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Two sides of the tango coin

by Alfonso Padilla

The tango arrived in Finland during the great European tango fever of 1911—1913. Eventually in the 1930s Finns really started composing tangos themselves, which led to a form of the tango that is only a distant relative of its Argentinean counterpart. These days many composers look back to South America for tango inspiration.

The tango took root in Finnish soil so firmly that today Finland is known as the land of the tango, and the Finnish tango is a species that is clearly distinct from its Argentinean prototype. No fewer than 6,500 tangos have been recorded in Finland.

And not even “Argentinean tango” is exactly the right name for the style of music thus described, say Argentinean researchers. The birth of the tango was a long and complex process in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, which is to say on both sides of the Río de la Plata. It is thought to have emerged sometime between 1880 and 1915.

One of the first tango recordings on gramophone was made in Paris in 1907. From there it began its triumphant march throughout the rest of Europe, which experienced real tango fever during the period 1911–1913. Tango music arrived in Finland in 1912 when the Marinesko salon music band played it at the Fennia Hotel, according to researcher Pekka Jalkanen. It was danced for the first time in Finland at the Fennia and at the Apollo Theatre in 1913.

Emil Kauppi was the composer of the first Finnish tango in 1913. It was written for Hjalmar V. Pohjanheimo's film Salainen perintömääräys [The Secret Directive]. But Finnish tangos did not start to be written in earnest until the start of the 1930s.

The Finnish tango matures

The Finnish tango has gone through four stages. The first was from 1928 until 1944, when it was popular, but only one of many types of dance. The tango repertoire of orchestras in the 1920s and 1930s mainly consisted of Finnish and European – especially German – tangos, though Rio de la Plata tangos such as La cumparsita and El choclo were also heard.

In this period the tango peaked in popularity between 1935 and 1940, when 274 of them were recorded, of which 217 were Finnish. The key figure at this time was composer, singer and conductor Georg Malmstén (1902–1981).

The Finnish tango during this first period is mainly characterised by a steady, march-like rhythm, reminiscent of the German variety. In fact, the recordings were often made in Germany, with German session musicians accompanying a Finnish singer.

The Finnish tango's second period began towards the end of the Second World War and ended in 1964. The period starts with three tangos by Toivo Kärki recorded in 1945: Hiljaa soivat balalaikat [The Balalaikas Softly Play], Tule hiljaa [Come Quietly] and Liljankukka [The Lily]. The Finnish tango proper came into being during the late 1940s and early 1950s — it was the invention of Toivo Kärki, who composed more than 400 of them.

The Finnish tango's outstanding features are that it is a sung piece of music rather than an instrumental, with slightly understated march-like rhythms and melancholy melodies that suggest Slavic romance. Kärki added an accent to the eighth quaver in the bar. It has an ABC structure and the third part often has a beguine rhythm. Kärki's personal trademark with the tango was to use jazz harmonies, which he adapted specially.

In ten years (1948–1957) 521 tangos were recorded, of which 355 were Finnish. The boom time for the tango was 1952–55, when 30–35% of records sold were tangos, and 1962–65, when the tango was in fierce competition with rock music. During this second period it was no longer the music of the urban social elite: it also got the approval of ordinary city folk, the rural population and older people.

There were new versions made of La cumparsita and El choclo, which were very popular in the early 1950s, especially as performed by Olavi Virta. Other Argentinean tangos that were recorded included Adiós muchachos (1950) and Adiós pampa mía (1955). Many European tangos had an excellent reception too, including Mustasukkaisuutta [Jealousy, 1935/1953], Tango Illusion (1951/1955), Sinitaivas [Blue Skies, 1937/1955] and Kriminal tango (1959/1960).

In the 1960s Unto Mononen was the most important composer of tangos, the most famous of which are Tähdet meren yllä [Stars above the Sea, 1962–63], Sateen tango [Rain Tango, 1957], and, in particular, Satumaa [Fairyland]. Henry Theel recorded the latter back in 1954, but it was the version by Reijo Taipale in 1963 that really made it a success. Satumaa has been one of the most frequently played pieces of music on the radio for many years.

Olavi Virta (1915–72) was the key figure of the second period, especially from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. He recorded 600 songs, of which 130 were tangos.

