in From the Archives

New directions with a firm basis in tradition

by Mika Kauhanen

The world music market has seen a boom in Celtic, African and Latin American music. Many people believe that it is the turn of the Nordic countries next.

The heritage of Finnish folk music can be divided into the eastern and western tradition. The same geographical division also very largely applies to modern folk music, or Finnish world music, if that is your preferred term. In Eastern Finland people have shown a preference for singing in the original, ancient style. For a long time in the east, pentatonic melodies and alliterative lyrics held out against the pan-European rhyming folk song.

Using the Eastern Finnish tradition as a jump-off point, Värttinä is Finland's most successful contemporary folk music group. Formed in the North Karelian village of Rääkkylä in 1983, the band was later based in Helsinki. Värttinä is an incredibly youthful and dynamic ensemble, considering how long they have been performing. They have been giving concerts around the world for 15 years and have released 10 albums, the last of which, iki, was on the definitive list of "50 World Music Albums You Must Own", put out by the British magazine Songlines.

Värttinä bases its music firmly in tradition, without, however, merely producing folk song variants. Their own compositions and lyrics exploit the poetic and musical resources of folk song to create something original. Their material is derived from Karelian poems and the music of traditional female choirs to be found among other Finno-Ugric nations such as in Setumaa in Estonia. Värttinä's three female singers make the loud and powerful style of performance and the close harmony singing adopted from this music sound wonderfully primitive. The acoustic band creates a contrast between the old and new, with melodies recast in modern arrangements. The line-up includes violin, accordion, guitar, bouzuki, saxophone, bass and percussion.

Globalisation of the Kalevala

The runes of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and the Kanteletar compilation associated with it, have left an indelible impression on Värttinä. They have brought a mythical dimension to the band's sound. After hearing them, the producers of the Lord of the Rings musical wanted Värttinä to write a musical soundscape for Middle Earth in collaboration with Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman. In terms of scope and budget the musical is one of the biggest ever in history. It receives its premiere in Toronto in spring 2006, and the London shows start in the autumn. It is not entirely inappropriate that a Finnish band should be involved in composing the music for this epic saga, since the Elvish language J.R.R. Tolkien developed for the tale was partly based on Finnish.

But Värttinä is by no means the only band to continue the Eastern Finnish musical tradition. Tellu Turkka and Liisa Matveinen, best known for their work with the Finnish-Swedish combo Hedningarna (The Heathens), are two major figures in the revival of the Finnish rune song tradition. In the music written for the Suden aika (Time of the Wolf) quartet they have preserved the intimate nature of the unaccompanied rune, but have extended its expressive range with modern harmonies and a daring use of the voice. The group is very highly rated in Germany. Among the other prominent names from Eastern Finland are Burlakat (The Vagabonds), a group that specialises in rekilaulu songs and the only Finnish group that sings in the Karelian language. Yet another is the kantele player Timo Väänänen, who has been working on an electric version of the instrument.

Mauno 4 Kuvaaja Riku Rantakari Dsc 0696
Mauno Järvelä
Photo: Riku Rantakari

Kaustinen, folk music's capital

Whereas Eastern Finland is known for its vocal music, Western Finland, and Ostrobothnia in particular, has had a tradition of folk instrumental music featuring the use of violins, clarinets and harmoniums. Village fiddlers playing dance music quickly adopted the musical fashions of different periods, such as the minuet, polska, waltz, quadrille, polka, schottische and mazurka. Western Finland's dynamic relationship with Sweden meant major and minor scales and strophic forms were established there earlier than in Eastern Finland.

One of the most active upholders of the folk tradition is Kaustinen, in Central Ostrobothnia, Finland's folk music capital. This municipality of less than 5,000 inhabitants was a focal point for the Finnish folk revival. Kaustinen's master fiddler Konsta Jylhä and his band Purppuripelimannit (The Potpourri Players) got to be a favourite act of the Finnish nation with their radio and TV performances, and the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, which started in 1968, became an arena for local traditions from around the entire country, thus raising their profile in the national consciousness. The festival is still the biggest of its type in the Nordic countries. Little wonder, then, that the Finnish Folk Music Institute, established in 1974, was also located in Kaustinen.

