Over the last three years, I have been corresponding and trading music with my friend Pertti, baker, guitarist, American music fan and DL reader in Kangasala, Finland. After numerous prods (and generous offers of housing, food, and travel) I simply had to accept his invitation to visit. Here, then, in rather crude journal form, is one man's tale of "big fun in the midnight sun!"
Sun.PM -Tue.AM (somewhere between Connecticut and Helsinki)
So, off we go, via the ever-overcrowded, badly ticketed and oh-so-late British Airways, visiting the runway at Manchester, and then a nine-hour break for high tea under the watchful eye of our heavily armed Heathrow security hosts. On the plane, I introduce a woman from Tampere to Finnish folk music on my tape player. (Charlie Gillette's world music channel on my on-board entertainment system seems to have been deleted.) Then it's on to a daylight midnight landing at an almost deserted Vantaa Airport, where my host, Pertti, is still happily awaiting my arrival, gives me the first of what I figure to be 1,000 cups of wonderfully strong, omnipresent Finnish kahvi and then whisks me off for the two hour trip to Kangasala. (Only 30 hours, NY to Helsinki, and to think I was going to go by boat.)
My first full day in the land of the midnight sun. (Actually, I was far enough south that it was just the land of the perpetual daylight; sunset around 11PM, sunrise about 2AM.) I am invited to coffee and a private rehearsal/concert by Leuhu-Leevi, one of the country's new rising fiddle orchestras. This is my first taste of this music live, and it is a great introduction to the rhythm and the sound of this uniquely Finnish style, one that helped me understand it far better than all of those JPP albums I've been listening to. Under the leadership of fiddler/mandolinist Leenamaija Raukola, these eight women were the antithesis of some of the dour regional groups I was to encounter all through my journey. Their interpretations of the music from the Kangasala area were traditional, yet never stuffy or strict. They also generously allow me to join them on a few tunes on the mandolin. This private concert was actually a practice session for their upcoming main-stage appearance at the Kaustinen Festival, but they took lots of time to make sure I began to really "get it." High spirited and full of promise, this group of women are what the folk revival in Finland is all about, and they could well be one of the bands to develop in the wake of the success of Värttinä.
Thurs. (Vaasa, or Vasa in Swedish)
We arrive at our hotel to the straining sounds of lobby musik: a Billy Joel song in Finnish by the Chipmunks (no lie!). It's going to be an interesting weekend.
Wassan Spelit was one of the best run, and most diverse musical festivals I have ever attended. In four days they exhibited the incredible scope of this small country's musical heritage, from the most staid traditionalists to the wildest, most ragged outside edges. The Spelit organizer, Samppa Murtomäki, and all of his staff were always eager to help, and supplied me with photos, information, translations and coffee whenever I needed it.
We started off with an unusual treat, a children's concert by Ohilyönti, a Finnish band whose fervor and dedication to good music makes them a hit with audiences young and old. Their ability to communicate with the kids never led them into a toothless, Barney-like stupor or sweet-Raffi banality. Accordion, electric and acoustic guitar and bass are occasionally augmented by other instruments into a blend of rock and folk that the kids and adults both seemed to love. If there was a sad note to the day, it was that their "Balatonian" days of folk-rock fusion are over, as they are dedicating themselves full-time to doing children's shows.
