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Conquering the tradition

by Amanda Kauranne

In the heart of folk music is an idea of equality: professionals and amateurs playing the same repertoire, each at their own skill level, as valued members of the community. There is a natural curiosity about different cultures and any form of exclusion is discouraged. However, gender equality is an issue that still seems to need some fine tuning. What is the status of female folk musicians in the Finland of 2016?

Laughter is the first thing that comes to mind when I think back to interviews with female players. Humour, albeit quite dark at times, played a prominent part as they shared their experiences about the joy of working, the challenges of their profession, and womanhood as an artistic resource. And about how gender does not – or at least should not – matter any longer.

Statistics, however, have a different story to tell. For example, the most significant folk music accolades, such as the titles of master player or alderman, are still most often awarded to men, with female performers representing a minority at major folk music festivals as well.

These statistics are baffling, especially as the “other gender” is a majority among those with the highest education in folk music. Since its inception in 1983, university-level education of folk musicians at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department has produced 150 master’s degrees, out of which 65%, judging from their names, have been awarded to women. A similar female-heavy trend in education can be seen across other music genres as well.


New role models emerge gradually

“When I got involved in the Kauhajoki pelimanni (folk playing) circles as a teenager in the 1970s, there were a few other women there who joined in once they had finished milking the cows,” violinist Ritva Talvitie says.  “But the big names in folk music were always men. When violinist Konsta Jylhä walked past at a festival I was beside myself, trying to pluck up the courage to ask for an autograph. There were simply no female virtuosic role models of the same scale.”

Talvitie graduated as a classical violin teacher from the Sibelius Academy and worked in the Finnish National Opera Orchestra before the sudden onset of an eye condition changed her career path. Around the same time, the first government-funded folk music ensemble was announced and Talvitie applied for the job. Over the years, the group boiled down to the legendary quartet Tallari, in which Talvitie was the only woman. Now, as the ensemble celebrates its 30th anniversary, the other permanent members are Sampo Korva and Katri Haukilahti, who are occasionally joined by Matti Hakamäki from the group’s admin team.

One of Tallari’s missions is to advance the status of folk music through education, and countless folk music violinists have had the chance to learn from Talvitie, who is known for her vigorous playing style. Her energetic approach is the reason why many regard her as their fiddler role model.

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In addition to carrying out postdoc research, Piia Kleemola plays in several groups and is co-Artistic Director of Haapavesi Folk.
Photo: Tomi Lähdesmäki.

This was the case with violinist Piia Kleemola, who is currently working on her artistic post-doctoral research. She is aiming to comb through the archives of the Finnish Literature Society, the Folk Music Institute in Kaustinen and the Folklife Archives in Tampere in order to map all the existing archival recordings of Southern Ostrobothnian folk fiddlers, and to determine if a specific Southern Ostrobothnian fiddling style can be detected. During her first research year, she has trawled though all of the Finnish Literature Society’s 650 archival recordings of Southern Ostrobothnian solo fiddlers. Only one of them was performed by a woman.

“In agricultural society, women’s work was tied to the home and the dairy. Singing was the most common form of musical expression, which could be practised while working. It was also more socially acceptable for men to practice the precarious profession of a travelling musician – private dance gatherings were illegal and musicians’ fees at weddings were sometimes partially paid in spirits.

“Although I already knew that there used to be precious few female players, I was quite surprised by these findings,” Kleemola says. She continues her research into the traditions of fiddlers – mastering these archival tunes by learning to play them herself.


More than a mascot

Just a generation ago, women didn’t play the violin even in the famous folk music town of Kaustinen. Instead, they were busy looking after their home and cattle, just like their mothers did before them. Boys, however, learned to play the fiddle from their fathers. “For a girl to come up with the idea of doing that would have required quite a unique and determined character,” muses Alina Järvelä, who represents the next generation in a Kaustinen fiddling family, and who has played the violin for so long that she cannot even remember when she began. Like her siblings, she has chosen to become a professional musician. Recently, violin teaching has given way to studying towards a master’s degree in the Baroque violin.

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Alina Järvelä plays in Frigg, the top, seven-member, world-touring folk group.
Photo: Jimmy Träskelin.

“So I’m not a real folk musician,” she grins, yet she is the only female member in the seven-piece top internationally touring folk music ensemble Frigg, which she established together with her brother and their cousin.

“There have been many times when I’ve been the only woman on the festival stage all night. If there are any others, they are usually fronting their own ensembles. At one festival, we were welcomed by a handshake – everyone else but me. This is pretty typical as it seems to be hard to get that a woman can be a regular member in a band’s line-up. And when I then shook hands with the festival organiser, he got confused and asked if I was the singer. I didn’t even have time to reply before he concluded that I must be the group’s mascot, and promptly walked away,” Järvelä laughs. “This seems to be some kind of a reflection of what a woman’s role should be in an ensemble!”


Non-music-related pressures

“I have been told that I should smile more when I’m performing. Watching live recordings of our concerts, I’m definitely smiling more than anyone else in our ensemble, but because I’m a woman, people pay attention to how I look,” Alina Järvelä says. All of the interviewees talk about expectations in relation to their appearance. Some of the deepest reflections about the topic were offered by kantele player and multi-instrumentalist Maija Kauhanen.