Kaustinen still has a magnificent and exceptionally varied violin tradition with skills being handed down from father to son and from master to pupil.

The Järveläs are one of the most vital families of traditional folk musicians and fiddlers in the neighbourhood. The number one band to play the new folk instrumental music is JPP (originally Järvelän Pikkupelimannit - The Little Järvelä Fiddlers), and of its line-up of six, half are presently members of the Järvelä family. JPP, a combo of virtuoso musicians, have been performing since the early 1990s, for example at the Womad and Sidmouth Festivals, and at Womex and Folk Alliance events, and have toured widely in Europe and North America. As with most modern folk music groups, JPP write their own material. Arto Järvelä, who has also pursued a successful career as a solo violinist, composes most of the material, and harmonium player Timo Alakotila is responsible for some subtle arranging.

JPP's most experienced member is Mauno Järvelä, whose groundbreaking work in musical education paid off in 2004 when he was awarded the Pro Finlandia medal by the President of Finland and the Suomi Art Prize. Mauno Järvelä has coached hundreds of children in Kaustinen using a method of group learning he developed himself and which has aroused a good deal of interest both in Finland and abroad. JPP's bass player and baby of the band Antti Järvelä also finds time to play in the Finnish-Norwegian ensemble Frigg. Frigg's fresh, tight sound makes them a serious rival of the older generation JPP.

City-trained folk musicians

The main reason for the high standard of modern Finnish folk music and the large number of professional folk musicians on the scene is the fact that Finland's only music university, the Sibelius Academy, has its own Folk Music Department, Professor Heikki Laitinen, the visionary that helped establish the department, has encouraged students to create adventurous new music. The philosophy has been that folk music should not become a museum piece; tradition, rather, should be allowed to evolve. Of course, serious study of tradition also serves as a foundation upon which the artist can strive to create an individual style.

The new generation folk musicians are nothing less than masters of their instruments. University education has also given them the ability to ·compose as well as make superbly crafted arrangements of traditional folk melodies. A huge number of these were written down in Finland as a result of the collections that were made on such a large scale in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Many of the top established names in contemporary folk music teach at the Sibelius Academy, including Timo Alakotila. Composer, arranger and producer, he is the “grey eminence” of modern folk music, whose tango- and jazz-influenced harmonic and rhythmic thinking have done much to determine the sound of the entire genre in Finland. In the catalogue of compositions by the multitalented Alakotila are also to be found large-scale works, such as a sinfonia concertante for big band and a concerto for accordion and chamber orchestra. Among those who have commissioned music from this composer with a flair for subtlety is the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Alakotila is the pianist who regularly accompanies another important teacher and accordion player at the Sibelius Academy, Maria Kalaniemi. Kalaniemi combines virtuosic mastery of the instrument with a delicate and instinctive sense of musicianship. BBC Radio 3 reporter Fiona Talkington summed up her style this way: “Whatever she plays, she does so with the elegance of a Roman goddess”. Kalaniemi, recently appointed to the post of Artist Professor, has been involved with a good number of performers playing free-bass accordion. She has led the band Aldargaz as well as her own trio, played with Swedish violinist Sven Ahlbäck in the duo entitled Airbow, and been a vital force behind the multinational collective Accordion Tribe.

There is such a large number of strong solo artists who play the accordion now in Finland that in 2003 Songlines magazine published an article on the Finnish accordion “phenomenon”. The accordion triumvirate consisting of Kalaniemi, Kimmo Pohjonen, and Markku Lepistö are being joined by new performers. Those on disc include Pauliina Lerche, Johanna Juhola and Veli Kujala.

02 Kimmo Pohjonen By Egidio Santos
Kimmo Pohjonen
Photo: Egidio Santos

Those Finns are mad!

