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The singing revolution

by Miska Rantanen

One of the biggest influences on the Finnish music of 1969-76 was the strong political song movement. In a few years the socio-critical cabaret song born in the back-street theatres became transformed into the music of the extreme Left. The political movement petered out as the seventies drew to a close, but its songs can still be heard.

Finland did not remain on the sidelines when the radicalism of the 1960s swept through the Western world. Folk, the war in Vietnam brought home by television, and protest movements prodded the generation born after the Second World War and now reaching the age of maturity into taking a stand on the world in which they lived. The protest of the young intelligentsia first gained national prominence when cabarets produced by the Helsinki Student Theatre were shown on television in autumn 1965. The songs levelled criticism at the establishment and the supranational companies and raised the problems facing developing countries.

The new social climate had not simply grown out of nothing. The seeds of change had been sown a few years before by the trilogy Täällä pohjantähden alla (Here under the North Star, 1959-62) by Väinö Linna that triggered debate about the Civil War of 1918 until then hushed up in public. At the same time the extreme Left began to make its voice heard after years of isolation.

The recordings of the Student Theatre’s cabaret songs continued to be the esoteric cult of a small minority, but left-wing winds of change made way for a larger audience. In 1969 Scandia, which had so far concentrated on popular jazz, released a disc of traditional workers’ music. To the surprise of all, Työväen lauluja (Workers’ Songs) was a great hit and led to a sequel.

The political song is born

The starting shot for the political song of the 70s was fired in November 1969 when Love Records, specialist in marginal music, released an album called Lautanen Guatemalan verta (A dish of Guatemalan blood). Though superficially the album was a follow-up to the cabaret music of the preceding years, its snappy style was new. Instead of being a gentle protest, the criticism was sharp and it carried an address tag: the blame for both the exploitation of the Third World and the hegemony of the “twenty families” that kept the Finnish economy rolling lay with the capitalist regime backed by the United States.

The early 1970s were the golden era of the political song. During these years Love Records released such albums as V.I. Lenin 1870-1970 (various artists), Kenen joukoissa seisot (Whose side are you on?, Aulikki Oksanen), Agit-Prop laulaa työväenlauluja (Agit-Prop sings workers’ songs) and Porvari nukkuu huonosti (The bourgeois will not sleep well, Kom Theatre). The political song also gained a foothold outside the student world. The disc Berliini järjestyksen kourissa (Berlin in the grips of the Establishment) featured music from the play of the same name running at the Helsinki City Theatre in which political songs were heard for the first time ever on the big stage.

The quicker pace of Love Records’ political output was the consequence of growing radicalism among Finland’s students, and above all the rise of a Finnish brand of Communism. This was born when the student radicals veering further and further to the left discovered a kindred spirit in the old-school Stalinists of the Finnish Communist Party. The media named the movement Taistoism after the party’s second-in-command, Taisto Sinisalo (whose very forename, Taisto, means “Fight”), and it soon became the leading fanatical left-wing movement of the young generation. The left-wing trends such as Maoism and Trotskyism raising their heads in other Western countries were of no practical significance in Finland. Nor, for reasons of foreign policy, was there any future in Finland for left-wing radicalism critical of the Soviet Union.

Radical music for all ages

The political song of the 1970s was not an offshoot of the workers’ music tradition. Rapid urbanisation and the spread of television had, by the early 1960s, led to the almost total demise of workers’ clubs. The decline of the distinctive workers’ culture also severed the musical tradition. The early years of the 1960s were thus marked by an absence of social songs.

The roots of the new Finnish political song lay in the stage music of Central Europe. The cabaret song launched by the Helsinki Student Theatre was inspired by the music of Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler and Brechtian theatre. When the general radicalism of the 1960s gave way to the party loyalty of the 1970s, the radical song changed accordingly. Gone was the cabaret beat, to be replaced by agitprop outspokenness, and the result was the political song. and

Before long, the political song had grown into a versatile genre of music. The repertoire of the early 1970s took in not only propaganda combing both the modern and the traditional but also traditional workers’ music and even children’s songs. Political music did not appear to win such a firm foothold in any other country in the 1970s as it did in Finland. The best of the songs had the catchiness of a charts number and the credibility of progressive rock, and the swinging idiom was backed by intellectually challenging lyrics. The fact that the political songs struck up an echo on the opposite ideological bank – they were even sung at right-wing social evenings for young people – says much about their appeal.

Whereas the cabaret song asked questions, the political one had ready answers. The song-writers did not, however, agree to praise the might of Communism merely to order, for their desire to express their ideas sprang from the radical trend in both artists and their audiences. At the turn of the 70s some cabaret song-writers in fact opted out when they felt they could no longer toe the strict line.