“I am interested in appearance issues and stereotypes associated with female musicians, and the conscious and unconscious roles in musicianship and in society. I examined these questions in my master’s degree concert titled Pinnalla – Floating, which featured the music from my upcoming solo album.”

Kauhanen also researched the mental images provoked by different promo pictures. She had pictures taken in five different styles. Seeing a long evening gown, studded heavy metal accessories, an ethereally frilly outfit or a pose with a disco ball inspired the survey respondents to write lengthy descriptions of what the player in each picture was like, not only as a musician but as a person as well. The visual imagery has a huge impact.

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Left: Maija Kauhanen addressed stereotypes attached to female musicians, expectations of how they should look and roles in her MA degree concert Pinnalla – Floating. Photos: Tuomas Timonen.

Right: Double-bassist and percussionist Sara Puljula plays folk music from the fictitious Borduria with the Orkestar Bordurka dressed in PVC and a pink wig. Photo: Sami Perttilä.

“In one photo where I was wearing my everyday clothes, looking appropriate enough to go and play at a nursing home, some red nail polish was accidentally visible. Someone saw this as a sign of a secret fire burning underneath my sedate appearance!” Kauhanen says.

She is one of the pioneers of solo kantele playing, combining the Saarijärvi region stick-playing style with foot percussion and singing in order to create lush musical textures. “I’m fascinated with trying to do many things at the same time and I want to keep challenging myself, for instance by managing different time signatures with my singing, feet and both hands. This requires huge amounts of practice and makes for a sweaty performance.” It sounds grim if, and when, the feedback after such a virtuosic performance mainly focuses on the performer’s appearance.


New approaches needed

Double bass player and percussionist Sara Puljula is the only woman in the ensemble Orkestar Bordurka, playing music from the imaginary Eastern European country of Borduria while dressed in a PVC outfit and a pink wig. “Not everyone understands that this is a stage persona, and some come up with all kinds of suggestions because of the way I’m dressed. I simply shut them up with a good one-liner. Humour always helps with things like this,” she affirms and makes the interviewer howl with laughter with a few well-chosen examples. A musical polymath with a strong involvement in theatre music, Puljula says, however, that even humour does not help when experiencing gender-based inequality in one’s work.

“Women still have to be just a bit better and achieve a bit more in order to secure the same job or salary as a male colleague with equivalent training. We should already be in the position where a job is given to the most competent person, regardless of their gender. Yet we keep repeating questions like ‘can a woman be a conductor?’ This kind of thinking is dated,” Puljula states.

As a child, Puljula was encouraged to play the piano, as it was considered a suitable instrument for a girl. As a teenager, however, she told her parents that she would be changing instruments and starting the drums and double bass instead. This is how she became one of the trailblazers whose example encourages today’s girls to choose the instrument they really want to play. This is already seen, for example, in the renowned Näppäri folk music teaching method (read more in FMQ 1-2/2015), created by Mauno Järvelä and based on the power of playing together.

“We can still see a certain gender division around the choice of instruments: there are still more boys and men playing band instruments and brass, but this is gradually changing. In twenty years’ time, our bands will look very different,” predicts Alina Järvelä, who is one of the Näppäri tutors.


A woman’s choice

Instrument choices alone do not explain why female players are still a minority on the big stages.  Festival organisers say that the rules of supply and demand apply: female-dominated ensembles approach them less often with a proposal, whereas men are more keen to sell their bands and to follow up afterwards.

“Is it because girls and boys are brought up differently?” contemplates Kristiina Ilmonen, who is Professor at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. “According to a Finnish proverb, modesty makes you more beautiful – and we women should apparently always be beautiful,” she jokes. “But does this old thinking model actually prevent women from boldly pursuing a career?”

Apart from upbringing, the interviewees see family issues as the most obvious contributor: having a baby is still enough to suck a woman away from working life. “It can be challenging to make it back to the scene if you have been away for three or four years because of your children,” Järvelä considers.

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Kristiina Ilmonen, Professor of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy.
Photo: Kari Kääriäinen.

Kristiina Ilmonen also questions big stage appearances as the measure of success. “Does being famous equal success? Not everyone wants the life of a touring musician, because it’s hard work and requires not only travelling, but also constantly applying for grants and updating your social media. Perhaps a different kind of music career is a conscious choice for many women? Could we actually begin to ask what artists themselves are striving for?”

Having a choice, however, feels important – and in 2016, it may finally begin to feel realistic. There is no lack of female role models, the player standard is high and the folk music scene is full of interesting, female-dominated ensembles. The path has been blazed and is ready for travelling.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Main photo by Lauri Oino: Ritva Talvitie (centre) has been playing in Tallari, a pillar of Finnish folk, for 30 years. Her fellow players are Katri Haukilahti (left) and Sampo Korva (right).


Skewed statistics

:: Since the 1970s, Finland’s oldest and biggest folk music festival, the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, has awarded 137 master folk player titles, based on special accomplishment in folk music.

:: Only 8% of these master folk players have been women. The 11th female master folk player was nominated in 2016.

:: The Finnish Folk Music Association’s alderman titles have only twice been awarded to a woman, and the current 14 masters of traditions representing different regions (active aldermen) are all men.

:: The proportion of female performers on the main stages of recent years’ Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, Kihaus Folk in Rääkkylä and Etno-Espa in Helsinki has varied between 10 and 47.5 per cent.

:: The proportion of all the female performers at these festivals has been approximately one third.