Finland's Balkan Beat
Over the 15 years of its existence, the Finnish Balkan band Slobo Horo has produced three albums, Mastika (1992), Esma (1994) and Divane (2000). In early May, I discussed music and sahti via e-mail with vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jarkko Niemi, who doubles as an ethnomusicologist at the University of Tampere.
According to Niemi, Slobo Horo began its life in 1986, "drinking the cup of young enthusiasm to Balkan folk styles....during this period we were happy to sound as close as possible to the originals," a stage from which many folk musicians never depart. From 1990 to 1997, the band "...created our sound and models for interpreting music in our own way," recording Mastika and Esma. Then, because of geographic disparities and job commitments, the band "gradually became more virtual."
As a result, Slobo Horo took a break during 1997 and 1998. They reemerged with a better idea of who they were as musicians, and also as better musicians. "We can't fully specify the force that does not let us free....First it was casual: 'how about a jam session night, with no further agenda?' There we were in the middle of our reunion session and got carried away with how we actually played together!...'How we played together': this is one of the main substances of this band - how we sound together." Holistic unity defines the current Slobo Horo.
"It has always been the unexplained power of musical expression that has kept us going. We have no political engagements, although sensitive Western European journalists thought so for a while in 1992-1993. We are all ethnic Finns, all revealing our ancient tribal background through our dialects and the myths concerning our tribal, inherited attitudes. Heikki is an Ostrobothnian, Risto is a Boreobothnian, Timo, Karo, Junnu and Mikko are Tavastians and I am an Isthmus Carelian."
The most obvious difference in the more concertedly rocked and jazzed up Divane recording is the replacement of hand percussion by a drum-set. "I feel that has made some of our friends and fans nervous, because we sound less the way an ethno-band should sound. This matter deserves a second thought: since we believe in our own obsessions, through which we can create musical expression, which we feel genuinely ours, we have to risk our status as an ethno group that is supposed to have some ethno in the sound, that is, through authentic instrumentation. We also risk our location: we seem to be neither rock nor ethno, but something in between."
A look at the track list for Divane could stump even a seasoned Balkanologist. "We don't take a song just because its nice or from the Balkans." The songs must be Slobo Horic, at least in final form. "We need to have a perspective to the music. Sometimes the perspective is revealed through rhythm." They change songs; for example, they might adapt a repeating "litany-like musical form," by adding bridges or refrains to make it more in the form of Western popular music.
"The material comes mostly from the Byzantian Eastern Balkans, and we have wanted to retain the corresponding local languages. We have had lots of songs in Serbian or Macedonian Roma, in Macedonian, Serbian and Bulgarian, in Albanian and Turkish. (One song is in Central Asian Turkmen on Divane, for that matter). Personally, it is an exciting adventure to try to push my pronunciation as close as it is possible with my language competence. Eventually, though, although exotic, these Balkan languages are not so complicated to pronounce. Actually one of the admirable qualities of Serbian, for example, is that it is clear as a mountain stream....'Good' means first to sing so that your soul becomes felt in your performance, second, that your performance with the language is passable." The sound of the language is most important on the vocals: "You lose so much if you translate the songs in Finnish. You lose the language sound and intonation, especially when Finnish language as such has different rules of transforming language into a song than the Indo-European or Turkic languages." But , "perhaps we translate ourselves some day into Finnish. The advantages should be that we could achieve more publicity and airplay in Finland and the language would remain very exotic for the foreign listener as well."
So is there anything Finnish about Slobo Horo's music? "It is only the fact that we are Finnish musicians. We have our own attitude, but we just happen to express it in the very peculiar way, through musical material with lots of foreignnesses or othernesses for us."
Surely there must be something in common with Baltic music? Not much. "In the Balkan sense there are no such asymmetrical meters in Finnish music. Surprisingly, the nearest equivalent comes from the Northern Sami, whose yoiks include very often ones which could be described as asymmetrical, although they themselves don't explicitly figure them like that. If described that way, the Sami can be said to have a perplexing multitude of asymmetrical meters... More generally, any historically old singing style, independent from instrumental accompaniment is more free in form than more recent styles synchronized and calibrated by instrumental or generic (e. g. dance genres like polskas or waltzes) practices. In this sense, Carelian epic singing could also be surprisingly rich a style in metrical sense."
