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Okra Playground
Nordic Notes/Sibelius Academy
Review by Lee Blackstone

Listen "Pakkasloitsu (Frostbitten)"

Finnish folk music can sound other-worldly. The country's folk-epic, "The Kalevala," compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early 1800s era of nationalism, features ancient and stunning poetry that sounds as if it were forged by mountains and rivers. "The Kalevala" is laced with charms and spells, and its impact on Finnish folk culture has been immense. For instance, one hears such Finnish traditions in Värttinä's iconic work; and now, in the recording of Okra Playground.

Okra Playground formed in Finland in 2010, and Turmio is the group's debut recording. Three female vocalists are up-front in Okra Playground's sound – Päivi Hirvonen, Maija Kauhanen, and Essi Muikku – which lends thrilling dynamics to their chosen material. Intriguingly, Kauhanen and Muikku also both play kantele (a Finnish dulcimer), strung over their shoulders for a twin-stringed attack that any heavy metal band would envy. The men in the band, Sami Kujala (bass), Veikko Muikku (synth and accordion), and Tatu Viitala (percussion) round out the contemporary sound of Okra Playground.

Listen "Kaunokieli (Silvertongue)"

Comparisons to both Värttinä and the Swedish-Finnish explorations of Hedningarna are inevitable. Okra Playground do have an organic, acoustic base, but they frequently add electronic enhancements so that their overall approach appeals to both traditionalists and experimentalists. Opening track “Kaunokieli (Silvertongue)” sets the tone: ringing kantele emerges, while deep male throatsinging provides a foreboding undercurrent. Hirvonen, Kauhanen, and Muikku sweep in over building electronics and accordion, and the tune spirals beautifully as the drumbeats kick in. It's hypnotic, and appropriate to the theme of a smooth-talking womanizer who offers his female conquests little but disappointment.

Listen "Sorsa (The Mallard)"

Elsewhere, an electronically-altered fiddle (on “Viimatar”) sets up an introduction to “Pakkasloitsu (Frostbitten).” “Pakkasloitsu” is a charm utilized to ward off deadly frost, and Okra Playground set it to a sawing fiddle and loping bassline. The women croon seductively at first, and the kantele notes drip down; eventually, the tune reaches a sense of urgency, and the voices rise together while the band continues its groove. “Sorsa (The Mallard)” brings us into the world of "The Kalevala," where a mallard fails in a kantele-playing contest with Väinämöinen (the 'first man' of the epic). Väinämöinen manages to get the waters dancing with his playing; the song starts out quietly with chanting and kantele, but opens expansively with accordion flourishes and the ecstatic singing of Hirvonen, Kauhanen, and Muikku.

Turmio is a solid album, one that hits the sweet spot of the excursions of other Nordic bands who combine traditional material with electronics. Okra Playground manage to do so consistently, with excitement and commitment. – Lee Blackstone

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