Not every band makes you cry with emotion and then dance the polka – within a single track, no less – but Otra manage just this! On their second album, Sytelee (self-published 2020), Otra appear in a five-member lineup, having added a double bass to their scintillating folk chamber music ensemble of plucked instruments, violin and harmonium. Also, the members engage in professionally competent ensemble singing led by Maarit Saarenkunnas with a voice sparkling with thousands of tears.
One of the particular features of this vivacious disc is how the group dextrously takes up some of the most worn classics of Finnish folk music, such as Tein minä pillin pajupuusta [I made a flute of a willow], Lampaanpolska [Lamb polska, a Finnish variant of La Folia] or Läksin minä kesäyönä käymään [I went on a summer night to wander], and brings up a completely new and compelling aspect. Otra’s arrangements are surprising, fresh and adventurous. Sometimes they play around with the lyrics, as in the raucous tavern scene in Tillin tollin, and sometimes they lay the emotion on very thick, as in the workers’ song Vapauden kaiho [Longing for freedom] or the traditional song Ei tyynny syömmeni [My heart will not be still], whose ancient concerns are equated in the booklet text with today’s frightening scenarios of the future. It just goes to show that a song can make a statement without shouting it out loud!
The focus on this disc, then, is on the music itself and on the often dark lyrics of the songs, whose beauty can here be fully appreciated. Although there is a wealth of detail here, with whispers and a wide range of instruments, nothing seems superfluous: every sound and every rhythm is in the service of the soul of each song. At times, the sound of the ensemble – rich to begin with – is augmented with accordion played by Anne-Mari Kanniainen and drums played by Olli Estola.
Maarit Saarenkunnas (vocals, compositions, lyrics)
Heli Haapaniemi (pump organ, vocals)
Jaana Herlevi (viola, violin, vocals)
Lauri Marjakangas (guitar, mandolin, vocals, compositions)
Heikki Saarenkunnas (double bass)
Anne-Mari Kanniainen (accordion)
Olli Estola (drums)
Saara Kalliopuska (vocals)
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi