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Bigger, better, folkier

by Amanda Kauranne

What happens if you put forty folk musicians and their instruments in one room once a month for a couple of years? The Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band is leading the way for Finnish folk instrument orchestras.

A shrill bird call splits the air, escaping from my fellow singer's throat. Murmurs and crackles sparkle in the atmosphere. The hall is filled with the thunder of mysterious sounds, The fiddles, jouhikkos, kanteles, guitars, harmoniums, double basses, percussion and wind instruments join forces to belt out an lngrian shepherd tune. The witches' cauldron is bubbling with a sound brew titled Haliasoitto. The coven of singers sends out an incantation which gradually grows into a scream, squeezing the last juices out of our vocal cords. Right now we are the epitome of Finnish exoticism, a travel promoter's wet dream. We are the Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band!

These thoughts run through my mind on the stage in Vigo, Spain, while performing for a sold-out crowd, just moments before a new kantele riff grooves into the lead. Each instrument is ticking along with their individual riffs while we singers take turns in yodelling and chattering, when we are not too busy dancing. The performance really catches fire when the viola soloist begins to grind away on her instrument like there's no tomorrow, with the wooden horn bleating on top, and one of the singers lets loose with abandon. Out of nowhere, the stage is invaded by two-metre-long folk trumpets, luikkus, which manage to blast their message over everything else... The traditional kantele tune Ruskova is now well and truly wearing new clothes. The atmosphere resembles a revivalist meeting, and the energy in the hall would easily heat a whole block of apartments in midwinter. This is how it feels standing on the stage, and judging from the applause, the feeling is shared with the audiences.

Rocking the folk scene

The Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band is the folk instrument orchestra at the folk music department of Finland's only music university. Students and their teachers come together to form the nearly forty-strong crew, with instruments such as fiddles, kanteles, diatonic accordions, guitars, wind instruments, double basses, percussion and voices. The band is divided into several instrumental sub-groups, each with a designated teacher. The whole band is led by Petri Prauda, who specialises in the stringed instruments.

Before going any further, I need to point out that compared to a traditional big band, this ensemble is very different in the way it operates. “Maestro” Prauda is first and foremost a fellow band member to us all. Nobody swings their arms in the front of the band, unless one of the players has launched into an improvised polska dance number. The default setting in folk music – and, consequently, in this band – is equality. Simply put, we all are players, some of whom just happen to be teachers and others students. Everyone is already an artist at their own right, each travelling at their own pace along their artistic path.

The ensemble's simple core idea is what makes it so unique: this is a folk music orchestra where folk music prof essionals play folk music – in this day and age. If your idea of folk music is a bearded old geezer playing something nondescript at the back of the room, you are due for a mental update, "A folk musician is a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, soloist and ensemble player," Prauda explains.

The bulk of the Folk Big Band's repertoire consists of traditional Finnish tunes, co-arranged by the whole ensemble. Usually either Prauda or one of the other teacher leaders introduces a new piece and an idea for an arrangement, of fering a starting point for the process. We of ten work in our smaller instrumental sub-groups to figure out what we want to do with the new piece. Our ideas might include borrowing Michael Jackson's best riffs, inserting rock attacks, or suggesting anything else a tradition-conscious musician with contemporary savvy might come up with. While the folk music traditions of variation and freedom are encouraged, certain aspects of the new material are carefully considered and planned. In addition to traditional tunes, the ensemble's repertoire includes contemporary folk music works composed by students, as well as works commissioned from outside the band.

The spirit of doing things together is tremendous. The prerequisite for operating without sheet music or a conductor is dynamic communication between every player across the orchestra. This interaction emerges naturally, whether we are in rehearsals or on stage. "Our energy and strength grow from the very fact that every single member contributes with their creative output."

Curiosity, community, visibility

The ensemble rehearsed for the first time in August 2010. The idea of a Finnish folk music orchestra had emerged a few years earlier at the World Music Expo, WOMEX. The leaders of European folk music orchestras wanted to create a network and persuaded the Sibelius Academy to come along. The European Union granted a two-year funding for the project, thus enabling the ENFO (European Network for Folk Orchestras) to be established.

There must have been a pre-existing demand for an ensemble like this, judging from the unanimous support for the project from the folk music department staff. "There were three reasons or objectives which made me want to try this," Prauda explains. "Artistic curiosity about how it would sound like with Finnish instruments, playing styles and repertoire; cultivating a community-based approach; and finally the possibility of lifting the media prof ile of folk music in general. In my opinion, we have achieved all three goals splendidly."

