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Faster, higher, stronger

by Mika Kauhanen

The Helsinki Universal Guitar Festival features all the dimensions of six strings.

What do Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola have in common? They are each, in their respective genres, perhaps the best guitar players in the world. In the 1980s they formed a trio in which they took technical proficiency on the guitar to such a level of speed, agility and virtuoso brilliance that ultimately their show proved overwhelming. For anyone else than other guitar players, that is.

De Lucia, McLaughlin and Di Meola played together but also played against each other. Pitting different musical styles against each other is much like watching a battle between martial arts disciplines: which is better, the karateka or the judoka? The spectators of this battle of the titans are themselves in a class of their own, the majority of them amateur or wannabe guitar players, as was the fan who, some time in the 1960s, created a graffiti that declared “Clapton is God”.

And what about the popular console games Guitar Hero or Rock Band? Are they attracting new audiences to the art of the guitar? Many of these gamers would like to try their hand at playing a real guitar, and there is nothing like a live performance for true inspiration. Concerts also fulfil social needs, as they provide a venue for aficionados to discuss the performers’ abilities and performance to their hearts’ content.

Give me a HUG

The Helsinki Universal Guitar Festival, which takes place 14–17 November, fills an obvious gap on the festival map. There has been no event in the Helsinki area specifically for guitar lovers since the Helsinki Guitar Festival; by comparison, the Tampere Guitar Festival has been firmly established for years in a city considerably smaller than Helsinki.

“The purpose of the festival is to present all aspects of guitar playing. A variety of genres and styles are represented, and the performers include top people from all around the world,” says manager Deniz Bedretdin. He is the chairman of the association organising the festival.

The idea of a guitar festival in Helsinki was floated by Raul Mannola, a well-known Finnish flamenco guitar player who is now the artistic director of the festival. “Raul also came up with the name,” says Bedretdin in response to a question about why the word “universal” appears in the name. “He said that if life outside Earth is ever discovered and there are guitar players there, they will be welcome to join the festival. Then someone realised that the rather lengthy name of the festival can be abbreviated to the HUG Festival!”

Bedretdin is in no doubt when asked about the top moment of the festival to date. “It was a concert by the incredibly excellent Spanish flamenco guitar player Antonio Rey, which was the biggest surprise for me personally. Rey will be back this autumn, and I really hope that the people who missed his concert last time can come now,” he says with enthusiasm.

“Rey is a good example of avoiding the trap of easy commercial marketability. We don’t want to book performers whom everybody knows but who don’t necessarily have anything original to say,” Bedretdin explains. “We are cultivating a reputation where audiences can rely on getting top-quality and interesting performances even if they have never heard of our performers before.”

This autumn, the festival will be hosting one concert per night at the Savoy Theatre and Gloria Cultural Arena in the city centre of Helsinki. In addition to the singing and dancing Antonio Rey & Grupo Flamenco, the festival roster includes Indian slide guitar wizard Salil Bhatt performing with a tabla player, and Swedish jazz guitar player Gustav Lundgren and his trio.

Tribute to Jukka Tolonen

The concluding concert of the festival is dedicated to one of Finland’s most legendary guitar players ever, Jukka Tolonen, leader of the band Tasavallan Presidentti who also created a brilliant solo career in the 1970s. The concert will focus on Tolonen’s principal genres – progressive rock and jazz rock – with some acoustic seasonings tossed in. The maestro himself will not be taking the stage; his music will be performed by the best of the best in the younger generations, such as Marzi Nyman and Timo Kämäräinen.

“Tolonen’s arthritis is now so severe that he no longer plays the guitar in public,” says Bedretdin, who is also Tolonen’s personal manager. In recent years, Tolonen has performed as a pianist and a singer, and since finding religion he has released discs of spiritual music. Indeed, Tolonen not only is an interesting musician but also has a fascinating life history, soon to be featured in a documentary film directed by Lasse Keso.

If the Helsinki Universal Guitar Festival has anything to do with it, Finland will continue to produce guitar heroes of the calibre of Jukka Tolonen in the future.

“One of the ideas underlying our operation is to give young Finnish guitar players a leg up. We want to provide opportunities for these guys to meet and play with the international greats performing at the festival. We are in touch with music institutes and are building up a partnership network. Of course, we need to have the financial resources to make all this possible. We hope to find business partners who appreciate this kind of showcasing of guitar music,” says Deniz Bedretdin.

Featured photo: Antonio Rey by Daniel Ochoa