This year’ Helsinki Flow Festival attracted a “nearly sold out’s 57,500. With crowds swarming around all the larger stages on the final day, making both visibility and audibility a major problem. It would be interesting to know just what constitutes a capacity crowd at Suvilahti, a former power station on the edge of Kallio (the Rock), Helsinki’ hippest, and most abject, area. One of the benefits of Flow is its great diversity of music, which attracts all ages, shapes and sizes. It made the Guardian‘ top ten in 2012 and 2014 for “best small music festivals in Europe’: “Forget green fields and sloshing about in the mud, Flow is all about urban design and industrial spaces – a festival for all the senses and one that successfully manages to be cool and cosy at the same time’.
Well, not that cool, weather wise, with temperatures in the high 20s, and a bit too cosy in some cases. Problems started on day one with the Balloon 360 Stage, a seated theatre in the round topped by a large helium balloon, a very pleasant outdoor performance arena which fills very quickly and overflows disastrously. Acoustic singer Mirel Wagner, an Ethiopian-born resident of Helsinki who sings in an American folk style, and has just released her Guardian-reviewed, Vladislav Delay-produced second album on Sub Pop, When the Cellar Children See the Light of the Day, was the first victim. Her sparse, confrontational style, which begins by asking “one, two three four, what’s underneath the floor?’ (answered later in the song “In My Father’ House’) and doesn’ let up, demands an intimate, indoor setting, and she was cruelly wasted here. Luckily a Helsinki-based friend dragged me along to see her last year at the downtown Loose Bar, after she had released her eponymous first album, for which I am very grateful.
Both the Malian “desert blues’ band Tinariwen and Neneh Cherry were to suffer similar (or worse) fates, although Cherry’ more raunchy mode of attack fared better than Wagner’ and almost overcame the crush, while Tinariwen got people dancing. As did the re-formed 70s Malian superstars Les Ambassadeurs, featuring Salif Keita, blind guitarist Amadou Bagayoko (of Amadou and Mariam), keyboardist and vocalist Cheik Tidiane Seck, and an extraordinary electric kora player, who appeared on the Main Stage to a disappointingly small crowd. These included a middle aged blond guy in a Kylie T shirt dancing, a middle aged Finnish woman who did interpretative dance, and a dreadlocked guy from Mali acting out the songs to his paler-than-pale Finnish girlfriend also in dreadlocks and an African-styled long dress. All the while watched by two goth Manic Street Preachers fans who had set up a 6-hour vigil waiting for their band, clutching a flag that combined both the Finnish and Welsh flags.
Other acts who appeared on the Balloon Stage earlier in the day, like the Helsinki-based jazz trio Mopo (Moped), featuring a mischievous Linda Fredriksson on baritone and tenor sax and various children’ toys, including a rubber duck, managed to bring the house down to an almost capacity seated audience, with their decidedly avant-garde and dead-pan humorous approach. Mopo who played the London jazz festival and the BBC’ jazz on 3 last year, have just released their second album, Beibei (pronounced “baby’), featuring a quite literal interpretation of the track “Hevi Metal’, with cymbals and other metal objects, including Fredriksson on a hammer and toy xylophone.
They were preceded by Eetu Floor & YstÃ¤vÃ¤t (Friends), a dashing, bearded and barefooted matinee idol singer of melancholic, French-inflected Finnish iskelma (schlager) backed by a female violinist and accordionist, who brought a more traditional folk idiom to proceedings. And the bass player Antti LÃ¶tjÃ¶nen, late of the Five Corners Quartet, who has the distinction of having performed at every Flow Festival since 2004, this year brought along his Quartet East, featuring his erstwhile companion, ace trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, who has recently signed to Edition Records in London as well as ACT in Berlin, and they managed to fill the Balloon Stage comfortably at 2pm on Sunday, and finish with a Don Cherry-penned quartet for toy trumpets. Sunday was children’ day, which explained the presence of lots of toddlers with brightly fluoro-coloured headphones – some of them even gave performances in the Perhesunnuntai (Backyard).
One aspect of the festival staging got it right this time – the Other Sound, curated as ever by Fonal Records owner Sami SÃ¤npÃ¤kkilÃ¤ – was moved to a larger venue, the twin-smokestacked Voimala, after being swamped last year in a much smaller venue, and survived in relative comfort. There were even beanbags strewn over the floor, which I managed to commandeer on a couple of occasions. The African-American Roy Hargrove Quintet wisely exchanged the Balloon Stage for the Other Sound for their set on Friday evening, which was an energetic, post-bop affair, alternating Hargrove’ trumpet with tenor sax by Antonio Hart, and finishing with a stylish vocal version of “Never Let Me Go’, evoking Chet Baker. Hargrove, a Wynton Marsalis alumni, doesn’ exactly set the world on fire, but the whole band displayed a professionalism that was impressive. Folk singer Joose Keskitalo, in contrast, is rather nerdy looking, and sports a harmonica holder like Bob Dylan, and some of his songs borrow Dylanesque tunes (like “You Ain’ Going Nowhere’), but there’ an edginess to his songs, some of which employ spoken word. Some have been translated on the internet, and have titles like “Cities Are Being Squeezed in Clamps’, “I Guess You Got Hit By a Train’, “We’re Serving Death’, and “Five Girls’, about a mass murderer. He sang one in English about burning, which included observations about both Kurt Cobain and tattoos. His two backing musicians on guitar and violin are also very proficient.