The official opening ceremonies really exhibited how strange this festival was going to be. Endless introductions and scholarly speeches in Finnish were repeated in Swedish, giving me a surrealistic start (since I speak neither one). The music included Vaasa locals Bottnia Kapelli, their fiddles, accordion, bass and guitar dancing through some Swedish influences and finishing with an odd-rhythm waltz that I swear sounded like "Daisy, Daisy." They were followed by an amateur group from Ikallinen who proved the old adage, "If it's traditional, don't smile, don't have fun, and don't bother tuning up." Then came one of the big surprises at Vaasa, the American Café Orchestra, a trio from Boston, Denmark and Finland who blend klezmer, Irish, gypsy jazz, old-timey American and Scandinavian folk. Their debut album left me disinterested, but their many performances on the festival stages here were fiery and fun and showed off their considerable skill as musicians and arrangers. The big finish was a master pelimanit from Kaustinen, their fiddles and accordion kicking into the real theme of this whole trip: strings and wheezy reeds. Music was to be found everywhere in the city, from the large stages at the festival site to the Vaasa City Hall, and all the streets in between. Some of the best music was happening on the pedestrian mall and the Kirpputori ("moth market"), with fiddle and accordion bands in abundance, as well as impromptu jam sessions, army bands and uninvited street performers. Roaming these streets was like living inside a Charles Ives montage of brass bands playing "Sweet Georgia Brown," classical guitars and wheezing and scraping folkies making the old songs new in front of coffee kiosks and McDonald's. At the Vaasa city jail there was an unusual concert of songs from both Finland and America. Old blues and rousing sea chanteys, all with a prison theme, were performed in the rainy prison yard, followed by coffee (the national food of Finland) and cake inside the jail. JPP and The Vaasa Big Band tried a first take on fusing folk fiddling and jazz at the premier concert of Timo Alakotila's Folkmoods.
Thursday night's shows at the rock club Strampen included The Stomping Devils Cajun Band, led by fiddler and vocalist Tarja Huntus. Unlike many Cajun bands from outside of Louisiana, this crew seems to really have it down, and Tarja's playing (taught to her by a Danish woman who spent some time in New Orleans) had all the nuance and backbeat. But their roaring energy is what makes them a truly fun band, and one that will probably get them some national attention. Also on the bill that night was Uppiniskan Pelimannit, an ensemble of fiddle, flute, mandola and two clarinets in a rich mix of folk and new music much in the tradition of the late, great Filarfolket of Sweden.
Strange juxtapositions of culture were to be a regular part of this trip, as well. While sitting in the hotel bar, I met Sara Maret Gaup, a Norwegian actress filling in with Angelin Tytöt while one of the band members has a baby. She is killing some time before their evening club date, and she announces that she is ready "to go disco!" So off we go to an American disco in Swedish-speaking Vaasa with a Norwegian woman from Lapland in full traditional outfit. Like one of those mirrored balls, the world somehow continues to turn. Friday night found us at Club 25, an old church converted into a bar by the city and operated as an artists' co-op for presenting new material. Swedish folk rockers Garmarna stormed the stage with electric nykelharpa (a very primal sounding fiddle with keys and drone strings), bouzouki, guitars and drums. Fronting this band is a young woman named Emma Härdelin, whose voice soars with ancient passion and modern rock power. This band kicked the walls out with an explosion of electricity and vitality.
Then, one of my quests is fulfilled when I finally get to hear Angelin Tytöt (The Girls of Angelin). The women who founded this band are from one of the few Saami (Lapp) villages in Finland. They are making the ancient traditions of their land new again, turning the vocal style called joikking into a music both ancient and contemporary. On stage, they are profoundly reverent one moment, and uproarious the next. Joining them on their current tour is the only male tytöt, guitarist, percussionist and singer Alfred Häkkinen. With this new member they are forging new ground, not only recreating the sublime vocal music of the Saami people, but also dipping into jazz and blues, influences that didn't quite work yet. They are at their most powerful when they are playing drums and singing in unison, and his deeper voice adds a lot to this. Their concerts in Vaasa showed their established skills, and also hinted at new and interesting things to come.
On the more experimental side was a performance titled "Ssshh: Solo." Here we met some of the real innovators on the Finnish music scene. Nikolai Blad dug into unnameable Finno-Urgic linguistic roots to create a Hungarian/Estonian nightmare with bizarre, complex guitar playing and even more bizarre vocals. Transverse flautist Kristiina Illonen improvised a single mystical piece that emphasized colorations of rhythm and harmonics rather than melody, and yet ultimately had a strange sort of swing to it. Two members of one of the nation's most unique ensembles, Etno-pojat, exhibited the primal energy of ancient Finland in their works performed on a hand-sized pump-organ and a primitive reed instrument. Ornette Coleman and Arabic folk seemed to meet in some dark Scandinavian forest when they played. The final performance was a special treat, accordion works by one of Finland's greatest new music composers and performers, Maria Kalaniemi. Kalaniemi plays a full chromatic accordion, and much like Guy Klucevsek, has reached for new ways to play and compose for the instrument, one that is unique in any country, but in Kalaniemi's case also truly informed by Finnish folk music. Saturday afternoon we're back at Club 25 again to hear the full six-piece Etnopojat ensemble of reeds, strings, droning hand organ and percussion (all instruments built by members of the ensemble), augmented on the first number by four women on Senegalese drums. This music is so primitive it becomes modern again, and the small crowd was mesmerized by their intuitive, earthy sound.
