in From the Archives

Kimmo Pohjonen and vanguard accordion

by Petri Silas

Kimmo Pohjonen represents that rare breed of musicians who seem to be born to redefine the genres and recalibrate the metres. Such is the force of his vision and commitment that even though his solo career is a mere five years old, the whole world seems to want in on the action. Without the shadow of a doubt, Pohjonen is one of the harbingers of the music of the 22nd century.

Like a pagan priest exorcising a band of demons from his system, Kimmo Pohjonen has chosen to disencumber his instrument of all its historical ballast. To him, the accordion is not the wheezing squeezebox dusted off every once in a while to reminisce on the jigs of yesteryear. In his hands, it comes alive with the promise of tomorrow and the sound of the future. Coupling this approach to the instrument with a rack full of sound modelling equipment and his own voice, Pohjonen’s postmodern approach is nothing if not iconoclastic. Aided in his quest by trusted sound engineer Heikki Iso-Ahola and a quadraphonic sound system, the beast of the bellows daily scales new heights.

Groundbreaking soloist innovation

The endless potential of various sound processing tools urged Kimmo Pohjonen to take his first steps towards uncharted territories some five years ago. Whereas these encounters with effects mainly designed for guitarists did indeed prove useful, the biggest soulquake came when he was confronted with a loop sampler, a device that enables musicians to create real-time loops or soundscapes and then – for example – play duets with themselves live in concert.

At that point Pohjonen was already thoroughly schooled in the tradition of his beloved accordion, so the upgrade to something novel and adventurous was extremely stimulating. Now 37 years of age, the well-travelled accordion vanguard boldly uses the word “enlightening” to recall those times.

“The primary influence in this area was guitarist/composer Jarmo Saari,” he says. “My first opportunity to make music with this versatile, talented man came in 1995, when his group ZetaBoo invited myself and violinist Arto Järvelä (the “urban folk” duo Pinnin Pojat) on stage with them. After trying out Jarmo’s effects rack, I literally saw my future unfold before me. The very next day I purchased my first loop sampler, a Lexicon JamMan.”

It was while planning his debut performance as a solo artist in 1996 that the accordionist decided to take the bull by the horns and present his novel approach to the unsuspecting world. Since this Pandora’s box of sorts was opened, there has been no looking back. Aside from realising that he was now on the right path, Pohjonen reached the resolve of all but abandoning his accordion-oriented influences like Astor Piazzolla or Flaco Jimenez. He felt that this expurgation was the only true way of creating something that had never been experienced before.

This decision has been rewarded with an almost unprecedented international success that is rapidly gathering momentum. Pohjonen’s trailblazing solo shows in countries like France, Germany, the UK, the USA, Russia, Japan, and Brazil paired with particular triumphs like the 1999 performance at the WOMEX festival in Berlin or the 1997 concert at the Now You Squeeze It accordion happening in London have made it clear that the world is indeed ready for someone to take the accordion to outer space. Pouring even more fuel on the flames, Pohjonen’s solo album ‘Kielo’ (1999) continues to amaze every new territory it is released in. Such is the demand created by the lauded debut disc that the process of recording Kimmo’s sophomore effort has been put on hold twice already to accommodate the concert promoters’ requests.

Cosmopolitan sound design

Kimmo Pohjonen began playing the accordion at the age of ten. His main influence was his father, a member of the pelimannipiiri – the circle of folk musicians – in Viiala, a small rural town some 40 kilometres south of the city of Tampere. Even though the five-row chromatic accordion was not exactly the sexiest instrument of the mid- to late-70s, Kimmo stuck to his guns. At the age of sixteen he moved to Helsinki and soon continued his studies at the famed Sibelius Academy. After five years of treading the classical corridors, he switched to the Department of Folk Music. Gladly immersing himself in the titillating possibilities of world music for a while, Pohjonen got saturated with the sound of his own instrument in his early twenties.