On the Saturday evening, the Other Sound featured a solo performance by British saxophonist Evan Parker, apparently a frequent visitor to Finland, as well as Fonal Records, who demonstrated his circular breathing technique, which he compared notes with didjeridoo performers when he last visited Australia, on three highly filigreed pieces which were one of the highlights of the festival. As I’d just missed him in his monthly residence at the Vortex Cub in London last month I was very grateful to see him here. He was followed by Jan AnderzÃ©n’ group Kemialliset YstÃ¤vÃ¤t (Chemical Friends), who recently released their latest album on Dekorder in Germany, rather than Fonal. They gave an almost continuous, 40 minute performance, to which two girls danced, and two guys leered drunkenly, as a nine-piece combining electronics and instruments, to rather chaotic effect. AnderzÃ©n’ spectacularly intricate paintings adorn many of the Fonal artists’ album covers.
Another former Fonal artist who appeared on the Main Stage on Friday was singer-songwriter Risto (YlihÃ¤rsilÃ¤), who is actually a rock band from Tampere, who released their first album on Fonal in 2004, and have since garnered a lot of fans and got into the Finnish top ten, rather to their discomfort. Although their front man seems to like playing the rock star, and still sings in Finnish and records on Fonal (latest album Risto II, 2013, with a cover by AnderzÃ©n). Except when he has collaborated with Kari Peitsamo, an extremely prolific veteran musician from the 1970s who has likewise moved from experimental to mainstream.
Another more cultish Finnish rock band is the newly-formed Gim Gordon, an obvious hommage to the Sonic Youth singer and bass player, who have just released their debut album in Finnish on the alternative Soliti label, run by Italian-English DJ and entrepreneur Nick Triani, and named after the well-known 1958 Italian film with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, I soliti ignoti (Persons Unknown, sometimes known by the atrocious US title “Big Deal on Madonna Street’). Triani runs a Soliti club and regular events around Finland, and their recording artist Astrid Swan, who sings in English and quotes T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month’ in the first line of her first song, which immediately put me off, also appeared at the festival. But Gim Gordon, a three-piece fronted by Aleksi Pahkala, late of the Helsinki record shop Stupido, which closed in June, is a retro post punk band with a sense of humour and effective power chords who sound to me not unlike a Finnish version of the Buzzcocks. They performed in the Mixradio Music Hall, one of the few venues which seemed not be challenged by overcrowding. Apart from Sonic Youth, they even cite 90s Sydney band Smudge as one of their influences, via “pre-Ray’ Lemonheads. There’ certainly a buzz around them.
I tended to avoid the Flow headliners – Mos Def and Outkast do nothing for me, nor does Janelle Monae – despite her Afrofuturist pretensions, she’ just an ordinary R&B singer – and I’ve seen the National enough times already. I lasted less than two minutes of Skrillex’ Mickey Mouse dubstep, but I would have liked to have seen Die Antwoord, who were in the Blue Tent, which overflows far too fast. For some strange reason the Main Stage closed at 10pm on Sunday after Outkast’s 20th anniversary performance, causing added crush on the two tents, in the Black one of which I had seen Eurocrack, a Finnish hip hop group whose latest album reached no.7 on the Official Finnish Album Chart. One of them had his head swathed in bandages, but apart from that it was impossible to discern what they were on about, apart from their symbol, which interlinks two euro signs.
Otherwise, the Nyt Kolisee collective of Finnish rappers, all male, and including Paleface, Hossni, Tommy Lindgren, Kevin, Toinen Kadunpoika, Juno, Heikki Kuula, Pyhimys, Paperi T, Solonen, Kosola, Kube, Keke, Kesken, Chyde, Lempi-Joe, Stepa, Are, RPK, Timo Pieni Huijaus, Alex Sandunga, Janne Haavisto, Mamba (Abdissa Assefa) and Xmies, occupied the Main Stage on Saturday afternoon, indicating the good health of Finnish hip hop. They produced a Palestinian flag at one point, along with a Palestinian rapper, but I couldn’ follow much without translation. Paleface used to rap in English, and occasionally still does. He is probably the most well-known rapper in Finland, and later this month is appearing in Helsinki with Egyptian rapper Ramy Essam.
My final flourish was Sound and Fury, a nine-piece jazz band who play the music of late great Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. Most of them are veterans of Vesala’ band who recorded six albums for ECM, including 1990′ Ode to the Death of Jazz, his comment on the state of US jazz, before his death in 1999. They now have both a drummer and a percussionist to make up for Vesala, along with two Hendrix-styled guitarists, a trumpeter, three saxophonists and flautists, and a double bass, which produced a thundering racket in the Other Sound. Playing Vesala’ compositions, both old, like “Frozen Melody’, and new, like “Pulsacion’, the tile of their most recent album, they’re a very fitting conclusion to the Flow Festival, along with the perigee moon. As the liner notes to Vesala’ 1987 Lumi put it: “picking away the last crumbs of our disbelief, we are able to ease into the careful telepathy this ensemble braids together. Thus blown of our dust, we meditate in â€œFrozen Melody,â€ which, though it may begin in stillness, melts with every rendered note’.