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Gothic folk-rock and poignant jouhikko ballads

by Wif Stenger

Pekko Käppi’s recent albums lean toward poignant ballads, often with a subversive twist – and the eerie, unsettling sound of his electric jouhikko.

Pekko Käppi is a major figure in contemporary Finnish folk, playing a pivotal role in the revival of the jouhikko, a rough-hewn stringed instrument that he reinvented with an electrified blues-rock sound. 

A key to that sound is the T-shirt he wears on the back cover of this album featuring the Grateful Dead, a band he followed on the road while an exchange student in the US – and whose loose mix of folk, blues, murder ballads, improv and psychedelia parallels his own sound. And like Tom Waits, this former busker and angry young man is a romantic with a knack for affecting melodies under his rough, scowling exterior. 

More than two decades after his first release, Käppi is a mature folk-rocker and Sibelius Academy ethnomusicologist. His recent albums lean more toward poignant ballads, albeit often with a subversive twist – and the eerie, unsettling sound of his electric jouhikko.

Credo starts out there with howling electric blues and the kind of gothic lyrics familiar from his earlier work. ‘Sinä päivänä’ features his only original lyrics on the album, which was mostly ably penned by guitarist Tommi Laine

Then it’s on to the loping title track (more or less), ‘Uskontunnustus’ offering gentle fiddle and vocals from Käppi and Laura Moisio over brushed drums, sounding like a living-room singalong.  ‘Kolme ruusua’ (‘Three Roses’) is one of two traditional Finnish tunes here from the songbook of 1950s folk singer Taavi Uuvela, here also with a touch of the American cowboy ballad.

Side two of the LP opens on a refreshingly different note: ‘Melanz kiltir’ (‘Mixing Cultures’), co-written and sung by drummer Gilbert Kuppusami from multi-cultural Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. His lilting Creole vocals and Käppi’s fiddle and jouhikko place this delightful tune somewhere between Tampere, Madagascar and the Cajun swamps of Louisiana. 

Then it’s back to 60s-style electric blues-rock for the overlong ‘Ensimmäinen valhe’ (‘The First Lie’) followed by ‘Ja avaruus’ (‘And Space’), a mid-tempo tune that at first sounds like a sentimental depiction of an amorous seaside moment on a warm, dark summer night, yet turns out to be something much darker with lyrics (translated into English in the liner notes) about the moon’s reflection on a blade and a boat covered with blood – a classic Käppi twist.

After the lovely a-cappella trad ‘Love Song,’ featuring honeyed vocals from Moisio and Kielo Kärkkäinen, the album ends – as it should – with ‘Viimeinen laulu’ (‘The Last Song’), a rousing, poignant reminder that we never know what will end up being the last song we sing or hear. Momento mori – death is never far away on this album, but it is seen, as often in Finnish folk songs, as a gentle, natural prerequisite for life.


Pekko Käppi & K:H:H:L - Credo

(Rockadillo, 2023)