in Articles

Pioneers of African music in Finland, part 2: Respecting tradition

by Elina Seye

The African music scene in Finland evolved in major cities in the 1980s and 1990s, and some of the pioneering musicians who contributed to this development are still active in the field. In this article, musicologist Elina Seye explores the early years of the arrival of multiple kinds of African traditional music in Finland and discusses some of the people and groups involved.

The best-known African-Finnish bands (which I discussed in the first instalment of this series) were mainly found in the field of popular music, but accomplished performers of traditional African styles of music began to emerge in Finland in the 1990s at the latest.

Of course, there had been occasional guest performances much earlier. In summer 1962, for instance, there was a string of youth festivals across Finland – courtesy of the Soviet Union with funding channelled through the World Federation of Democratic Youth – whose programme included music and dance ensembles from several African countries.

African traditional musicians frequently appeared at Finnish festivals in the 1980s and early 1990s. There were African performers at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in the mid-1980s, for instance. The Provinssirock festival, meanwhile, organised a ‘World Carnival’ jointly with the British WOMAD world music festival at the turn of the 1990s. This event featured Afro-pop superstars and top names in traditional music, the latter including Farafina from Burkina Faso and Toumani Diabaté from Mali.

Tanzanian virtuosos

Finland has a long history of running development cooperation projects in eastern Africa, and cultural exchange between Tanzania and Finland emerged as early as in the 1970s through these official connections. In music, the Bagamoyo College of Arts (now Taasisi ya Sanaa na Utamaduni Bagamoyo (TaSUBa)) was an important partner for Finns.

One of the members of the group from the Bagamoyo College of Arts that visited Finland in 1987 was Arnold Chiwalala, who subsequently returned to teach and to perform almost on a yearly basis. Having repeatedly been offered work in various music and theatre productions, he decided to settle in Finland in 1995. He supplemented his training in Tanzanian traditional music at the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy, where he chose the kantele as his main instrument.

Chiwalala eventually went on to postgraduate studies at the Sibelius Academy. His artistically oriented doctorate, completed in 2009, comprised five recitals based on ngoma, a Tanzanian genre of performing arts combining instrumental music, singing, dancing and storytelling. One of his recitals focused particularly on parallels between Tanzanian and Finnish folk music, involving a performing ensemble with both Finnish and Tanzanian folk musicians.

Chiwalala’s trusted partner in music, guitarist and singer Topi Korhonen, was with him at his doctoral recitals. The two also began to perform duo gigs under the name Pole Pole and later expanded it into a six-member Tanzanian–Finnish–Senegalese ensemble renamed the Arnold Chiwalala Band. Their début disc Chizentele Music was released in 2012.

Impressive though Chiwalala’s CV as a performer may be, he has done even more as a teacher. Over the years, he has introduced Tanzanian musical and cultural traditions to a huge number of Finns, from children in daycare to professionals in the fields of dance and music.

The Bagamoyo College of Arts was also the alma mater of Menard Mponda and Aliko Mwakanjuki, who arrived in Finland via different routes in the mid-1990s. They had both been students of Chiwalala at Bagamoyo and have performed with him in Finland.

Mponda has been particularly active not only as a teacher of Tanzanian dance and music but also as a performing musician, principally in recent years as percussionist with the Helsinki–Cotonou Ensemble. He is also the artistic director of Finland’s oldest African festival, Fest Afrika, established in 2002 in Tampere. Mwakanjuki was also an event organiser before returning to Tanzania some years ago.

Thrilled by the beat of West Africa

Although Finland’s principal official contacts with Africa have been on the eastern side of the continent, the African music style most prominent in Finland is the percussion music of the Mande people of western Africa. The most recognisable instrument in this style is the djembe drum, which is probably the best-known African instrument of any kind worldwide. This tradition arrived in Finland through dance.

Dancer and musician Outi Kallinen is one of the principal proponents of West African dances and rhythms in Finland. She went to London and Paris to study dance back in the 1980s, often with her friend Maarika Autio. Kallinen and Autio subsequently went on study trips to western Africa – to Senegal, Burkina Faso and Guinea – learning both local dances and local instruments.

Back in Finland, Kallinen and her dancer friends established a dance company named Djumora, who showcased West African traditions at various events and festivals. They were accompanied by a variable group of Finnish and West African musicians. For major gigs, the company invited Guinean percussionists based in central Europe to join them. In the early days of Djumora, their backup group occasionally included Ismaila Sané, who played percussion with Piirpauke but who had begun his professional career in Senegal as a dancer. At the time, though, he was resident in Tenerife and visited Finland mainly for Piirpauke.

