in Columns

The geocultural politics of music historiography in Finland

by Antti-Ville Kärjä

"The fundamental problem of current music historiography, in Finland and elsewhere in the postcolonial civilised world, is that the preoccupation with evading all possible accusations of racism overwhelms historical investigations into how the present practices – historical narration included – are part and parcel of a political continuum where racist ideologies have been and continue to be amongst the most powerful ones."

In December 2020, the National Library of Finland celebrated the “rescue” of a “unique Sibelius manuscript collection” to its vaults. In the library’s newsfeed, the achievement was lauded because of the importance of the collection for research and “the world of music” as well as its value as “cultural and national heritage” (NLF 2020). While the point of the rescue mission was to ensure that the material was preserved in the ideal conditions provided by the library, it was also an issue of retrieval from foreign ownership. In this case, though, instead of climbing ladders to salvage the collection from a smoky garret it was only necessary to dig deep into our collective pocket.

The incident reveals a number of issues pertaining to the politics of music history. The most evident of these are the emphasis on national heritage on the one hand and its mythic personification in the figure of one composer on the other. This is by no means unique to Finland, and these hagiographic tendencies are commonplace in music historiography everywhere, regardless of genre or repertoire. A core dilemma in these heroic tales is that while the individual’s achievements and ingenuity may be praised as indications of certain collective capabilities, often bound by arbitrary geopolitical limits but sometimes extended to humanity as a whole, any potential problems in the preconditions of that heroism are easily ignored. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors, and the victors have invariably been affluent white men.

Victors carry their weapons, amongst the most insidious of which are the arts. As cannons are replaced by canons, certain expressive practices become legitimised not only aesthetically but also historiographically. The “world of music” where Sibelius and his brethren reign is drastically different from the repertoires discussed in The Worlds of Music, an influential textbook in ethnomusicology that introduces a global variety of musics to its readers.

Yet one should not disregard the significance of historiography as a form of legitimation across genres; to paraphrase another saying, a genre does not exist until its history has been written. This carries a crucial implication: neither genres nor histories exist autonomously – both classifying cultural expression and accounting for the past depend on human agency. They are thus inextricable from broader social, political and economic processes. In addition to the conventional demarcation based on geopolitical borders, it is not unusual to encounter histories of music delimited by gender or racial criteria.

The constitutive fear of the black man

Arguably, in the current era of alternative facts and decolonising curricula, it is the trepidation around racialisation that is of pivotal significance in the historiography of music everywhere, and Finland is no exception. This links the debate to “the artifice of history” as outlined by Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), concerning the centrality of historiography in establishing and sustaining colonial power structures. In 19th-century Finland, the fabrication of uniquely national music was an organic part of the fundamentally political project designed to justify administrative territorial autonomy with ideological support drawn from Eurocentric colonialism. The supposed father of Finnish music was German, one Friedrich Pacius.

A century and a half later, a namesake of his, Ilkka ‘Frederik’ Sysimetsä made a career out of Orientalist pop songs, again following a Teutonic model by releasing Finnish-language versions of such German hits as Dschinghis Khan (a.k.a. Tsingis Khan, 1979) [Genghis Khan] and Hadshi Halef Omar (a.k.a. Sheikki Ali Hassan, 1980). The public persona of Frederik in fact embodies several key political dimensions of music, as the Orientalist features intersect with his macho image as the ‘king of hillbilly disco’. Yet in the influential eight-volume series Suomen musiikin historia (literally, ‘The history of Finland’s music’; 1994–2006), for instance, the exoticising and thus potentially racist tendencies in his oeuvre are not discussed, while the sexist and class-related implications are noted with a rather less than sympathetic aesthetic evaluation.

In the aforementioned series, one may detect a general uneasy treading around the issue of racism, to the extent that instances of such, despite their immense popularity, are treated as if they never existed. Thus, the historical and political weight of such appropriations of the indigenous Saami joik as the Eurovision Song Contest entry Lapponia (1977) is apparently insignificant, not to mention the 1978 hit Me halutaan olla neekereitä (‘We wanna be negroes’), whose title phrase was recirculated in 1991 in Se mustamies (‘The black-man’) with explicit sexual innuendo. Of the latter two, the former sold gold while the other topped the charts for a couple of months.

Overall, the historiographical importance of musical Orientalism and its political implications are momentous. In comparison to Frederik, one may note how in the same music history series the ingenuity of Sibelius is once more lauded because of his mastery of the aesthetic means in question, even if Belshazzar’s Feast (1906; JS 48 and op. 51) merely represents a dalliance with “European quasi-Orientalism.” As far as this particular history of music is to be trusted, a stark contrast emerges between this and all other related specimens of the compositional style or technique. An exception confirming the historiographical rule is Leevi Madetoja with his ballet Okon Fuoko (1925–27; op. 58), where pentatonicism and chromaticism apparently are combined in an original enough manner to avoid the pitfalls of quasi-Orientalist inauthenticity.

Exceptionally cosmopolitan

All this conforms to the idea of Finnish (and Nordic) exceptionalism whereby what is clearly racist elsewhere is deemed mere entertainment or otherwise neutral ‘here’, without much consideration of the cultural diversity ‘here’ and how that diversity has come to exist because of the racist legacy of European ‘civilisation’. In another voluminous series about the vicissitudes of Finnish popular music, Suomi soi (translating approximately as ‘Finland sounds’ 2004–2005), the aforementioned ‘n-song’ from 1978 is discussed in terms of humour or parody. This, in turn, exhibits what is known as exculpatory logic where the possible ironic intention functions as an ideological safety valve, as it were. If people do not get the joke, it is their own fault, and what was allegedly ‘just funny’ once upon a time should not be complicated with contemporary political debates, it appears.

Intriguingly, as the debate over multicultural Finland has increased in the 21st century, earlier 19th-century musical practices and networks have been framed as multicultural, often with an ennobling emphasis on transnational or cosmopolitan qualities perceived therein. Yet there are decisive differences between the transnationalism of 19th-century study trips to Paris or Berlin and the transnationalism of present-day indigeneity and diasporic migration. The fundamental problem of current music historiography, in Finland and elsewhere in the postcolonial civilised world, is that the preoccupation with evading all possible accusations of racism overwhelms historical investigations into how the present practices – historical narration included – are part and parcel of a political continuum where racist ideologies have been and continue to be amongst the most powerful ones. 


Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

NLF (2020) ‘Unique Sibelius manuscript collection rescued to the National Library of Finland’. National Library of Finland, 8 December 2020 (accessed 11 March 2021).

Featured photo by AJ Savolainen: Antti-Ville Kärjä