Tango's critical period

During its third period, from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, the tango went through a severe crisis. At the beginning of the period half of the most popular hits were tangos and a quarter were rock songs. During the second half of the same period rock and pop overtook the tango in popularity. In 1963 there were 116 recordings of tangos made, in 1972 there were seven, in 1981 there were just nine and in 1984 there were 13. While rock and the political song movement ruled, the tango was out of the limelight as far as recordings and the radio were concerned, though not on the dance floor.

The traditional tango during this third period continued much along the same sort of theme as previously. Humour and parody were expressed in such numbers as Tango pelargonia (1964), Naiseni kanssa Eduskuntatalon puistossa [With my Woman in Parliament Park, 1966] and Vesioikeustango [Water Rights Tango, 1970], the last written and performed by M.A. Numminen (b. 1940).

A new kind of tango sprang up in theatre music, such as Lapualaisooppera [Lapua Opera, 1965–66], with a libretto by Arvo Salo and music by Kaj Chydenius. Chydenius (b. 1939) had composed around 3,500 songs by the end of the 20th century, and in 1970 he wrote 14 tangos for Anu Kaipainen’s play Suomen Kuningas (The King of Finland). Nuoruustango [Tango of Youth, 1974] is one of the few real classics of the third period that are still sung today.

The tango's fourth period is still continuing. It began when the TV series El tango, made by journalist and musician Olli Hämäläinen (1924–84), and shot in 1982 in Buenos Aires, was shown on Finnish television.

The Uruguayan composer and bandoneonist Luis di Matteo put on a concert in Finland in March 1984. He was probably the first tango musician from the Rio de la Plata region to perform in Finland. That same year Eino Grön and Jaakko Salo went to Buenos Aires with some scores of Finnish tangos. In just a few days, they recorded the album Tangon kotimaa [The Homeland of Tango] with arrangements by Roberto Pansera, a well-known Argentinean tango musician.

One of the most important events during the fourth period was the launch of the Seinäjoki Tango Market Festival in 1985. Today the event attracts 100,000 people and a Tango King and Queen are chosen from among the competing singers.

The Finnish tango has been witnessing a continuing boom: every year since the start of the new Millennium more than 200 tangos have been recorded, the vast majority of them being Finnish.

The boom started in the 1990s. The new generation of tango singers included Arja Koriseva and Jari Sillanpää. Tango today is performed in various forms: on the traditional five-string kantele, by traditional Finnish folk musicians, in religious music, by rock bands, and in music theatre. It reached its zenith in M.A. Numminen's Pohjoinen tango-oratorio [Nordic Tango Oratorio], whose first performance was in 1998 during the Helsinki Festival.

Some of the big names in South American tango, including Osvaldo Pugliese and his orchestra, Astor Piazzolla, Susana Rinaldi, Cuarteto Cedrón, Luis di Matteo, Sexteto Mayor and the Dutchman A. Malando, performed In Finland in the 1980s and 1990s. Eino Grön toured Finland in 1990 with the Leopoldo Federico Orchestra.

A lot of Finnish composers, arrangers and performers are familiar with both the conventional and the South American tango, and many have begun to write or arrange tango music in the Argentinean style, such as is found on Grön's albums entitled Bandoneón (1987) and Sininen ja valkoinen [Blue and White, 1989]. An important performer of Rio de la Plata tango is the composer and bandoneonist Petri Ikkelä, the driving force behind many tango bands in Finland and Sweden.

The guitarist and composer Antero Jakoila has written a lot of music with an Argentinean flavour, e.g. Tango furioso, Milonga, Su cara, and Serena. The Milonga Orchestra, from Tampere, gives concerts of Rio de la Plata tangos Argentinean style.

Currently the tango is going through a cultural borrowing process, which is not based on mere imitation of the Rio de la Plata style, however. Finnish musicians are discovering the secrets of the Argentinean tango but are also adding their own diverse skills and musical refinement. The process might well result in a new period in the life of the Finnish tango.


Alfonso Padilla is an adjunct professor and a senior lecturer in musicology at the University of Helsinki.


Featured photo: Toivo Kärki and Henry Theel with their band in the 1950s. Photo c) Helsinki City Museum.
Translation: Spencer Allman


This article was first published in FMQ 2/2009 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.

Read more about Padilla's current tango research project here.