Saturday night wraps up with an all-star concert on the mainstage. JPP, the quintessential Finnish folk fiddle orchestra, performed traditional tunes, whacked tangos and some unique originals. This band is the current star of the folk scene, and their performances in Vaasa proved why. With just fiddles, pump organ and bass they pay homage to and then defy the traditions, making them vital and whole again without ever resorting to electronics or hype. Which is not to say that the electronic hype can't be effective. Hedningarna, the Swedish/Finnish folk-rock band have become cult heros in Scandinavia, attracting crowds of 30-somethings, skinheads and hippies to their explosive live concerts. In a short set they pulled out references to archetypical myths and Jimi Hendrix, their electrified bagpipes, fiddles and ouds creating a base for the two singers to bring the mystical and exuberant folk music of eastern Finland into the twenty-first century. V�sen, another Swedish band, also displayed a different approach to power folk, using keyed fiddle as the core for their music. Without as much of the pyrotechnics of Hedningarna, they still pulled off a set that displayed all of the strength. Both bands were scheduled to give another concert at Club 25 that night, which we passed on because I was bound for Helsinki and a day at... WOMAD!
WOMAD! The World Of Music And Dance returned to Finland this summer, and it was a truly global experience. It opened with a children's concert by Ohilyönti, who repeated their wonderful show from Vaasa, grabbing yet another young audience and getting them on their feet and dancing.
Next was western Kenya harp master Ayub Ogada, who gave a solo workshop/performance, explaining the instrument and teaching songs to a packed tent. The gentleness of his nyatiti and the sweetness of his voice gave new perspective on the music of Kenya, so dominated by the electric benga bands. He performs with a ring of bells on his ankle, and with these and his foot provides an amazingly full percussion. Ogada is one of the warmest, most genuine performers I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and his willingness to stay after the performance and talk to the audience was a rare example of real music embassy. I had a chance to share a drink and some talk with him later in the afternoon.
Abdel Gadir Salim and his sublime Sudanese orchestra took
the mainstage by storm. Lush is the only way to describe this
crew, the violins, organ and guitars washing over the audience
while Salim entranced them with his voice. By the time he left, a
large portion of the audience were on their feet and swaying to
the music. Across the way Cuban Orquestra Cumbre followed,
and under the dim light of the "beer tent" they simmered,
smoldered, and burned into a high energy frenzy of son and salsa.
The audience went from a Sudanese sway to a full-tilt Latin
Singer from Röntyskä and Rogie wait backstage
In a stark contrast to Ogada's performance was the "solo" show by Sierra Leone guitarist S.E. Rogie. I have always been a huge fan, but at WOMAD he played with a "music-minus-one" tape of a full band sans guitar and voice, a stiff and unsatisfying approach made all the more ludicrous by bad tunings and once or twice he even plowed into the wrong song. His few solo acoustic songs were wonderful, making the rest all the more painful. Back in the beer tent again, U-Bayou is rocking out. While their musical ties to Louisiana are slim and getting slimmer, their rollicking spirit mirrors the feel if not the sound of Saturday night roadhouse life. And sax player Big Bertha certainly has a hairdo and a sound that any woman in Ville Platte would be proud to have. One of the best events was a visit by Röntyskä. This troupe of women come from the Finnish inhabited region called Ingria in Russia, an area that has passed from Finnish to Swedish to Russian control, but has always hung on to its heritage. The small crowd went wild, joining songs about love, life and sex that these mostly 60-80 year old women sang and danced to, each call and response line demanding more knowing glances and roaring laughter from the audience. It's the moment where I most regretted my lack of the language, because the second hand translations were a pale imitation of what I knew was happening.