“Somehow I just felt tired of the accordion, and decided to take a break by travelling to Tanzania. The trip was designed to be both business and pleasure: I wanted a vacation and some lessons on the mbira, the thumb piano indigenous to that area. Having done that, I returned to Finland only to fall madly in love with Astor Piazzolla and the Argentinean tango. I truly had no choice but to travel to Buenos Aires with my mind set on learning to play the bandoneon, the South American cousin of the accordion.”

But this plan soon backfired as it dawned on him that almost everything he had learned on the accordion would be useless on the bandoneon. He did bring a bandoneon back, but confesses that the instrument has been all but gathering dust in recent times. However, the discerning listener will have no difficulty spotting the ‘Argentinean connection’ or the ‘Tanzanian connection’ in Pohjonen’s original blend of Finnish roots and globetrotting attitude. In fact, the accordion astronaut has a wide range of influences to derive inspiration from; he is a world-class harmonica player and an avid connoisseur of the North Indian harmonium.

This kaleidoscopic multiplicity is mirrored not only in Kimmo’s extravagant solo art, but also in his imaginative choice of working environments. The man granted the accolade of Finnish Folk Musician of the Year in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 willingly plunges into improvised duets with such like-minded comrades as trombonist Markku Veijonsuo or drummer Eric Echampard. He has also been an integral member of the hugely successful Finnish rock/ethno team Ismo Alanko Säätiö since 1997. The group’s groovy, yet eerily shamanistic debut album ‘Pulu’ was awarded the Emma Prize (the Finnish equivalent of the Grammy) in 1998. Smitten with Pohjonen’s brutal attack and colourful style, Alanko has dubbed him the “lead guitarist” of the group.

Amplified accordion alchemy

Nowadays, increasingly important factors in Pohjonen’s artistic constitution are the various big-scale projects which began in March 1998 when he presented his piece ‘Broken Windows’ as part of the concert series ‘Sirpalesinfonia’ (‘Shattered Symphony’) by Finnish contemporary composers. This critically acclaimed work was followed in November 2000 with the ‘KalmukkisinFonia’ (‘Kalmuk’). A massive whirlwind for accordionist, two percussionists and a 15-piece sinfonietta, the piece received reviews that ranged from the enthusiastic to the ecstatic, and plans are now afoot to take the production abroad at the end of 2002. Another big project for 2002 is ‘Manipulator’, an audiovisual extravaganza staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki by Kimmo, Buto dancer Aki Suzuki and multimedia artist Marita Liulia.

During the rehearsals for ‘KalmukkisinFonia’, Pohjonen fell victim to the latest of his ‘moments of enlightenment’. Once again aided by modern technology, yet conjured up by the spirit of a fearless musician, this incident was crucial to the development of Kimmo’s voice as an artist.

“The innovative percussionist Samuli Kosminen and I were setting up our equipment when I noticed that he had the new all-in-one electronic Roland HandSonic drum/percussion pad with him. Samuli was using it to trigger samples and I asked him to humour me by making some sound bites out of the grunts and screams produced by my Lasse Pihlajamaa Timangi accordion. These samples ended up guiding us towards a novel type of expression. To top it all, this happened on my birthday, so I just thought that I couldn’t have wished for a nicer present from anybody.”

And thus the Kimmo Pohjonen Kluster was born: a mini-ensemble of accordion, percussion and live electronics. At times the line-up is augmented by Abdissa “Mamba” Assefa, another magnificent percussionist not afraid of experimenting. But it is the dynamic duo of Pohjonen and Kosminen that will form the basis for Kimmo’s next album. As was the case with ‘Kielo’, this disc is being produced by saxophonist/composer Tapani Rinne (of RinneRadio fame) and has a tentative release date in February 2002. But until then, the high priest of space accordion continues on his path of exploration.

“I believe that all musicians should strive to find their own natural way of producing sounds. After all, an individual style is the only thing that separates us from our colleagues. Sometimes, when confronted with a performance or recording where the musicians do not believe in their music, the situation can become awkward. Especially if the listener notices that the musicians’ hearts are not in their art. Nevertheless, I also firmly believe that it is extremely healthy to test one’s own limits by trying out novel things on a regular basis. How else can one expect to make any progress?”

Photo: Edigio Santos