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In a chain of players: Violinist Alina Järvelä

by Amanda Kauranne

”During the turning points of my life, music has helped me so that when faced with difficulties, I have been able to direct my thoughts elsewhere through playing. It is not so much about the musical genre or instrument, but about concentrating on the activity”, says violinist and educator Alina Järvelä who specialises in folk and early music.

With a full-time violin teaching position at the Nurmijärvi Music Institute, Alina Järvelä’s everyday life is filled with teaching. She still finds the time to tour with the folk music supergroup Frigg in Finland and abroad, and sometimes she even manages to schedule in some early music projects.

She grew up with a fiddle in her hand

“My musical journey is far from usual, having grown up in such a peculiar place as Kaustinen”, Järvelä says. The Kaustinen fiddling tradition has recently been nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, asking to recognise a culture of fiddle playing that has thrived in the region ever since the 1700s. Each village has its own distinct playing style which continues to get passed on through playing together. The Kaustinen Folk Music Festival was Finland’s first folk music festival when it was first organised in 1968, and it remains the biggest folk music event in the country to this day. Järvelä’s own extended family is full of folk musicians, or pelimannis in Finnish. Both her grandfather Johannes and her father Mauno are recipients of the honorary title of Master Pelimanni. Mauno Järvelä is also known as the founder of the Näppäri method (link), while Alina Järvelä’s mother Marit is a primary school teacher specialising in music.

“My family was always playing, and I was given my first violin so young that I have absolutely no recollection of that moment. For a Kaustinen child, however, my musical journey was pretty standard. Playing was a part of everyday life, just like going to school, and even teenagers accept that as a status quo. After finishing the local music high school, I continued my music studies with a music performance degree, and later graduated as a music teacher from the Pirkanmaa University of Applied Sciences, although it was definitely teaching that had interested me ever since my early teens. I somehow thought it would be more difficult to get in the music education program!”

Frixx got trampled by Coronavirus

”While studying classical music full time, I kept playing a lot of folk music at the same time. It was a lifesaver for me, something that felt less like practicing and more like fun.”

Folk music is an important part of Järvelä’s professional life, with her ensemble Frigg being one of Finland’s most successful folk music groups. While still at music high school, she founded the ensemble together with her brother Esko and their cousin Antti. When Antti later began his studies at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, he started to see the group’s potential and invited his  fellow students, plucked string specialists Tuomas Logrén and Petri Prauda to join the ensemble, as well as the Norwegian Larsen brothers who had been playing with the Järveläs at previous occasions. This marked the beginning of the group’s distinct sound, led by the fiddles and supported by the jangling grooves from the plucked string section. They have continued to engage audiences around the world for over two decades, despite slight lineup changes over the years.    

Frigg’s anniversary year and the launch tour of their anniversary album Frixx was completely derailed by the Coronavirus pandemic. “We had only managed to play one album release concert at the G Livelab in Helsinki, when people suddenly started to cancel everything due to the Coronavirus. Backstage was full of incredulous and even panicky musicians who had lost all their work overnight”, Järvelä remembers. The ensemble had planned to tour the Finnish festival circuit in the summer, the United States and England in the autumn, as well as playing some gigs in Shetland, Norway, Poland, Austria and Germany.    

“Now, in our anniversary summer, we only have two streamed gigs scheduled: at Our Festival in Tuusula and at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival.” [Correction on 2 July: the gig that was planned for the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival did not, however, happened.]

Early Bird from the album Frixx.

Anchored by music

”During the turning points of my life, music has helped me so that when faced with difficulties, I have been able to direct my thoughts elsewhere through playing. It is not so much about the musical genre or instrument, but about concentrating on the activity. I have been lucky to having had the opportunity to learn how to play”, Järvelä reflects. “Though sometimes I wonder whether I am a real musician at all, seeing that I cannot listen to music at times when things are going badly for me. Music invokes memories and feelings that are just too strong. But even then, it feels natural to pick up the violin and gather my thoughts through playing. It has helped me many times.”

Music also helped Järvelä to find a new direction after returning from Denmark where she had spent a couple of years working. “I didn’t know where I wanted to live so I when I landed in Helsinki, I simply stayed here”, she laughs. “I didn’t know the local scene well, and I wanted something useful to do and new skills to learn, so I decided to apply to the Sibelius Academy to study early music.”

Other notable Kaustinen-born early music specialists include Kreeta-Maria Kentala (link) and Järvelä’s sister Siiri Virkkala. “There is a lot of shared ground between folk music and Baroque, but as both genres are so extensive it is difficult to define that crossover exactly”, Järvelä muses. “But just in general, folk music and Baroque share a dance-like quality and the forms are associated with dance. Both genres also include improvisation – often in the form of variation and ornamentation, which is based on thorough knowledge of the stylistic language of the genre. It is by no means free improvisation!”  

Although Järvelä follows the Baroque music scene in her professional capacity, her CD shelf is dominated by folk music. “Folk music to me, deep down, is a sincere form of music. I find it touching how folk music pieces, the “trads”, were originally born through some uneducated person who just happened to like that particular tune.”

Chain of players

”I play our local Kaustinen pieces in the style of my grandfather, because it was his versions of the traditional tunes that we all learned growing up”, Järvelä says. “It felt like nothing special back then, but now it’s great to play the same pieces and be a part in the continuum of generations. Innovation is important, but so is fostering traditions. Music is a message from the generations before us. Their tunes used to live with them and now they live through us. It is more difficult to preserve material tradition – things go missing, houses rot down, even landscapes keep changing, but music is something that remains.”     

”I want to pass the tradition of playing on to my own child as well”, Järvelä says. “I want him to be able to be part of this chain of generations and to learn at least one way of processing his feelings through playing. I don’t need he to become a top musician, I just want him to learn the skills needed to play for his own enjoyment, or to find comfort in a moment of loneliness, for example. I have the same wish for my own students: that they keep going long enough to acquire a solid playing technique, so that they can then use it to express and defuse their feelings. To me, that is the most important thing in learning and playing music.”


In 2020, Frigg celebrates their 20th anniversary. A streamed gig of the “folk music supergroup” can be seen and heard at Our Festival

Alina Järvelä will play at the VirtualKaustinen folk festival on 16 July, in Duo Alina & Ilkka.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Eetu Linnankivi