Ilkka Heinonen Trio

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Ilkka Heinonen Trio
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Listen "Rampa James" (full song)

It's a funny thing, this Finnish ethno lark. It's a living, thriving form, occupying its own biosphere, prospering and flowering in a faraway corner of reality, rarely touching the common ground that most people walk on. Yet, once you hear it, it will surprise you by sounding very familiar and close to your heart… if you let it.

As an explanation, "fear of the unknown" sounds a bit far-fetched. So does lethargy. The solution could be to just keeping on hammering the message home, but almost nobody is doing it. One or two small programs on the "culture" radio channel of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation and that's about it. I keep hearing most of my Finnish ethno-folk on a community radio station in Connecticut.

But I did not come here to moan, I came here to praise. First of all, to praise this strange contraption called jouhikko. It is related to all the bowed lyres in the world, an early forerunner of the violin. Its Finnish name refers to the hairs of a horse's tail. If its name were "jousikko," it would refer to the bow it's played with. Until I saw Pekko Käppi, I'd never seen or heard one, but that seems to be because I'm an outsider. Lately I've seen pictures of many players attending courses on jouhikko-playing organised by the well-known instrument-maker Rauno Nieminen, which goes a long way to confirming Käppi's claim that there are now hundreds of players of this plank of wood, which I and many others thought was gone and forgotten forever.

The pictures on Nieminen's website and videos of the Ilkka Heinonen Trio have now revealed how this thing works, which may or may not diminish the magical mystery that Pekko Käppi's frenzied live peformances surrounded me with. Heinonen succeeds in broadening my vision handsomely, taking a more studied and varied approach. At times he makes it sound almost like proper violin and and some numbers might not fit a "folk/ethnic" label at all, being very reminiscent of modern modal jazz. So a Sibelius Academy background for all three players is no surprise. Australian double bass wizard Nathan Riki Thomson teaches there. Drummer Mikko Hassinen is a versatile composer, multi-instrumentalist and player in several jazz line-ups. So, what we have here is a typical, modern day Finnish musical puzzle.

Listen "Erlkönig" (excerpt)

"Nukkeneille" (excerpt)

Savu (Smoke) starts starts strongly with the riffy "Erlkönig," which might explain why one reviewer mentioned both Franz Schubert and James Brown, with the latter appearing later in the academically funky "Limping James"!

Listen "Koivut ja kellot" (excerpt)

For a Finnish person, the second track "Koivut ja kellot" (The Birches And The Bells), evokes images and sounds of the monks of Finland's other official religion, the Orthodox church, practiced by a small minority from Karelia. It is eerie and haunting.

Listen "Saimaa" (excerpt)

"Rutto" (excerpt)

"Saimaa" is named after the big lake system between Karelia and Savo and brings to mind the swinging wedding dances of old, with its traces of jigs and reels. A quite similar merry melodie is "Rutto" (Plague), despite its name, romping along cheerfully with Hassinen's percussive trashing featured prominently.

This is not an overpowering record. It takes time. But it will surprise you. - Waldemar Wallenius

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