in From the Archives

Once I waited for someone — the story of the Finnish Tango

by Pekka Gronow

Finland has taken the potato from Peru — potato in Finnish is peruna, by the way — and the tango from Argentina. Both these South American imports are cultivated in these northern latitudes perhaps even more devotedly than in their countries of origin. Pekka Gronow reports on the way in which the tango has taken root in Finland and stubbornly survived even the arrival of Elvis and The Beatles.

The most frequently performed song in Finland in 1992 was the tango Satumaa [Fairytale Land], composed by Unto Mononen in 1955. The Unto Mononen Society holds its meetings at the “Satumaa” restaurant in Somero, a quiet agricultural town in Southwestern Finland. In the fifties Mononen lived one block away from the restaurant, which was then known by another name, and was once thrown out of the establishment for firing a pistol into the ceiling. And it was just a few hundred meters from here that the composer finally ended his life in 1968, after a long fight with alcoholism.

Satumaa will certainly be played at the Seinäjoki Tango Festival, where thousands of mostly middle-aged Finns meet every summer to dance to their favourite tangos and to elect the new Tango King and Queen.

It is not easy to explain why the tango has become so popular in Finland and continues to flourish here, while the rest of the world has more or less abandoned it. It is well known that the tango was born around the turn of the century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. It was brought to Europe in the early 1910s by visiting Argentinian musicians and dancers. It first became fashionable in Paris, and spread rapidly all over Europe during the twenties and thirties. In many countries there were even specialized tango bands which attempted to emulate the style and dress of Argentinian tango bands. In London, nightclubbers danced to the music of “Geraldo and his Gauchos”.

The original Argentine tango was an angular, syncopated form of music with many traits in common with early jazz and blues. Tango texts were dramatic episodes of life in the suburbs and cafes of Bueno Aires. When European composers started writing tangos, the lyrics lost their point of reference. The tango was understood as something exotic, and European tangos usually dealt with romantic love in distant lands. The milieu was just as likely to be Mediterranean as Argentinian.

The first Finnish tangos from the thirties showed similar traits. By the end of the decade local colour began to appear. Lumihiutaleita [Snow flakes, 1936, by M. Maja] was one of the first to introduce typical Nordic imagery into the tango. When composers wrote new tangos, they found that they could use lyric and melodic formulas borrowed from older Finnish and Russian waltzes, which frequently dealt with longing and nostalgia in a minor key. The human characters in the lyrics were usually stereotypic lovers, but they were placed in a Northern scenery which was painted with feeling and skill.

Wartime tangos

The Finnish tango found its soul during the war, when popular songs describing the feelings of separated lovers were in great demand. Perhaps the best-known tango of the war years is Syyspihlajan alla [Under the autumn rowan tree, 1942] by Arvo Koskimaa and Valter Virmajoki. Set in a Finnish autumn landscape, where the endless rain and the growing darkness create an atmosphere of hopelessness, and the red berries of the rowan remind us of the bloodshed going on, the song tells a story of longing and a love doomed to failure: “The birds of passage have flown to distant lands over my head. The cold tear of the rain beat on the window. I once waited for someone, but she will never come”.

The tango had thus become domesticated in Finland by the 1940s, but at that time it was just one of the current forms of popular music. A Finnish popular composer would often choose the foxtrot tempo for an optimistic “boy meets girl” -type song. A schottische or a polka would be fine for a comic song, and the tango might be chosen for a lament of love lost. In the late forties, there was actually a decline in the popularity of the tango. When the first Finnish record sales charts were published in 1951, there were no tangos listed.

By 1952 a new interest was again noticeable. This was nor just a Finnish phenomenon: tangos were popular in Germany, where songs such as Red Roses, Red Lips, and Red Wine helped the country to recover from the war. There were even tangos on the American hit parade — remember Hernando's hideaway from “The Pajamas Game”. For the next three or four years, there were always several tangos among the best-selling records in Finland, often in the number one position,

International tangos were now eagerly translated into Finnish. The number one song in Finland in 1953 was Tulisuudelma [Kiss of fire / El choclo], originally written by Angel G. Villoldo in Buenos Aires in 1905 and revived with new English lyrics in the fifties. The international bestsellers were the jazzy interpretations by Louis Armstrong and Georgia Gibbs, but in Finland, the preferred recording was by Olavi Virta.  