As opposed to European tonal music, modal music begins with the melody, " which you can flavor with chordal environment, drone, or just experience the pure melody. In the Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Indian theoretical systems of music, the modes are presented as processes of melody." With local Balkan music, the nearest framework of composition and performance "comes from the 'Oriental' source of Turkish art music... which has historically evolved in the Arabic-Persian Oriental soil, and as well in Greek-Byzantine cultural history." Many Balkan styles evolved locally because of the complex cultural history. More important were the 500 years of Ottoman occupation and the impact of Turkish musical theory.
"It is not the conservatory type of music theory that has spread in Balkan popular styles in the recent historical period, but modal performance practices heard in improvisations, mostly by Roma musicians playing in urban environments. They didn't need the modal theory, they just knew some of the art music repertoire by heart and therefore also the rules, but they made the modes 'rock'. You hear the Turkish Roma clarinet masters, like Deli Selim or Mustafa Kandirali performing some of the modes that correspond to the art music makams, but not so rigidly. Usually only the very basic modes are in use in Roma dance music (like Ussak, Hicaz, Rast or Saba), not the more academic ones used in art music."
Slobo Horo has "...studied Turkish makams and Roma dance music and their ways of modal improvisation so that it is actually quite important an interest to some of us, although not of central importance in the whole of the Slobo Horo sound. Some of us have had separate projects with Turkish art music, in order to go deeper to the understanding and performance of Turkish makam."
Divane in particular features Turkish music. The title comes from the track "Divane Gönlüm," the poetry of Kul Yusuf set to Niemi's tune and arranged by the band: "Crazy Heart of Mine–fundamentally shaken by moon beauty of the beloved." Why? " I personally very much like Turkish/Anatolian traditional music.. Just as 'Dostlug,' (on which Niemi concedes to ethno and plays the stringed "tar") 'Sâhâne gözler' and 'Säkhra gözeli' are more like 'just dance music,' 'Divane' and 'Semah' have that eternal substance of ancient musical expression which connects to individual spiritual experience. While the modern international commercial music scene is full of "trance" genres, I am personally most elevated by the Anatolian kind of folk devotional, recursive music."
"Finland and Estonia have come more together, which is great. Last time I returned from Tallinn to Helsinki in August in post-summer sunshine, seeing the Tallinn towers disappear beyond the horizon and at the same time Helsinki coastline appearing in the North, I thought of the way these related countries have come together so much, although not totally... And yet we're different. I see Estonians mostly through their cultural history: they have more experience of the "European" old - urban, for that matter - civilization.
"Even during the Soviet times I noticed that Estonian folk musicians had (still have) an extraordinarily strong interest towards Irish/Celtic folk music. No surprise, because Celtic music does have this mysterious quality that makes it sound 'ancient' (anhemitonic modalities... with no 'small' leaps in the melody) and 'modern' (these modalities applicable for harmonization) European music at the same time. I guess that we would have had more success in Estonia, if we had played that kind of music. But eventually, I think we found our audience in Estonia as well..."
And of Russia? "Towards the Russians the average Finn has a regrettably huge mental border and a very superfluous and touristic experience of Russia, with no mastery of Russian whatsoever. At the best, most of them know few basic words read with Latin spelling from Cyrillic signs, like 'tamohka' (customs) or 'pektopah' (restaurant)." Niemi is an experienced traveler and survivor in Russia, but that is another life.
Finally, when asked about Roma music in Finland itself, bassist Risto Blomster said that many think that "Because of the long distances to any (except to Russian one) other main Rom centres in Europe, the Finnish Rom culture that has been preserved is quite archaic....for example the language and also music of Finnish Roma people differ from other Roms in Europe. In short, the Finnish Romani-language doesn't belong to either to Vlach or non-Vlach Romani dialects; it's supposed to form a group of its own. And music, the oldest stratum of Finnish Rom songs (they have almost no instrumental music) is influenced by Finnish folk songs and newer ones are related to Russian popular songs from the 20th century." Niemi adds: "The Roma language in Finland has some problems of surviving in everyday usage, there has been some attempts to revitalize it (language courses for the Roma, for example), from the initiative of the Finnish Roma organizations themselves...They have strict traditional moral codes in everyday life, regulating the behavior of sex and age groups...Men never go outdoors with just a shirt on (e.g. in summer), they have to have a coat or woolen shirt on the shirt. Women still use their traditional, very elaborate and ornamented dress complex with huge amount of skirts under the external one, which makes them look big."
Concert Photos: ©Sanna Korkee
Divane is available from cdRoots
Read a verbatim transcript of the interview
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