in Reviews

Popular Music Made in Finland - A book review

by Pekka Gronow

"If you are interested in the 'progressive' varieties of Finnish popular music and do not read Finnish, this is the book for you."

Made in Finland: Studies in Popular Music
Edited by Toni-Matti Karjalainen and Kimi Kärki

Do you know Eppu Normaali, Nightwish, , Dingo and Hurriganes? Eppu Normaali, who sing in Finnish, have sold more than a million records, quite an achievement in a country of 5,5 million inhabitants. The more globally oriented Nightwish have reportedly sold more than nine million records worldwide. Yö, Dingo and Hurriganes also belong to the all-time best-known bands in Finland, but few people outside the country are familiar with their music, or even their names.

Now is your chance to learn more about Finnish popular music. The Global Popular Music Series, published by Routledge in the UK, has a reputation as an invaluable source of information on popular music in many countries. In addition to volumes on France, Spain, Italy and other countries which have already left a visible mark on global popular music, the series also covers less obvious countries such as Turkey, Korea and Australia. The second latest volume, Made in Finland: Studies in Popular Music, is a welcome addition to the meagre literature in English language on Finnish popular music. Like other volumes in the series, it is written by established scholars in the field.

Before going further, I must warn that this book is not intended as a comprehensive guide to all varieties of Finnish popular music. The authors belong to the rock generation, and to them, popular music began in the 1960s. There is very little on the conservative, mainstream varieties of popular music which still dominate many radio channels in Finnish today. Many singers and songwriters in the unofficial Hall of Fame of Finnish popular music only receive a brief mention here. The immensely popular dance music duo Matti and Teppo, who have sold as many records as Eppu Normaali, are not included at all. But if you are interested in the “progressive” varieties of Finnish popular music and do not read Finnish, this is the book for you.

To the authors, the key to understanding Finnish popular music is Emma, a song in waltz tempo about a faithless girl. The original recording, made in 1929 by Ture Ara, was a huge hit which sold 30000 copies and helped to launch the modern popular song in Finland. In 1963, the song was recorded again by a group called The Sounds, this time in 4/4 tempo. The Sounds were obviously inspired by The Shadows and other similar British groups of the era. The record helped to launch the beat music boom in Finland and paved the way to subsequent international trends such as rock, punk and electronic dance music, eventually culminating in the triumph of heavy metal music and the international fame of such Finnish groups as Havana Black, Amorphis, Apocalyptica, HIM and Nightwish. If you want to follow this development, you can go to the book’s web pages, click the individual chapters and listen the musical examples, starting with the versions of Emma from 1929 and 1963 and culminating with Nemo, a music video from 2004 by Nightwish.

Like other volumes in the series, Popular Music Made in Finland is a collection of essays. In addition to (what the authors see as) the main narrative of Finnish popular music, the topics include many fascinating marginal areas. Petri Kuljuntausta writes on early electronic instruments in Finland. Pertti Grönholm discusses the rise of minimal techno music in the 1990s. Juho Kaitajärvi-Tiekso and Juho Hänninen survey underground music in the age of platforms. I found all three chapters fascinating and learned a lot. I would never have imagined that an “electric light piano” was demonstrated in Finland as early as 1894.

Johannes Brusila writes on the popular music of the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland. Swedish is the second official language of Finland, but only 0,3 million Finns, or about five per cent of the population speak it as their mother tongue today. As a consequence, Finland-Swedish artists have to choose between focusing on their own reference group, which obviously limits their chances of commercial success, or moving to neighbouring Sweden, where ten million people speak the same language with a different accent, or changing their language into Finnish. Today, many Finland-Swedish artists chosen a fourth alternative and sing in English.

Saijaleena Rantanen writes about another minority, the Finnish-Americans. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than a two hundred thousand Finns in America. Most came from poor rural backgrounds and worked in in mining, forestry and farming, In America, they were drawn into radical labour movements such as the International Workers of the World, popularly known as the “Wobblies”. Finnish radicals were so numerous that they published their own newspapers and song books, and even had their battle songs recorded by major US companies such as Columbia and Victor. Rantanen provides a fascinating review of surviving “Wobbly” songs, and there are authentic audio examples for listening on the web pages. But again, this is not a comprehensive survey of Finnish-American music.

The role of Karelia in Finnish music is more complex. In the 19th century, Karelia was the mythical home of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Sibelius wrote Karelia suite, and Karelian girls have been celebrated in popular songs since the 1920s. The subject is too large to cover in one essay. Pekka Suutari concentrates on Karelian influences in the Finnish folk song movement since the 1960s and the role of Karelian immigrants who moved to Finland after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The chapter is accompanied by several audio examples.

Like all volumes in the Global Popular Music series, the book ends with an interview with an eminent artist in the field. True to the concept of this volume, the editors have chosen Tuomas Holopainen, the leader of Nightwish.

To find the audio examples mentioned above, go the web page of the book:
Then click in the right-hand column the title of a chapter and open a playlist of audio examples. The same feature also works for other volumes in the series.