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When jazz and rock came to Finland (on Kjell Westö)

by Aki Petteri Lehtinen

Kjell Westö is an award-winning author whose books have been translated into several languages. But really he would like to be a musician. His historical novels are brimming with music, describing the arrival of jazz and rock in Finland.

Kjell Westö (b. 1961) is one of Finland’s most distinguished contemporary authors, but he is not content with that. In his novel Där vi en gång gått (Where We Once Went), which in 2006 was awarded the Finlandia Prize, Finland’s premier literary award, he pays tribute “to musicians, wishing I were one myself”.

The novel spans a dramatic period in Finnish history from the Civil War of 1918 to the fateful years of the Second World War, closely in contact with the simultaneous musical transition where a country whose “people’s sense of rhythm and ear for music had been numbed by military marches and church organs,” witnessed the arrival of genuine American jazz.

In the novel, the origin of Finnish jazz is dated from the arrival in Helsinki of the American passenger ship S/S Aurora in 1926, bringing with it the Aurora Premier Brass Band. It was a momentous event: previously, only German ‘rattle jazz’ had been heard in Finland, and ‘genuine Negro jazz’ was only a rumour in letters from Paris. Westö describes the Aurora band as including three saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, a clarinet, a tuba, a banjo, drums and piano. The Finnish main characters in the novel immediately begin to explore the “relaxed and irresistible swing” that they hear in the American band’s music.

Westö’s fiction is based on fact: his band is modelled on the band of the Andania, a ship that actually did visit Helsinki. The myth of the genesis of Finnish jazz has it that there were Finnish emigrant musicians in the revolutionary American band, including saxophone player Tommy Tuomikoski and guitarist Leo Adamson, who went on to play with a Finnish jazz band, Ramblers.

“But generally you cannot pinpoint the arrival of a specific musical genre with such accuracy,” Westö notes.

“I drew on other anecdotes and stories that I had read. For example, Eugen Malmstén [who went on to become one of Finland’s leading jazz musicians] had heard something like jazz played on the deck of a British warship a couple of years earlier. And ragtime had been played in the town of Kotka in the early 1920s.”

Music underlies everything

Westö says that Finns did not take to jazz immediately. He has a series of Finnish jazz CDs in his bookshelf that illustrates this.

“The first recordings, made between 1929 and 1932, are sort of… endearing. There is the original version of Muistan sua, Elaine [I remember you, Elaine] in Finnish and the strange ‘jazz rap’ songs of Matti Jurva. It took a while for the swing and backbeat to be adopted. But the recordings made by Ramblers and the brilliant jazz accordion player Toivo Kärki in 1938 are solidly competent stuff.”

In the novel Där vi en gång gått, actual Finnish bands are also referred to: Ramblers are playing “at full tilt”, and the popular Dallapé orchestra draws huge crowds. By the end of the 1930s, Helsinki audiences have rediscovered their lost sense of rhythm and may be found dancing swing, the shimmy, the jitterbug “and everything in between”.

While Westö invents fictitious performers and songs for his novels, he has also studied the history of Finnish jazz. He has read the jazz history Puuvillapelloilta kaskimaille (From cotton fields to burn-beaten forests, 1991) and the doctoral dissertation of the recently deceased Risto Kukkonen, Aavan meren täällä puolen – Arkkityyppiset piirteet ja amerikkalaisvaikutteet suosituimmissa suomalaisissa molli-iskelmissä (On this side of the wide sea – Archetypal features and American influences in the most popular Finnish minor-key schlagers, 2008). He also refers to a history of Finnish rock titled Jee jee jee (Bruun, Lindfors, Luoto, Salo, 1998).

“I have of course also read biographies of individual artists, lots of them. But they tend to be thin and sometimes all too uncritical. As for more recent rhythm music – pop and rock – I would like to see more ambitious general presentations.”

Westö has become acquainted with several musicians in order to understand the life of a performer and to make his characters more believable. He used to write songs as a young man, and later he wrote lyrics for songs in theatre productions. He says he grew up with music.

“My father was in the music business throughout his career, and music has always had a presence in my life. Before I became an author, I worked as a record salesperson and wrote record and concert reviews.”

Rock comes to Finland

Music is an important part of Där vi en gång gått, but it is a crucial element in Westö’s novel, Gå inte ensam ut i natten (Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, 2009), its title a Swedish translation of a line of poetry from Dylan Thomas. In the novel, however, this is the title of a Finnish folk rock song around which the action is wound.