During the tentative early stages of the project, Prauda heard several European folk music orchestras and began mapping out what a specifically Finnish repertoire should include. He ended up with an extensive list covering the whole spectrum of folk music. "Pelimanni music – including polska, polka, schottische and similar tunes – was a must-have, add to that something archaic, plus pieces where everyone gets to sing. This is what our current repertoire reflects, even though not all of our ideas have been realised yet... The door has just been opened." Next year, the repertoire will expand to include more improvisation - what a risky and exciting sea of possibilities!

Prauda's second objective, a sense of community, is one of the cornerstones of folk music – or of folk music study, at least! Making music is based on communication and the better you know the people you play with, the more comfortable it is to play together. The recent relocation of the Folk Music Department from the shabby and comfy folk music den in the outskirts of Helsinki into the sleek architecture of the brand new Musiikkitalo in the heart of the city felt like a threat to the familiar community feel. Hence a new “school band”, gathering together everyone from first-year students to postgraduate students and teachers, was exactly what the doctor ordered. "In addition, the ensemble provides an opportunity for peer support and modelled learning within the instrumental sub-groups, as well as enabling the discovery of new working methods," Prauda adds.

The celebration of community was further enhanced through the ENFO get-togethers. When forty Spaniards, Italians and Finns meet, the end result is a lot of noise - some of which could even be described as music! Our meeting in Helsinki last autumn culminated in a joint concert. This spring in Vigo, Spain, the overall mood started to resemble a carnival, with performance venues ranging from street corners to sold-out convention centres.

"This is crazy enough for people to start asking questions about what we do," Prauda says. "The largest chunk of our recent media coverage is admittedly due to the new Musiikkitalo, but I do believe we are seen as an interesting ensemble." The interest has been reflected through numerous performances in the main concert hall of the Musiikkitalo, on radio and television, and, most recently, having been appointed as the Ensemble of the Year at the 2012 Kaustinen Folk Music Festival.

Folk orchestra for the folks?

While folk music orchestras are common in many countries, the concept is still quite novel in Finland. Some vague connections can be found: folk music festivals often begin or end with musicians coming together to play traditional tunes en masse, yet there has been a lack of any particular arrangement idea or even an opportunity to rehearse beforehand.

The Folk Big Band is not the first large folk music orchestra in Finland. Professional folk music students have experimented with large ensembles before, but none of those experiments lived on. Why? "In the previous attempts, the repertoire was often arranged by just one person, whereas our music is arranged together," Prauda muses. Perhaps identifying oneself as an important part in the creative process is what it takes to commit.

Prauda feels that a Finnish folk music orchestra is definitely a phenomenon with a future, and should be entitled for support from the society. "To put it very strongly, symphony orchestras across the world interpret the same music tradition with the same sound ideals," Prauda elaborates. "Folk music orchestras, however, have this really interesting aspect of sounding completely distinctive as each orchestra reflects its own traditions and cultural heritage. This phenomenon should be allowed to take shape in Finland as well. While the Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band functions as a school project, a similar ensemble on a national level should exist and be financially supported, like symphony orchestras or the UMO Jazz Orchestra, for instance, which engages more than twenty jazz professionals. But with the constantly tightening cultural budgets, will there still be resources available for developing something quite new? This issue needs to be discussed."

Preserving traditions requires bringing them up-to-date. Folk music deserves a chance to prove that it already lives in the present. Folk music orchestras are experiencing a real boom: Swedish folk music orchestras have operated for a while now, their Estonian counterpart debuted just a few months ago, and the Ostrobothnian Folk Orchestra played its inaugural concert last November in Kokkola.

Shooting for the future

According to Antti Järvelä, one of the two programme producers at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, the Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band was an obvious choice for the Ensemble of the Year. In a pre-Festival interview, Järvelä explained: "We are very interested in showcasing the latest phenomena. The Folk Big Band has got off to a formidable start and it strikes a perfect balance between old and new. One of our central themes this year is the Folkskandia project, which enables Nordic children and youth to get to know each other's cultures through music. We want to motivate them and introduce them to good role models. This happens naturally through the Folk Big Band, which involves the professional folk musicians of the future." In the end, the Folkskandia project drew hundreds of young folk musicians to Kaustinen, so we were able to create a really BIG band together!

The Sibelius Academy Folk Big Band's journey continues, and we will keep delving into everything that feels interesting and rewarding. The ideas we have produced so far will be worked into a recording next year. For me, the best reward is the community and the energy, which feed one another. None ofus is capable of creating that exhilarating feeling alone. It rises from all of us, together. This is what folk music is ultimately about – traditions cannot be maintained alone, they are born within a community and kept alive through a chain of people who are interested and engaged. Sometimes more IS more. 

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2012 and is now (November 2021) re-published with the kind permission of the author.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Jimmy Träskelin