Guiding stars of the song movement

Music with a political message became more firmly established at the level of theory, too, as the supporters of Taisto Communism began to bandy the word “song movement” in around 1974. In doing so they sought to reinforce the image of an independent cultural front uniting progressive forces from different political camps.

The number-one composer in the first half of the 1970s was Kaj Chydenius, father of the Finnish cabaret song and a prestigious figure who to a great extent came to personify the song movement. Another leading name was that of Eero Ojanen, who played a major part as an arranger in particular. By combining bossa nova with beat, this self-taught jazz pianist created the laid-back “bossa beat”. Other composers of note were Otto Donner, Heikki Valpola and Toni Edelmann, while Marja-Leena Mikkola, Aulikki Oksanen, Matti Rossi and Pentti Saaritsa, Elvi Sinervo, Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. produced a steady stream of lyrics. Song-writers also drew sustenance from Finnish and foreign classics, such as

The political song artists of the early years were often female leads at the Student Theatre: Kristiina Halkola, Kaisa Korhonen, Arja Saijonmaa or Aulikki Oksanen. The groups were of a temporary nature and tied to a particular performance. This changed in February 1971, when Agit-Prop, a member of the Uusimaa Socialist Youth Federation acting as agent for artists for political events, formed a vocal quartet from among its members to appear at a political song festival in East Berlin. Led by Pekka Aarnio, it was called Agit-Prop and later served as a model for hundreds of grass-root artist groups.

Although the song movement was spearheaded by the Communist minority, it never at any point consisted entirely of this and always included some other left-wing artists. The political song also had an impact on popular music in general. Political awareness might, for example, be demonstrated by dedicating a record to national liberation movements, as did Piirpauke.

The song movement gets organised – and falls asleep

In time the song movement sought to identify itself as one element of the workers’ music tradition, but one with a political mission. In order to be part of the workers’ movement, its music had to be that of the workers. Commitment to continuing this tradition ushered the song movement more and more towards the classic proletariat songs and the musical legacy of the Civil War.

By the mid-1970s the song movement had got duly organised. It had its own central office, an agency that distributed sheet music and published a magazine called Uusi Laulu (New Song). Invited to perform at the Helsinki Song Festivals attracting audiences of many thousands were left-wing singers and groups from all over the world. The event was modelled on the political song festival held in the German Democratic Republic and visited regularly by Finnish groups. The song movement’s primary prop and stay was nevertheless Love Records, which in practice had a monopoly over the political music genre.

The year 1976 marked a turning point in the history of the political song. However hard they tried, the new groups failed to produce such catchy songs as the first generation. But a more serious blow was the dimming of the Taisto aura. Having climbed to the apex of its support, the movement now had difficulty urging its troops into new battles once the promised revolution no longer promised to be a walkover. In 1977 punk came stomping in and quickly established a place for itself as credible protest music. Some had dreams of it becoming the successor to the song movement, but in vain: the young generation looked askance at music tied to party politics. The final straw was when Love Records went bankrupt in summer 1979. From then onwards, not a word was said about the song movement.

Second coming

The song movement was not such a traumatic experience to those involved as Taisto Communism itself, the legacy of which is still being painfully thrashed out three decades later. Many of the artists who rose from its ranks, such as Agit-Prop’s Liisa Tavi, Mikko Perkoila and Hannu “The Judge” Nurmio, former editor-in-chief of Uusi Laulu, just carried on surprisingly well under changed circumstances.

Even so, the second coming of the political song had to wait for another generation and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The mental hangover of the over-politicised 1970s was also reflected in music. Apart from the brief punk era, socio-critical music has not been heard in Finland for years. Not even the deep recession of the 1990s succeeded in stirring up a revolt.

Minor changes began to appear when, in 1993-94, the 30+ generation began recalling the battle songs familiar from childhood at three big concerts entitled Eteenpäin – Vorwärts! An Agit-Prop compilation was released in 1995 and the group gave a few concerts to full houses. When Ultra Bra – some of whose members were the offspring of 1960s radicals -began gaining popularity in student circles, the time was ripe for a gradual reassessment of the 1970s political musical heritage.

A political element reappeared in Finnish music with the criticism levelled at globalisation, though on a lesser scale than in the 1970s. The demonstrations accompanying the WTO Ministerial in Seattle in November 1999 lent impetus to the activist movement in Finland as elsewhere. Its musical manifestation was the rap sung in Finnish that had been simmering on the margins for some years already. Among the conspicuous socio-critical artists to emerge were Paleface, MC Avain and Steen1. The heyday of Suomi rap with a political message is now over in 2007, but the stylistic genre is here to stay.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

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