we would not know who we are.



Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin received its Finnish premiere at the Finnish National Opera in 2004. (By Sakari Viika/FNO)