Ikaro - Aalto

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Here in Finland we have it good when it comes time to teach our young'uns how to play ethnic music, be it local or foreign. The finest and most ample proof was presented to me last autumn, when I attended the 30th anniversary festivities of the Folk Music Department of the renowned Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. In its new home in the labyrinthine Music House, we were offered an evening of mind-boggling variety in many different spaces, which was impossible to sample adequately. (Although I must take this opportunity to mention Shava, a merry gang of Bhangra pranksters from the East - of Helsinki.)

There are similar but smaller institutions scattered around our small country. The origins of the internationally acclaimed Gjallarhorn stem from a small Swedish-language counterpart on the west coast. And there is the Folk Traditions Department of our local Tampere University, which produced the wild Balkan/Turkish blend of Slobo Horo more than twenty years ago, and more recently Aalto.

Aalto means "wave" and to me, they are very "new wave," mainly because I have not heard a Finnish band using Mongolian or Tuvan throat singing before. I was thrilled when even their songstress and kantele player Petra Poutanen showed evidence of this mysterious skill. She uses it very sparingly, leaving doshpulluur and didgeridoo player Sampo Salonen as the main player in this area.

(I should mention a wonderful outdoor gig last summer, when Salonen was unable to perform due to an accident while building a genuine Mongolian yurt - talk about dedication! This provided a chance for the others to shine, with the bass playing being particularly strong and funky this time.)

There's a very good reason for not letting the höömei hog the limelight, because they can also put forth on didgeridoo, sitar, clarinet and the very didgeridoo-like bass clarinet, as well as with Poutanen's sparing use of the kantele. Their very eclectic and hypnotic music floats somewhere in the air between Finland and Mongolia, with occasional forays into Indian or Karelian space.

In the last few years, my enjoyment of great music has been simplified by one local club called Telakka (The Dock), which has nothing to do with shipping but everything to do with offering a great atmosphere to hear jazz, blues, folk, ethnic and "non-rock" rock (my own technical term, formulated by too many years of too-loud and too-heavy rock noise). I almost never have to go anywhere else and I now buy most of my records from artists playing there. Aalto's second album Ikaro was signed there for me by Poutanen in mid-February, and I have taken my time to absorb its ample riches.

It opens with an ominous drone, setting the mood for an 8-minute flight to distant lands far away from Finland, even as it resembles some of the fiercer Saami joikers from up north. Then it's time for some klezmer clarinet in "Vapahtaja (Savior)," periodically settling down for some beautiful vocals and ringing kantele from Poutanen. "Heijastumia (Reflections)" is another reflective tune from main songwriter Antero Mentu (guitar, sitar, tambura and vocals), while the two-part "Kastepisaroita (Dewdrops)" builds slowly from a Finnish mood to an Indian-sounding finish, mixing sitar and kantele gracefully.

"Sateentuoksuisia unia (Dreams Fragrant of Rain)" offers more of those pleasant Poutanen vocals. "Metsätaloushöömei (Forestry Economy Höömei)" is the album's brisk Mongolian hit tune, a very funny lament about the lack of appreciation for nature that is also amplified in a hilarious video below.

Finishing with ten minutes of the hypnotic "Kuun tytär (Daughter Of The Moon)," Aalto leaves me wanting more. I have seen them live four times, and I want more. The recording clocks in at 52 minutes and 39 seconds, and I want more. - Waldemar Wallenius

Further reading:
The band's web site.
A short history of Aalto.

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