The “Techno Accordion Terrorist”, “Hendrix of the Accordion”, “Batman of the Accordion”: all names that have been given to Kimmo Pohjonen, who has produced sounds on his instrument that have never been heard before from an accordion. Pohjonen gives unique, integrated performances that celebrate bodily form and and make use of lightning, moving images and 5.1 surround sound. At the centre of it all is a perspiring Pohjonen growling into the microphone and wildly swinging his heavy accordion around. In something that recalls a pagan ritual, he is transformed into a twenty-first century shaman, generating powerful walls of sound using samplers and special effect pedals in real time. And they say the accordion is an old-fashioned instrument ...

Pohjonen, a nominee for the BBC World Music Award 2003, is involved in a number of projects. One is a virtually non-stop world tour performing solo or with percussionist Samuli Kosminen as the duo known as Kluster. The American Kronos Quartet has commissioned music for accordion, electronic percussion and string quartet from him. The work entitled Uniko was completed in 2004 and so far has been performed in Finland, Russia and Norway. Pohjonen's latest proj-ect is KTU, a band that tends towards progressive rock and which includes musicians from King Crimson among its line-up. Recently the accordion player has also improvised on disc and on tour with French jazz drummer Eric Echampard.

Another of Finnish music's idiosyncratic phenomena is the unrestrained harmonica quartet Sväng. The band's leader, Jouko Kyhälä, is at present studying for a doctorate in harmonica playing! The seven-piece jouhikko (bowed lyre) ensemble, Hiien hivuksista, also plays with an admirable sense of devotion and self-assurance. Bowed lyre ensemble playing takes attitude, since it is quite a challenge for such a large group to keep in tune.

Multicultural Finland

In many countries linguistic and cultural minorities have contributed more than their fair share to the traditional music scene. That is also true of Finland, where a lot of fine musicians have risen from the ranks of the Sámi and the Swedish-speaking Finns, The music of Sámi artists in particular has gone down very well indeed with world music audiences. For example, the latest albums by Wimme and Ulla PirttijärviBárru and Máttáráhku askái  did well in the 2003 EBU world music charts, where they remained in the top 20 for a whole two months.

According to studies made worldwide by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, the yoik, the unique, traditional chant of the Sámi, is closer in its vocal style to the music of the North American Indians than that of the Nordic peoples. The yoik is by origin an unaccompanied song in which brief melodic phrases adorned with glissandi are repeated and varied with changing timbres resonating in the throat. Wimme and Ulla Pirttijärvi endeavour to combine this archaic singing style with an ultramodern club sound. The result sounds like an energised version of ambient music.

The band that probably has the highest profile among the Swedish-speaking Finns is Gjallarhorn, who make music based on mediaeval epic ballads that teII of encounters between kings and queens. In Gjallarhorn, traditional Scandinavian music is tinged with influences from further afield: the violin parts often sound misleadingly Celtic, and the bass drone is provided by the didgeridoo, the instrument of the Australian Aboriginals. The Swedish-speaking Finnish tradition has been continued in a rather purer form by Marianne Maans and the group Ramunder.

Obviously immigrants to Finland have also had their own contribution to make to Finnish musical culture. But music itself has also brought people to Finland. A number of foreign musicians have played with Piirpauke and have decided to remain permanently in Finland. Piirpauke formed thirty years ago and were playing world music before the term was even invented. Their music has echoes of the traditional sound of Africa, Latin America, Spain and the Balkans - far-flung corners of the world that the music research trips of their Finnish leader, cosmopolite Sakari Kukko, have taken him to.

One of the best bands consisting totally of immigrants to the country is the Senegalese combo Galaxy. Its line-up includes Ranne Diallo, who played with Super Étoile du Dakar, and one of the world's most accomplished tama (talking drum) players, Yamar Thiam

Featured photo: Värttinä in Helsinki in 2007
Translation: Spencer Allman

This article was first published in FMQ 4/2005 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.