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Singing your place in the world

by Sini Mononen

'Laulu', a film directed by Selma Vilhunen, portrays the encounter of people, their life stories, joys and sorrows in the heartland of runo singing.

Selma Vilhunen’s film Laulu (“Song”) received its premiere in spring 2014. The film follows a Finnish cartoon artist Hanneriina Moisseinen during her journey to Eastern Finland to learn from runo singer Jussi Huovinen.

Selma Vilhunen (b. 1976) has directed and written both fiction and documentary films, and her 2012 film titled Do I have to Take Care of Everything was nominated for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 2013 Oscars. Through the process of making her film Laulu, Vilhunen discovered the Finnish runo singing tradition and the world that comes alive through singing.


At the Kalevala songlands

Jussi Huovinen (b. 1924) learned the art of runo singing from his own parents. He lives in the Hietajärvi village of Suomussalmi, at the border of Finland and Russia, around the waistline of the Finnish Maiden. Out of his window, Huovinen looks out to the Uhtua region on the Russian side of the border. During the Soviet era, this area was still known as Kalevala. Uhtua is one of the regions Elias Lönnrot travelled across to collect material for the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Huovinen is the sole inhabitant in his village. Hietajärvi is an idyllic cluster of half a dozen houses where Viena Karelian influence can be seen in the ornamental window frames and steep saddle roofs, as well as in the actual layout of the village. In a typical Finnish village, houses are separated by fields, whereas Viena Karelian houses are grouped together in the middle of the fields. 

Huovinen lives next to the Domna House, a tradition centre built by the Juminkeko Foundation, an organisation dedicated to promoting and preserving  Kalevalaic traditions. The traditional house is a replica of Huovinen’s birth home which was burnt down by Finns during the Second World War. The Juminkeko Foundation rebuilt the house in the 1970s as a tribute to Jussi Huovinen.

Huovinen’s childhood landscape is in the midst of the ”genuine” Kalevala songlands where Elias Lönnrot worked as a district doctor from 1833 to 1853. He collected songs from the Finnish oral tradition, notably during his travels across the large, mountainous Kainuu region where Huovinen’s home town Suomussalmi is located. The first edition of the Kalevala was completed in 1834, shortly after Lönnrot’s trip to Kainuu.

Jussi Huovinen is a fifth-generation runo singer and a descendant of Toarie Huovinen, a 19th century master of folk tradition whose poems made a significant contribution to the Kalevala. Lönnrot’s contemporary, folk music researcher D.E.D. Europaeus wrote down descriptions of Toarie, and his 1840s transcriptions of Toarie’s hero poems about Lemminkäinen made their way into Lönnrot’s hands. Inspired by the poems, Lönnrot ended up rewriting the story of Lemminkäinen for the 1849 second edition of the Kalevala 


The soothing states of song

In the film Laulu, 35-year-old Hanneriina Moisseinen learns runo singing while also working on her cartoon album titled Isä – Father (2013).  The album is an autobiographical story where Moisseinen processes the sudden disappearance of her father. The tragedy occurred when Moisseinen was ten years old but her grieving was done 17 years later, as a grown-up. While working on her cartoon album, Moisseinen travelled from Suomussalmi to Iceland and back home to Helsinki. The grief is manifested in singing that keeps flowing throughout her journey. In the midst of grieving, singing provides a safe haven where one can be united with the world.

In the filming process, Selma Vilhunen followed Moisseinen several times during her trips to Jussi Huovinen’s home in Suomussalmi. Huovinen has composed his own songs based on a variety of personal experiences, such as missing his mother, reminiscing about his late spouse or finding solace from nature.  During the film-making, Vilhunen also heard Huovinen sing old epic poems, such as the Song of the Eagle which is a part of the Kalevala story about the Myth of Sampo, as well as Pistosvirsi, a song about the creation of the world.