The evening's final concert was Hedingarna, and this time it was a full blown rock show on their various plugged-in goatskins, wah-wahed jouhikko (an ancient three-string fiddle), reeds, tambourines and ouds. Finnish singers Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Tellu Paulasto brought an air of both mystic charm and dark magic, each woman's voice soaring above the roar of the instruments and keeping it human in the midst of all their technology. A phenomenal performance by a phenomenal band.
Monday AM: a breakfast of fresh bread, ham, cucumbers and coffee on the street in front of an ancient hotel in Helsinki. This is where I finally get the "international flavor," as a Chinese businessman sips his tea, two young girls giggle alternately in French and Italian, and an Indian gentleman consumes an amazing quantity of hard-boiled eggs. To add to the wonder, the music in the background is a schmaltzy vocal and accordion rendition of "John Brown's Body," in Finnish.
Helsinki is small and easily traversed, with a lot of music on the various boulevards and walking streets. A particular favorite was a small acoustic rhythm and blues band that seemed to know every Jimmy Reed song, along with a healthy dose of Grateful Dead tunes. An Irish flute player worked the docks at the southern tip of town. Right around the corner from my hotel was Digelius Music, one of the best world music outlets I've seen, run by folks whose major passions seem to be American blues and jazz, but crammed with Finnish, Swedish, African and Japanese CDs of the most obscure nature. The world music is watched over by American escapee Philip Page, who has been a champion of Finnish music, and one of the folks who is helping to create an American craze for the stuff. (We'll see.) Visiting Digelius is like stumbling on Finland's musical hub. Musicians like Arto Järvelä and raconteurs like Olarin Records' czar Timo Närväinen (who graciously buys me lunch at one of Helsinki's many Mexican restaurants) fly in and out all day, while Japanese tourists gleefully purchase records by JPP and Hedningarna. I also got the "grand" tour of the national radio and sat in to watch Philip do his weekly radio program on Radio 2, also known as Radio Mafia.
Wed-Sun (Tampere and Kangasala)
I have been negligent in keeping track of events for a few days, so it's all rolling together in a haze of fiddles and coffee. During these days I have a walking tour of an old section of the city of Tampere, and a visit to its central market, a paradise of fresh and salted fish, vegetables, meat pies, pastries and coffee. Also in Tampere are the offices of WUM (Music New and Old), a new magazine devoted to "good music," the work of Waldemar Walenias, whose goal is to "write about the music I like. I'm too old for all the other nonsense." I see a video of one of the stranger concerts of the season, a recent appearance by rock and roll weirdos The Leningrad Cowboys, who gave a free concert in Helsinki accompanied by the entire Red Army Choir and Orchestra. The Cowboys are no great shakes as a band, but the contrast of them singing "Oh no, it's only rock and roll..." punctuated by the 100+ basso-profundo voices of the Red Army, "But I like it, like it, yes I do..." is priceless and beyond description.
I also visit a national forest (one of the few remaining stands of virgin woods in the country) called Hell's Ditch, a modern sculpture exhibit in a field behind an old house in Kumalahti and another shot at that most Scandinavian of traditions, the steaming, beat-me-with-a-birch-branch sauna. I am invited to visit the home of Leenamaija's father, another fine fiddler, and we spend the evening drinking coffee, eating fresh baked biscuits and playing old songs as a way to overcome the language barrier.
Then comes "midsummer," a national holiday ready-made for goofing off, eating, and drinking. After many rounds of parties and relaxing times with my friends, I am carried off to the official celebrations at a lodge in Kangasala. Here I again get to hear the music of a small contingent from Leuhu-Leevi, who play three short sets. Around this are a magician (fun but not too good), some other fine local musicians and dancers, and some sophomoric comedy, all given a strange background by the endless hum of pop music being pumped out in the karaoke tent (yes, even here), and culminating in a large bonfire and a raffle for "a big clock."
