in From the Archives

Finno-Ugrian tradition; Those Women!

by Riitta Pietilä

A protégée of the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, the vocal ensemble 'MeNaiset' has delved deep into the music not only of the Finno-Ugrian peoples but of other nearby races as well. The important thing about this band of young women is not, however, their academic background but the joy they find in singing together.
‘Expressive force’, ‘strong emotions’, ‘edge’ – someone on about Art again, you will say. A group of eight female singers, MeNaiset have been attracting attention both in Finland and abroad with their unusually intensive performances ever since they first began singing together. This was back in 1992, when the Estonian choir leader Anneli Kont-Rahkiola, at that time a post-graduate student at the Sibelius Academy, got up a choir of singers from the Folk Music Department, initially to sing songs in several parts from the Setu region of Estonia. Long after the academic year came to an end, the choir then contributed a song from Ingria for the disc released on the 50th birthday of the Department’s head, Heikki Laitinen. Faced with the problem of what to call itself, the choir hastily hit on the name MeNaiset – a name which actually means WeWomen and is associated more in Finland with a popular women’s magazine (though written as Me Naiset).

“The announcers at gigs obviously have difficulty with our name,” reports Pia Rask, one of the singers, “so they usually end up saying: ‘And next we are to hear Ne Naiset’, which instead of We Women means Those Women!” Those women have certainly been creating quite a stir ever since they decided to extend the academic year and to take the Academy course entitled Ensemble Music 2 into their own hands.

Some members of their audiences have been completely sold, while others complain that MeNaiset do not sing folk music at all, or at least not Finnish folk music.

Powerful eastern song tradition

In addition to browsing through the archives in search of repertoire, MeNaiset also compose pieces of their own. Whatever the process, they pour so much of themselves into the music that the result clearly differs from ordinary choral works: “The difference lies in the force of the singing. This does not usually come across in ensembles where no one ever sings either with their eyes closed or in visual contact with the others. MeNaiset is no school choir with the voices divided into four parts giving a nice a cappella performance. MeNaiset are a bunch of personalities all singing from the bottom of their hearts – together,” is how Outi Pulkkinen describes it.

“Not until a few years ago did I really become aware of the difference between the eastern and western vocal tradition. We were singing at a folk song festival in Sweden at which Swedish and Norwegian soloists sang in voices each sweeter than the one before in a style all of their own. And it dawned on me that there’s an awful lot of eastern influence in the Finnish tradition, or least in that of Eastern Finland, and bawling away in the manner typical of the Baltic peoples seemed much more ‘natural’ to me than the ‘artistic’ performances typical of the Scandinavians,” says Pia Rask.

MeNaiset have thus turned eastwards in their search for repertoire, ‘east’ here meaning the areas to the geographical east, southeast and south of Finland. They sing most of their Ingrian, Setu, Mordvin, Russian Karelian and even Bulgarian songs in the original languages, having acquired their linguistic skills by singing with the Mordvin Toorama group, Setu women and the Bulgarka Junior Quartet.

The first MeNaiset disc, appropriately named MeNaiset, came off the press in 1995, the year in which the group was also working with the Swedish vocal artist Marie Selander. This partnership culminated in a vocal improvisation performed at the Human Voice Festival in Helsinki, since when vocal experiments have been very much part of the MeNaiset agenda.

“We’ve been open to all sorts of suggestions ever since we began, and in practice we all come up with ideas for things to sing,” says Anna-Kaisa Liedes. “We don’t have an Artistic Director (our founder, Anneli Kont, is just one of us), and unfortunately we don’t have a Manager either. Luckily having a disc of our own to demonstrate what we sound like is a help in trying to market ourselves.

“A couple of years ago there was a whole-page story about us in the Sunday supplement of the biggest Finnish daily, Helsingin Sanomat, and all of a sudden orders came pouring in. But once you’ve done a festival, that’s it; the organisers are not likely to invite you back the following year… To tell the truth, we were extremely short on gigs last winter. Admittedly we all have jobs elsewhere, most of us teaching, but we don’t only do it just for the fun of it, like the average folk fiddler, for example.” Since the subject has been raised, MeNaiset are a long way from the average folk group. Some would even say they are much too far away.