The first Tango King

To the Finns, Olavi Virta (1915—1972) is the real king of the tango. Few Finns have ever heard of Carlos Gardel, the original tango king, who reigned supreme until his fatal plane crash in Medellin in 1935. During his long career, Virta made almost 600 records and several feature films. His repertoire ranged from American evergreens to sentimental waltzes, but today he is best remembered for his tangos. In the fifties Virta was the most successful entertainer in Finland. His popularity began to decline in the late 1950s, and in 1962 he was jailed for drunken driving. He became a legend in his final tragic years, when he continued to make public appearances despite his alcoholism and deteriorating health, and occasionally still captured some of the magic of his peak period.

In addition to Tulisuudelma, Virta's popular tangos include La cumparsita (another Argentine classic), Tango Desiree (of German origin) and Täysikuu [The full moon]. Written by the famous songwriting team of Toivo Kärki and Reino Helismaa, Täysikuu is an example of the mature Finnish tango of the fifties. It has the distinctive staccato rhythm of the Argentine tango, but the tempo is slower, and there is hardly any syncopation. The melodic line resembles turn-of-the-century Russian romances, and the lyrics are a classic blend of unattainable love and natural imagery: “Moon, please shine on the one I love”. But when we look more closely at the musical structure of the song, we discover the 32-bar AABA structure of American popular song, and some very sophisticated harmonic thinking.

Kärki and Helismaa were the nearest Finnish equivalent to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building: a veritable song factory which turned out more than a thousand popular songs in a quarter century. They consolidated the Finnish tango of the fifties, combining memorable melodic lines with inventive harmonies. Kärki's well-known tangos include Hiljainen kylätie [The quiet village road], Minä soitan sulle illalla [I will call you in the evening], Siks' oon mä suruinen [The reason of my unhappiness], Liljankukka [Lily blossom], and Tango merellä (Tango at sea).

In the late fifties popular music was again due for a change. The Finns were turning their attention to international popular music, and many Finnish girls lost their hearts to Elvis. Then the swinging sixties arrived with pop groups, amplifiers and electric guitars. One might have been excused for thinking that the tango was now ancient history.

Suddenly there were again tangos in the top ten. The big domestic hit of 1963 was Satumaa, performed by Reijo Taipale. In 1964 there were two recordings competing for the top position of the charts in Finland: All my loving by the Beatles, and Tähdet meren yllä [Stars above the ocean], another Mononen tango sung by Taipale. The tango had clearly made a comeback.

Unto Mononen and the Tango Boom

In the fifties, the tango had been just one type of popular song. Olavi Virta and other entertainers of the decade freely mixed tangos, foxtrots and waltzes, and their bands usually included some jazz numbers in their stage shows. The audiences of the sixties demanded a new kind of purity: their favourite singers and bands were expected to perform nothing but tangos.

The tango revival must be seen in relationship to the other big trend of the decade, beat music and the Beatles. Beatlemania raged in Finland just as strongly as in other European countries. Suddenly there were dozens of local groups with electric guitars, long hair and names derived from an English plural noun: the Sounds, the Scaffolds, the Blazers and so on.

Not everyone liked this loud new music. A line drawn across Finland from Vaasa to Kouvola divided the country to “beatle-Finland” and “tango-Finland” — incidentally the same line which separated the “yes” votes from the “no” votes in the recent referendrum on Finland’s membership in the European Union. The North was tango country, and bands which accepted gigs in dance halls there knew that they had to have at least thirty tangos in their repertoire.

The need to distinguish these two types of music extended to the outward appearance of the performers. Members of beat groups had long hair and wore colourful, youthful clothes. Musicians in tango bands were conservatively dressed in identical suits, and the singer usually wore a black suit, white shirt, and tie. All had short, brilliantined hair. The basic instruments of the tango band were accordion, drum and bass, and the accordionist was responsible for most solo passages.