In one of the film scenes, Moisseinen contemplates the difficulty of performing these songs, and Huovinen advises her to be herself when singing them. There is no need to try to be more than what one is. Vilhunen describes Huovinen’s musicianship as prosaic and inspired at the same time.

”I remember thinking that Jussi’s attitude towards singing was straightforward. It embraces the ordinary. His singing has a certain fragility combined with the power of being present and complete certainty. It teaches us to value everyday life.”

Vilhunen was deeply affected by Moisseinen’s story and Jussi Huovinen’s singing. Even the significance of film as a form of expression changed when she listened to singing. These days, Vilhunen thinks of film as a soundboard that you can inhabit in order to listen to the world and yourself.

”A film offers a place where the viewer can go on a journey of their own. The characters go through a certain journey but there are still gaps left for the viewer to enter and exit. The viewer is given a chance to sing their own song while they travel along.”

The Kalevala singing tradition offers an opportunity to take one’s place as part of the tradition. Singing can also serve as an outlet for processing modern times and one’s own story.

”If your own place in the world has expanded or shrunk excessively, singing offers a way of claiming it back. Singing can make you discover your place on a certain continuum. Jussi’s way of singing, in all its straightforwardness, demonstrates a great wisdom and an art of being and living”, Vilhunen describes.


Trailer for the film Laulu:

 Jussi Huovinen passed away on 12 May 2017.


Santra and Women’s Songs

Finnish runo singing is also present in a new documentary film about Santra Remsujeva, titled “Santra and the Talking Trees” (2014) and directed by Miia Tervo.

D. E. D. Europaeus was a folklore collector, linguist, archaeologist and journalist. A promoter of Finnish culture across many fields, Europeaus’s most significant contribution was provided through his life-work as a collector of oral tradition.

Europaeus had a strong research interest in the folklore he collected, unlike Lönnrot who romantically treated tradition as a building block for a national identity.

As well as Kalevalaic mythology, Europaeus’s collections included women’s songs, hooligan songs and raunchy songs that at the time were not regarded as highly as incantations or hero poems.  The raunchy songs depicted topics like women’s status and how women express their own sexuality.

Santra Remsujeva, a master of Viena Karelian oral tradition who passed away in 2010, has been frequently featured in the Finnish art world in the recent years, along with Jussi Huovinen. Remsujeva was considered one of the most prominent experts on oral traditions. She had mastered a vast amount of singing traditions, particularly the Viena Karelian wedding song tradition.  In addition to Kalevala songs, her repertoire included a broadsheet ballad of the sinking of the Titanic and jazz songs she picked up from American Finns in the 1930s. Remsujeva also sang raunchy women’s songs.

Before her death, Remsujeva passed on some of her tradition to documentary film maker Miia Tervo, whose film Santra and the Talking Trees received its premiere in winter 2014. The film follows Tervo’s search for her cultural roots that leads her to Santra Remsujeva. Tervo hears many songs in Remsujeva’s house, as well as learning about the natural religion of the Finnic people. A talking tree refers to the spirit of the tree, a kind of deity of a tree that lives inside a tree.

In addition to the film, Remsujeva’s singing has received a new lease of life through Hanneriina Moisseinen, who has drawn a cartoon album titled Sen synty ja muita Vienan hävyttömiä ja hulvattomia starinoita (2005), based on the raunchy songs collected from Viena Karelia by folklorist Markku Nieminen.  The album illustrates Santra Remsujeva’s song Pimppini on valloillaan (My fanny is on the loose) which tells a story of a certain female genitalia that jumps from the floor to the ceiling and runs away to St. Petersburg. 

Remsujeva was known to have several raunchy songs in her repertoire but she refused to perform them unless the audience was right. The songs were not considered suitable for men’s ears.

 (Source: Markku Nieminen: Santra Remsujeva’s obituary in Helsingin Sanomat, 30 May 2011.)


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Selma Vilhunen's film “Little Wing” has been nominated for the Nordic Council Film Prize 2017.