Interviews, 1993, 1994
"My grandmother loved accordion music, but she never played it. She bought me an accordion, but in the beginning I wasn't interested. I wanted to play the piano, because everyone played piano. But little by little I started to play and learned to love the instrument.
"I started with folk and folk dance music, and then I played classical accordion music... I studied in Helsinki, at the Sibelius Academy, a kind of high school, where I went for six or seven years.
"I was very young when I started to play, maybe eight years old. Quite soon after I had learned to play two melodies, my grandmother wanted everyone to hear, so she had me playing for everyone. Then, when I went to Academy, I helped start a group called Niekku, around 1983, and we played together in many different countries... Following that, I wanted to make my own compositions, so I started to play more solo... I am also teaching now, and some of my students are playing this style, this playing melody on the bass... but I think I started this kind of playing of the accordion here. I think is new and different. Now there are some very good players trying to use this style.
"I play the melodies on the bass, instead of just that ooom-pah pah, oom-pah pah that you always hear. My style, the rhythm, is taken from folk music, but the melodies I have taken from classical, maybe a little from rock music, but the style is still from folk. In these old melodies I try to make beautiful sounds with the accordion. I try to play quietly, to use the bellows and the sound of the bellows... Many folk traditions are all forte, all push, and that is something I think that makes people hate the sound of the accordion. In Finland, as in many countries there are many accordion players and they play their own styles, but it is only like this (she pushes in and out) and it's all forte and maybe I hate it. Maybe this is why many people don't like the sound of the accordion... But I think the accordion is so dynamite... no, what's the word... dynamic! Yes, there is so much dynamics and dynamite! That's good!"
Folk music was gaining stature all over the country in the '60s and '70s, with universities adding courses and festivals popping up everywhere, but it still seemed the domain of an dedicated few. But in 1983 something happened that in some ways changed the musical face of Finland forever. The highly respected Sibelius Academy in Helsinki decided to open a department for folk music as part of its degree curriculum. One of its first students was accordionist and composer Maria Kalaniemi. She entered a program with no precedent, and no clear stated mission. Anything could have happened. "When I began at Sibelius, nobody knew what we were going to do, what we were going to study, so it was a very interesting thing. In the beginning, we were very lucky to have Heikki Laitenen. He thought that the most important thing was to create music we had never heard before. After 10 years, I still remember this, that the most important thing is to create something new from the old culture. He loved improvisation and he thought that it was probably the most important thing in folk music. That has been a very important thing for me, as well... those first years at Sibelius, with groups like Niekku and Pirnales, we did a lot of this improvisation and experimenting."
One of the first artists from Finland introduced to me was accordionist and composer Maria Kalaniemi, whose first album became an instant addiction for me (and for many of my radio listeners, who had to live through months of repeats of tracks from that recording). It's been four years since her introductory album, and while guest appearances on everyone's CDs and a couple of tours have kept her fans up to date, it has been way too long since we've been able to hear her on a whim, popped into the box and taken for a spin on the home stereo. Forgive my overly exuberant review, but "it was worth the wait."
Iho (Olarin/Finland, Ryko/US) is as striking as I expected. Kalaniemi's backing band, Aldargaz, is the best of the bunch in Finland, a small place with plenty of great artists. Timo Alakotila contributes harmonium, grand piano, arrangements, and a few of the best songs on the album. The stellar fiddler Arto Järvela is there, along with bassist Tapani Varis and guitarist Olli Varis (more mature and showing signs of greatness!). While not a regular member of the band, the presence of mandolin player Petri Hakala is also felt throughout the album.
The original quintet has been working together for years, and have become an intuitive force that lends itself to the more complex arrangements and intricate melodies that mark the new work. They are joined on record by string and brass ensembles for a few tracks, giving an orchestral fullness to "Napoleon" (Real Audio file) a traditional tune that shows all the character of an Alokotila production. The other is "Linjärv," which starts as a jazzy, Swedish tinged accordion solo that shows off why Kalaniemi is one of the best in the world, and then grows into a strange blend of acoustic power pop and classical chamber music. Perhaps at the core of the new album is the lush "Green Score," a tune that literally brought tears to the eyes of a friend listening to it live a few years ago. This composition by Timo Alakotila seems at first just nice and breezy, but builds almost imperceptibly into something indescribably romantic, not in a cheesy cinematic way, but on a more mature, personal path. Kalaniemi's playing has never been more expressive, the songwriting never stronger than it is on Iho.
Olarin Records-Finland/Green Linnet-US
Maria's debut album uses jazz as an inspiration, but she doesn't stop there. Traditional folk ideas are given funk and flash, driven by a band of electric bass, guitars, organ, percussion and the essential Finnish folk fiddle. But the final work maintains a traditional feel, even as the tunes and rhythms reach for the furthest reaches of modern sound. Her use of chromatic accordion gives her a wide range of chord structures and complex melody, and she grabs for them with abandon. There is a dark, romantic side to this music, in part because of the similarities inherent in Finnish folk music and west Asian and east European gypsy music. There are also touches of tango in this music, something else that has swept through and enhanced the folk music of modern Finland. Kalaniemi, like Grandjean, has remarkable skill on her instrument, but she doesn't let pyrotechnics rule her music. This is an album that is evocative, beautiful, and yet less that safe.
Here's another review I wrote a year earlier
Last issue I mentioned the ensemble Niekku. The band's accordionist, Maria Kalaniemi has a self-titled solo album on Olarin Music that takes traditional folk ideas and are gives them funk and flash, joined by a band of electric bass, guitars, organ, percussion and the essential Finnish folk fiddle. But the final work maintains a traditional feel, even as the tunes and rhythms reach for the furthest reaches of modern sound. Her use of chromatic accordion gives her a wide range of chord structures and complex melody, and she grabs for them with abandon. There is a dark, romantic side to this music, in part because of the similarities inherent in Finnish folk music and west Asian and east European gypsy music. There are also touches of tango in this music, something else that has swept through and enhanced the folk music of modern Finland. Kalaniemi has remarkable skill on her instrument, but she doesn't let pyrotechnics rule her music. This is an album that is at once vibrant, evocative, and beautiful, yet less that safe. Exploratory and sometimes skewed, Kalaniemi's compositions reach for new ideas for the accordion and for Finnish music, without ever losing sight of the tradition.