Music and bi-cultural identity: Navigating the pandemic
I am a Finnish music maker with roots in two cultures; I am local in two places, a native in two musical traditions. I have a family here in Finland and over there in Bulgaria. My music is from here and from over there. My cultural identity reaches further than the borders of Finland. It is natural for me to use harmonic and rhythmic elements from both north and south. Dissonance is harmony for me. Having just one culture without the other leaves me incomplete as an individual; making music with just one without the other leaves me incomplete as a musician.
There are two sides to me. Acknowledging and understanding these two sides and how they make up the whole of my self has taught me to identify contradictions in my life, in my music and around me.
The world is a conflicted place. While the sun shines on one side, it is dark on the other side. While I think about my being and the contradictions in my life and in my choices, others might never take notice of similar things in their lives.
And some do not even have the luxury of making choices.
My individual identity includes a powerful need to go – to leave my one place and go to the other, when I want to. Due to the geographical location of Finland, this probably means jumping on a plane. And just like that, I am thousands of kilometres away. In my other place.
Above the clouds there are no boundaries. It is dreamlike and beautiful up there, however conflicted the world may be.
I can choose when to leave and when to arrive, because I am privileged.
I was born in a country and I live in a country which I can leave and to which I can return whenever I want. I am not forced to leave because of war or because of climate-related disasters. It is not hunger that drives me out into the world. No one orders me to go. I myself am the only one who decides when I need to get up and go, for the sake of my music and my identity.
But then, people have always been on the move. Finland as we know it today was created by migration. Finnish music and Finnish culture have evolved with changes in our society and continue to do so. Finland in the future will not be what she is today, but instead probably even more diverse. Boundaries between nationalities are becoming more relaxed, and people increasingly feel themselves belonging to transnational groups. And as people move around, so does their music. Changes in society also affect music.
“Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not yet come, all we have is today.”
For an individual, this old saying may help to ease the mental burden and anxiety of the choices we make each and every day, but if society as a whole were to live only for today, without a thought for tomorrow, then who knows what would be left behind for future generations. Yet even for all our best-laid plans, our shared tomorrow can change in an instant. We have learned this the hard way through the global pandemic that we have been living with for nearly two years now.
The music sector is not detached from the rest of society, and Finnish operators are not detached from the rest of the world. What happens in the world has an impact on Finland. The pandemic, political changes, climate-related disasters and wars all have an impact on the music business worldwide.
Some can go, others are unable.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board. The air in the cabin is continuously circulated through filters that remove more than 90% of all viruses. Please wear a face mask for the entire flight, and remember to wash your hands.”
I am writing this column while sitting at Amsterdam airport waiting for my connecting flight back to Finland, back to one of my two places. I have just been to Womex, the largest global music event in the world, as one of Finland’s delegates. In 2020, this annual event had to be held as a virtual conference, so when in 2021 it was finally possible to travel and meet people for real, more than two thousand delegates from all around the world jumped at the opportunity.
Meeting other people is a fundamental human need. Music is born of connections and communication between individuals and their environment. Music brings people together, though it also defines groups of people and communities. The tools of digital communication that we have become used to here in the privileged world (so much so during the pandemic that we have made them into the new normal) can never remove an individual’s need to meet other people in person.
For a person belonging to two cultures, this need is even deeper. At least for me it is. Digitalisation and hybrid events can never allow me to experience the atmosphere of another place, to sense its air, to see its colours and to spend time with the people there. I cannot experience the emotions brought about by the environment except by being there. A screen in my home cannot make me sense how the morning is breaking somewhere else – in my other home, for instance.
The pandemic has caused me to think much about contradictions present in our everyday lives, as well as global contradictions. The global loneliness brought upon us by pandemic-induced restrictions has hit myself and many others in our business hard. For nearly two years, I did not fly anywhere. I was forced to reshape my individual identity when I was suddenly unable to leave. Being grounded had an impact on my music as well.
New times forge new thoughts. For myself, I have had to contemplate whether I am a whole person even if I am unable to travel to other places. How will my identity be shaped if my mobility is restricted? And how will my music be shaped if I cannot get away once in a while? More generally, how does my mobility affect other people in this world? Do I even have the right to choose to get up and go just because of my music, when others are forced to leave for the sake of their lives?
“Nothing is permanent except change.”
I have the freedom to think about all this and to make decisions that are appropriate for myself, because I live in one of the world’s most equal societies. My awareness of the inequality and contradictions of the world informs everything I do.
With great freedom comes great responsibility.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju