"Music that was never heard before"
Mary Lipp caught up with Maria Kalaniemi at the 2001 Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis.
It's been another busy year for Maria Kalaniemi. In addition to releasing a CD and touring with the band Algardaz, she has two duo albums forthcoming and one with a Finnish tango band. And, of course, her schedule is just as busy, taking her to gigs in England, Japan, Romania and, of course, her native Finland.
Speaking about Ahma, the latest album with her band Aldargaz , Kalaniemi said, "the most important thing was to do an ensemble album -- that there was freedom for musicians to do improvisation and that kind of thing."
"Even the first CD was more like my solo albums," she said, noting that several band members now contributed original compositions. "Now with Ahma we had this band. Aldargaz in a way became a band when we did [our first album] Iho."
She added that she thought it was good that the band was not the sole creative outlet for its members. "I think that's important that you don't go on and on all the time, that you do other things and have time to think what you want to do."
Certainly, Kalaniemi is not standing still. This year, she is releasing a project with Sven Ahlbäck, a Swedish fiddler, and with her regular collaborator, keyboard player Timo Alakotila.
Kalaniemi said the forthcoming album Air Bow, with Ahlbäck had its origins over 10 years ago, when the fiddler was teaching in Stockholm and she walked into his classroom with her accordion. "He was a little surprised at that, [but] I wanted to learn these kind of second voices with my left hand....Very soon we started to play like two musicians together. It was unbelievable and really great. Some of the tunes we played came out on my first CD in 1992 and after that we have always talked about wanting to do a CD of our own." Of the final result, she said, "the arrangements are quite free; it's kind of accordion and violin discussions."
It's obvious from even a short talk with Kalaniemi that this kind of creative freedom is of the utmost importance to the accordionist. Asked about being labeled as a "folk" musician, she good-naturedly chafes at being pigeon-holed.
"It's very hard with these terms," she said. "I find it very difficult to call my music "folk music" because someone can say, 'What you are playing is not folk music, because you play your own compositions.' Of course, in a way, the roots are in Finnish folk music, that's the fact. But the fact is also there are also so many influences from other cultures and accordion styles. I want more to call myself a musician....But the most important thing is I can be free and play music that I love. The other people can suggest what they want to call it. I think that folk musicians have the same right to do and try other things."
She also praised the current climate where young musicians can choose to play folk, jazz or classical music as they wanted. When Kalaniemi first walked into the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1983, the folk music department was just starting out under its progressive head, Heikki Laitinen. "He wanted us to play music that was never heard before."
Up until that point, Kalaniemi was schooled in the classical tradition, but had been playing folk and popular music at dances and competitions since she was 12 years old. Despite her cosmopolitan approach to music, she still hold Finnish music close to her heart.
She mentions that the popular music of the 1930s Finnish "accordion kings" is often overlooked even as folk music has been rediscovered. "I think these older accordion tunes are like the Finnish soul music.
"The accordion has been so important to Finnish people," she continued. "For instance, when we were in wars, the accordion was easy to take to the fields and play in the evening and [soldiers could] remember their home and their love."
For the accordion in Finland, she said, "There have been downs and up and now it is up. But it is very important and at weddings and these kinds of things, there must always be an accordionist."