The musician characters in the novel do not achieve any great success, but they do witness the birth of Finnish rock. In the 1950s and 1960s, even Finnish radio played Eddie Cochran, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But it was not until a concert given by Jimi Hendrix in Helsinki in 1967 that a true breakthrough happened. After that, the Finnish musicians in the novel see everything differently, even if The Jimi Hendrix Experience is billed here as ‘Jimmy Hendrix and his Experience’.

Making the legendary American guitar player the agent of change in Finnish rock music is only natural: the fictitious male lead in the novel, Ariel Wahl, is a guitar player, like his creator Westö. Westö feels that there is nothing strange about casting Hendrix in a musical key role.

“Much of the stuff created between 1966 and 1970 that was meant to be wild or ‘heavy’ sounds rather pathetic now. Hendrix almost never sounds dated even today,” Westö explains.

The Finnish performers in the novel are basically fictitious, although in their names and characteristics they bear a certain resemblance to, among others, guitar player Jukka Tolonen and singers Carola Standertskjöld and Kirka.

“I do sometimes cheat [my readers] when it comes to foreign artists,” Westö reveals.

“Even back in Där vi en gång gått, there are references to ‘jazz classics’ that are entirely my own invention.”

Whether the title song of Gå inte ensam ut i natten is fact or fiction is more complicated. Westö describes the melody of Ariel Wahl’s intended hit song, but does this, “the most beautiful song in the world”, exist outside the pages of the novel?

“I did try to have a go when I was slow in getting started on the novel, as I always am. I came up with a scrap of a song with the C # minor – A – E chord progression [described in the novel] and then the trick that is used in Fire and Rain and Girl from Ipanema, keeping the melody on the same note as the chords change around it. But I abandoned it when I got going with the novel.”

Genuine Finnish music

Jazz and rock were American imports that were embraced by the children of both working-class and bourgeois homes in the 1920s and in the 1950s/1960s, respectively. Westö feels that it is easy to understand why these new trends were such a hit across class boundaries:

“Rich kids could afford to order records by mail order from London or the USA. Working-class kids in port cities had a direct link to the outside world through seamen.”

Despite their foreign origin, Finnish jazz and rock are given a strong local flavour in Westö’s novels. He feels that it used to be the case that all music created in Finland sounded somehow Finnish.

“I don’t know if that is the case any more. I also don’t know whether the Finnish contribution to pop and rock manifested itself immediately or over time.”

Of Westö’s examples, Timo Jämsen’s Finnish version of Twist at St. Tropez from the early 1960s was “attractive but not very original”, while Tapani Kansa’s later version of California Dreaming was not even very attractive, “even though I respect Kansa immensely otherwise”. But it is Finland’s own brand of rock, Suomi-rock, which is closest to Westö’s heart; its golden era generated self-reliant and brilliant artists who clearly demonstrate how important their country and culture are to them.

Westö writes in his native Swedish; he claims that in the 1970s and early 1980s much more original and finer music was created in Finland than in Sweden, even though the Swedes had Abba.

“Some of the songs on Herra Mirandos by Hector; some of Dave Lindholm’s best moments such as Bluesounds and the Aino disc; Levottomat jalat [Restless Feet] by Hassisen Kone, Punainen planeetta [Red planet] and several other songs by Tuomari Nurmio, some performances by Yari and his band Se… deeply Finnish, all of them, and if they had been created in a larger and better-known language, they would have spread worldwide long before HIM, Bomfunk and the rest of them.”

Westö points out earlier ‘genuinely Finnish’ contributions: Satumaa [Fairy-tale land] sung by Reijo Taipale, Puhelinlangat laulaa [Telephone wires are singing] sung by Katri Helena and Letkajenkka (Letkis). Westö was also touched by Kaj Chydenius’s love songs and the song Valot [Lights] from Rauli Badding Somerjoki’s output.

More music and literature on the way

Westö is currently working on a new novel. Music is back too, at least in his life. He took up the guitar again three years ago, not having touched it for 15 years. The best-known of his bands is Nyrok Dolls, founded together with his fellow authors from the Otava publishing company, but he does not get to perform as often as he would like.

“If there is a band out there that is short of a middle-aged, balding, technically crap and imprecise but extremely enthusiastic amateur guitar player, please call me.”


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Marica Rosengård