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The hidden memory of the nation

by Peter von Bagh

" All nations have an indigenous construct of 'popular music' which is largely unknown abroad. "

An iskelmä* is the most insubstantial piece of circumstantial evidence, one of the most harmless indicators of the world around us. At the same time, it is a condensed moment and a period piece, in a perhaps surprisingly emphatic way. In everyday terms this means that hearing an old iskelmä and identifying it with a personal memory can produce a highly precise and relevant association – a bridge to memories and to the past. We may go so far as to ask whether any other artwork, more ‘valuable’ though it may be, can generate such precise recollections.

When I had the opportunity 37 years ago to meet and interview Olavi Virta, the greatest personality in the history of the Finnish tango, I opened my documentary with the statement: ‘The iskelmä is the secret history and hidden memory of the nation.’

I have quoted this on several occasions since then, and so have others. In the original context of the documentary, its key meaning was that the songs sung by Virta are as precise depictions of their times as news bulletins. More generally, the quote expresses a confidence that the iskelmä captures something very essential and perhaps therapeutic amidst our continuous problematic fight for survival and definition of our identity. This could be expanded into a universal truth: all nations have a similar indigenous construct of ‘popular music’ which is largely unknown abroad, with the huge exception of the Anglo-American variant, a sort of Esperanto in the world of music, which allows even small countries and geographically remote artists to make a global breakthrough. The iskelmä – much like national radio and national comedy – remains a national secret, and as such, it is a factor that helps define us as a nation and give our special characteristics a space and a flavour all their own.

Before making my main point, I must state the obvious: the development of the iskelmä has been one of convergence with international trends. Hit songs now spread from country to country and become hits in small countries in their original form, with nothing local added, just as TV show formats must remain essentially faithful to their originals. Thus, I would venture to propose the notion that there was a Golden Age of the Finnish iskelmä. By this, I mean a period of about 15 years after the Second World War, a time when Finland gradually began to emerge from a state of national seclusion.

Similarly, the Finnish tango, now well established, emerged in its present and pungent form in the postwar years – when humanity lay in ruins and when the doubts and fatalism of the war were still lingering. The broad sweep of the tango incorporated the defiance, strength and determination, the dream of eternal youth and the remembrance of summer that also characterised the years in which the nation began to emerge from the devastation of war and reclaim life. Many tangos were written in Finland at the time, but crucially, Finnish lyrics were written to many well-known foreign tangos – pieces that were performed as instrumental music everywhere else. The tango has a magical landscape all its own: the dance pavilion at the nexus of nature and civilisation, town and country, dream and reality. Tenderness, toughness, seriousness bordering on moroseness, and joy derived from a flask ingenuously concealed in a jacket or trouser pocket. Tensions coming to a dramatic head in the sense of smell: perfume, tobacco, spirits and beer sanitised with breath mints, and sweat.

The shared experiences of the dance pavilion and the search for happiness are painfully familiar to all Finns. The mood is always the same: melancholy, tragic unattainability, strange innocence. Is all this just nostalgia? Perhaps partly. On the other hand, these characteristics always lie in the background whenever a Finnish iskelmä – or even a Finnish rock song – touches us deep down.

[In 2009] We live in an age of multiple parody: most new attempts at iskelmä are meaningless fluff, while nostalgic imitations of the original iskelmä which I described above are reactionary (I am not advocating a return to the ‘good old days’, you must understand). Every nation – and the schlagers of every nation – has a core and a key period in which the myth became crystallised. This is particularly true of the Finnish iskelmä. It is one of our little secrets: our iskelmä, unknown to anyone else, is one of the few things of which we can be justly proud.

Peter von Bagh (1943-2014) was a Finnish film director and film historian as well as a Professor of film history at the University of Arts and Design Helsinki.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Peter von Bagh in 2011. Photo: Anneli Salo.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/2009.

*Olli Heikkinen writes in FMQ 2/2009: The Finnish iskelmä as a musical genre emerged in the 1970s, but the term has a much longer history. It is a Finnish rendition of the German word Schlager, coined in the 1920s. The original word proposed was a literal translation, iskusävelmä (‘hit melody’), but this was replaced with the neologism iskelmä, which eventually supplanted the German loanword in general usage. (-) Iskelmä has stood for many things in popular music during the years since the term’s inception. The genre has maintained many of its character traits, but iskelmä’s evolution is also closely tied to the development of popular music in general.