Monday PM (Tampere)
My second to last night in Finland finds me at Kulasen Baari, a small little place in central Tampere that specializes in fine beer and wild music. Tonight there is a one-man band, an Estonian named Toni Aare (former member of a famous Soviet rock band called Apelsin) who seems to know the entire Chuck Berry and Hank Williams catalogs, and graciously lets anyone in the audience sing along. We get things like a German tourist singing a Teutonic "Blueberry Hill" or a fine Finnish version of "Hey Good Lookin'." Pertti conspires with the bar owner and Aare, and next thing I know I have been welcomed on stage to play a few turns of "Wayfaring Stranger," some Hank Williams and the weirdest, funkiest version of "Green Rocky Road" ever heard, played by an American writer and an Estonian rock star on Japanese guitars in a Finnish bar where even the Germans prefer Czech beer. If that ain't world music....
Tuesday (Ikaalinen and Parkano)
We are off to one of Finland's unique festivals, the eight-day Sata-Häme Soi in Ikaalinen. This is dedicated exclusively to the accordion, from the one-row mini-squeezer to giant chromatic. Our opening taste of it all was the one- and two-row contest, featuring players young and old trying for the year's honor as best squeezer. While most of the performances were of the usual competitive variety (flash over substance, tradition over innovation), one very special young player stood out. Anna-Marie Kivimäki displayed great sensitivity in both her choice of material (the required polka, and her optional piece, the more unusual polska) and in her delivery. Using the instrument for it's unique dynamics, Anne-Marie pulled a wide range of emotions and percussive undertones out of her instrument. She reflects a lot of the attitude of Kaleniemi (who she'll be studying with at the Sibelius Academy this year), but her achievement is all the more interesting since she does her work on the much more limited two-row accordion. This musician from the town of Pirkkala has not only skill, but a heart full of this music, showing promise that she could be one of the next generation of innovators in Finnish folk. Later in the day, we moved to the town of Parkano for some more accordions. Large ensembles of one- and two-rowers took the stage to show off the traditional side of things. The treat of the evening was an all too short foray on the two-row accordion by Teppo Välimäki, who showed not only his skill (and high-speed) but a very unusual sense of the rhythms of his music, a music passed down from three previous generations. He also introduced the newest generation in a duet with his daughter. Already well-established as both a protector of the tradition and an innovator, Välimäki is one of Finland's real national treasures, a man dedicated to his country's music but not enslaved by either the purist restriction or the faddish whim. He makes the folk music of Finland come to life. Brilliant! The evening came to a ripping close with another performance by Maria Kalaniemi. This time the accordion master had a band with her; the ever-present Järvelä on violin, the innovative pianist and arranger Timo Alakotila, and young guitarist Olli Varis. They moved from dramatic tango to ancient folk and into avant garde splendor as they experimented with the instruments and the tunes' abilities to be reshaped and expanded. One of the highlight's of the show was their version of "Folkmoods" by Alakotila. This fusion of folk and jazz worked far better with this ensemble than it did with JPP and the Vaasa Big Band back at Waasan Spelit last week. Kalaniemi's own compositions and her unique style as a performer make her THE Finnish artist to watch for in any genre. She also made the perfect end-piece to my trip, that mix of old and new the perfect image for me to carry home.
Wed. (in the air)
Across the aisle from me sits a young Japanese man carefully protecting a bag of LPs he is carrying back to London. On the top of the pile sits an old LP by Ohilyönti.
A couple of the big guys of folk?
The thank-you's I have to make are many: to my hosts and now great friends Pertti, Tuula and Justus, there are no words big enough to describe your generosity. Also thanks to Leenamaija for the art tours and the music; Philip Page for his curiously interesting store and unique tourism advice; Timo Närväinen, one of the good friends I made in Finland, and a true defender of the real folk music, new and old; to the folks at Kulasen Baari in Tampere (Finn, German and Estonian alike!) and all the other places I traveled for making me so damn welcome. Special thanks also to Susanna Weldon for high-tea and walking tours. And finally, a kick in the pants to the crews and producers of YLE, the government television, whose obnoxious cameramen felt they should be part of the show at every turn; may someone get as "in your face" as you did ours!