“I don’t know whether it’s just envy or what, but we’ve heard complaints in certain Finnish folk music circles that there’s too much ‘foreign influence’ in our music. The folk fiddler or ‘pelimanni’ tradition assimilated from Sweden is very strong in Ostrobothnia, and compared with that our singing sometimes sounds really ancient and primitive, yet some don’t look upon it as genuine folk music even so,” says Pia Rask. “Well I can understand that this sort of ‘exoticism’ doesn’t appeal to everyone,” Anna-Kaisa Liedes chips in. “Just as Finnish culture has acquired a taste for bel canto, along come these women with their loud, unchecked voices… Some hide their astonishment by saying they are sure it must be a strain on our throats. And others are knocked for six, they think it’s absolutely marvellous.”

Outside Finland MeNaiset have made appearances in Sweden, Norway, Germany, Estonia, Petrozavodsk (Karelia) and Mordvinian Republic. Working with Toorama, one of the finest Finno-Ugrian ensembles, was such a great experience that they are now eagerly awaiting the disc shortly to be released of items by both the groups.

Doing your own thing

When MeNaiset – those women – first entered the Sibelius Academy, there was virtually no other way in Finland of studying folk music at university apart from the classical way. Since then it has become possible to gain a grounding in folk music on various courses while still at school, and sometimes at an ordinary music college.

“Folk music must be made part of the Finnish music education system equal to any other kind of music. So many youngsters nowadays give up their music in their teens because classical music simply doesn’t interest them enough,” says Anna-Kaisa Liedes with a sigh.

“The idea in folk music is to do your own thing: even when you’re playing something composed by someone else, you try to do it in your own way. Look at me for example,” says Outi Pulkkinen. “I spent a couple of years at the conservatoire after leaving school studying music theory, until I was forced to admit that classical music just doesn’t have any pull for me.”

The attitude of ‘forget what’s printed on the page and improvise’ is typical of the average folk music student at the Sibelius Academy. Also typical is the biased attitude so often heard among outsiders that folk music isn’t something you can study or teach.

“Life in the provinces is light years away from this,” says Pia Rask. “I’m always having to answer questions like: What on earth are you doing at the Academy? Have you got any folk musicians in the family then? Because there you are: the Academy student, the young university graduate, the city-dweller…

“On the other hand the public at large have gradually become increasingly aware of folk music since about the 1970s, when the Kaustinen fiddler Konsta Jylhä began selling his golden discs. Its popularity and prestige have in the past few years been enhanced by such widely publicised groups as Värttinä, and by the knowledge that you can nowadays study folk music at the Sibelius Academy – thanks to the liberal-mindedness of the Rector at the time it was introduced, Ellen Urho.”

All the evidence therefore points to the fact that folk music can be taught. Just like jazz.

“Jazz and Folk Music attract more interest outside the Academy than any of the other departments. Our musicians are highly versatile and very much in the public eye: a theatre wanting to put on ‘something special’, for example, will phone us first of all. The Folk Music Department also releases more discs than any other,” says Anna-Kaisa Liedes proudly (she has a lectureship in the department).

Liedes herself can claim to be the first professional folk musician, entering the Academy in 1983 and nowadays specialising in voice and kantele. She is full of praise for the Folk Music Department, which is not only a seat of creative freedom but also in a class all of its own by international standards: “The nearest thing to it is the Stockholm Music Academy, which has just begun a folk music section. In Norway and Denmark you can study folk music at a conservatory, and I once came across a music academy teaching folk music in Azerbaijan. But the tuition at our Sibelius Academy is of a completely different calibre.”

The Folk Music Department at the Sibelius Academy at present has around seventy students and the most popular main subjects are the fiddle, accordion and voice. Since the early days, when they were encouraged to play as many instruments as possible, the students are now more free to specialise in whatever interests them most, and that includes the folk music of any nation: “The fiddlers, say, may specialise in Finnish and Swedish folk music, or perhaps Irish. In principle you can be accepted with the most exotic instrument: we look upon this as just one more way of enriching Finland’s culture. And we’re lucky in that we have the academic freedom to make our own distinctive music. The music of MeNaiset does not fit into any category as such, but that’s what makes it so very interesting.”


Riitta Pietilä is a free-lance writer living in Geneva.

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/1997

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