The most successful tango composer of the sixties was Unto Mononen, a semi-professional bandleader from Somero. Friends remember Mononen as an independent soul who would startle the residents of this quiet rural town by wearing a beret and dark glasses on autumn nights. Mononen made his living by playing in rural dance halls. In the fifties he had published a number of songs, including Satumaa, which had been recorded in 1955 with moderate success.

In 1962 Reijo Taipale recorded Satumaa again, and by the beginning of 1963 it was the best-selling record in Finland. Every company was now eager to record the tangos of Unto Mononen. Within a few years’ time, dozens of his songs were recorded, and many of them became extremely popular.

But after 1965, tangos no longer appeared in the top positions in the charts. The Beatles started writing soft ballads like Michelle and Yesterday which appealed to larger audiences, and the only tangos in the charts were now parodies which mocked the clichés of the genre. By 1966, Mononen was unable to sell any new songs. He was drinking heavily and making debts all around, and his life in Somero was frequently interrupted by stays in clinics. In his final years he turned to composing serious poetry and religious verse, but had not yet gained recognition in this role when he put a bullet through his head in June 1968.

In addition to Satumaa and Tähdet meren yllä, Mononen's best-known tangos include Kangastus [Mirage], Syvä kuin meri [Deep as the ocean], and Erottamattomat [The unseparable]. The best-known interpreters of his songs were Reijo Taipale, Eino Grön and Esko Rahkonen. Harmonically simpler than the tangos of Kärki, his melodies often have a hymn-like character. Introductions and interludes for accordion play an important role. The lyrics frequently use natural symbolism to convey feelings of loss and longing.

Next to Olavi Virta, Mononen has become the symbol of the Finnish tango. His own life is a perfect illustration of his songs, where the subject is dreaming of an unattainable land of happiness. There was a play based on his life, and at the meetings of the Mononen Society admirers are still debating the importance of his lost songs which he is known to have written shortly before his death. At present a well-known film director is planning a film on Mononen.

The Tango and the Finnish soul

Since the sixties, tangos have no longer appeared in the sales charts, but Reijo Taipale and Eino Grön, the popular tango singers of the sixties are still much in demand in personal appearances. The tango has become an accepted form of Finnish culture. Even those Finns who personally have other musical preferences feel that the tango belongs to Finland just as much as skiing and the sauna.

What, then, explains the continuing popularity of the tango in Finland? A simple explanation is the fact that the tango has become the most popular form of ballroom dancing in Finland. At almost any dance in Finland you can see how the floor is empty while the band is playing its opening numbers. Then the first tango sounds, and the dance floor is crowded.

Yet this is only a partial explanation. It is the lyrics which are the key to the continuing success of the genre. In her forthcoming book Tango Nostalgia: The Language af Love and Longing, Dr. Pirjo Kukkonen suggests that tango lyrics reflect “the personality, mentality and identity of the Finnish people in the same way as folk poetry does”. The central themes of Finnish tango lyrics are love, sorrow, nature and the countryside. Many tangos express a longing for the old homestead, or a distant land of happiness. The changing seasons of Finnish nature are frequently used metaphors: the spring breaks the hold of the winter, and flowers appear, creating new expectations. Autumn rains and dark evenings are symbols of crushed hopes.

Many critics see Satumaa as a prototype of the Finnish tango. Satumaa [Fairytale land] is about a distant land across the wide ocean, where beautiful flowers bloom forever. But only birds can fly to the land of happiness; the wingless man must remain chained to the soil.

Aavan meren tuolla puolen
jossakin on maa
jossa onnen kaukorantaan
laineet liplattaa ...

It can be understood simply as a song of unreqruited love, but it could also be a song about man’s longing for a paradise lost. When this is combined with the solemn, hymn-like melody, it explains why a prominent liberal theologian has recently suggested that Satumaa should be included in the official psalm book of the Finnish Lutheran church. In Finland, the tango is not taken lightly.


Pekka Gronow is the head of the gramophone library of Yleisradio, the Finnish Broadcasting Company. He has written extensively on popular music and the history of the recording industry.

Featured photo by Pekka Kyytinen/Museovirasto. Tango dancers in the summer night in Helsinki in 1952.

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1995 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.