Another of Djumora’s guests in Finland was N’Fanly Camara, alumnus of a rigorous training in traditional Guinean dance and music. Resident in Paris at the time, he subsequently became Kallinen’s husband and the choreographer of a new Finnish–Guinean–Senegalese dance company named Wonuwali. The genesis of this group was in a dance performance that Kallinen and Camara were asked to create for the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in spring 1998. Kallinen and Camara have since added performances of other types of West African music in a smaller, acoustic ensemble named Lanyi to their repertoire alongside percussion music and dance.

Kallinen’s major influence, however, is in her work as a dance teacher. For more than 30 years, she has been teaching West African dances, songs and rhythms to amateurs and vocational dance students alike. Thanks to the extensive teaching efforts undertaken by her and her pioneering colleagues, Finns now have a vastly broader understanding of the plurality of African traditions. These dance and instrument lessons have served as valuable sources of information on concerts and other events.

There have been several other ensembles performing West African drum music and dance in Finland besides Djumora and Wonuwali, and their number has steadily increased over the years. A typical such group would evolve around one professional of African origin, with the other members – mainly Finnish – having varying musical skills.

Having said that, we should note that not even having a fully African ensemble is a guarantee of professional competence. Many African musicians, particularly percussionists, have complained that their skills are not always appreciated in Finland, since it sometimes seems that “any black man with a djembe” will do. Conversely, some Africans have been known to exploit this assumption to describe themselves as musicians without having any particular musical skills.

While awareness of traditional African music styles has gradually increased in Finland, many musicians performing African music still report coming across the stereotypical notion that Africans have “rhythm in their blood” – and, conversely, that white Finns simply cannot be professionals in African music. African-born musicians in particular are frustrated by discussions of what it is to be African or to be Finnish: what is essential for them is to perform the music that they love with the people who they best like working with.

It’s not just drums

Many musicians proficient in traditional African music may be found in the bands performing African popular music that I discussed in the first instalment in this series. I would particularly like to mention Malang Cissokho from Senegal, who first visited Finland as vocalist with Hasse Walli’s band Asamaan.

Cissokho comes from a well-known West African family of musicians, and in his family he learned traditional songs and how to play one of the instruments used to accompany them: the kora, a 21-string ‘harp lute’. However, in Senegal his musical career was mostly in the field of popular music, for instance as a backup singer.

Having relocated to Finland, Cissokho ended up teaching the kora to students at the Sibelius Academy but also continued to perform in the party band Cool Sheiks, which was very busy in the 1990s, mainly playing the congas.

It was through Cool Sheiks that Cissokho was recruited as percussionist for Electric Sauna, a new band set up by Suomi-rock pioneer J. Karjalainen in the mid-1990s. Many Finns will have heard him play on Electric Sauna’s greatest hit, Missä se Väinö on? [Where is Väinö?], where Cissokho also plays the kora and sings the bridge in the Mandinka language.

Maarika Autio, a dancer member of Djumora and Wonuwali, developed a keen interest on her travels in the balafon, a West African (wood) xylophone . She was given a thorough introduction to the instrument by Guinean master player Alsegny ‘Mayeli’ Camara and continued to practice on her own in Helsinki. Eventually, she began to perform in a variety of groups, working with Senegalese musicians in particular, such as Meissa Niang, who came to Finland as a vocalist with the band Asamaan.

Subsequently, Autio has developed a fusion of West African and Finnish style in her original music. She has performed her songs for instance in the fusion band Stilimba, whose core consisted of herself and Mikko Nousiainen, who plays Caribbean steel drums. This band also included Ousseynou Mbaye, the drummer of Galaxy.

In recent years, Autio has focused on Sila Fato, a group including Senegalese musicians from the younger generation. The group performs Autio’s songs and West African and Finnish folk songs in the group’s own arrangements and often sung in multiple languages.

Stilimba: Reew mi (In a song written by herself, Maarika Autio sings in Wolof and Finnish about what it is like to migrate to another country)

In the new millennium

Pioneering musicians still fondly remember the ‘golden age’ of African music in Finland, in the years prior to the recession of the 1990s, when audiences were lining up even when gigs were held as often as every week.

Although the offering of live music based on African styles in Finland has never recovered to those levels, the number of African musicians resident in Finland has steadily grown after the turn of the millennium, as indeed has the number of residents of African descent in general. At the same time, the range of music styles of African origin performed in Finland has broadened, and public awareness of African music has evolved. 

This article is an outcome of the project ‘History and significance of African musicians in multicultural Finland’ of Music Archive Finland and the Global Music Centre, funded by the Kone Foundation and by the Finnish Music Foundation (MES).This article is derived from the project.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Elina Seye / Fest Afrika 2018: The Mpondas Family