Finnish Folk – Feral and Feisty, plus Folk Hip hop and the World’s First Deaf Rapper – Etno Espa, Helsinki, 10-20 August 2015 Tony Mitchell


Finnish folk music is among the most distinctive in the world, and some of its most recent exponents have been performing on the outdoor Espa stage on the Esplanade in central Helsinki, where Jazz Espa was also held. The kantele is the Finnish zither-like national instrument of ancient origin which has had a huge revival in the 21st century, partly due to the influence of the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, founded in the early 1980s along with the Jazz Department. The bowed lyre jouhikko, also thousands of years old, with horsehair strings, played between the legs, has also been revived and electrified, like the kantele, and both are taught at the Academy, where there is equal emphasis on tradition and innovation, along with accordion, mandolin and other instruments as well as vocal studies.

The most innovative jouhikko player in Finland is undoubtedly Pekko Käppi from Tampere, a wildly feral performer who now plays an electrified version of the instrument with a white skull painted on it, together with his trio K:H:H:L, who play a Bo Diddley-styled two string box bass guitar and a four-string lead guitar, and produce the most incredible noise. I saw them play the other night at the Zetor restaurant, a Czech-styled eatery in downtown Helsinki full of tractors and other farm machinery, serving classic Finnish food, which used to be owned by the Leningrad Cowboys, and they were as fast and furious as ever. Käppi has even produced an album of Finnish punk classics, and I first saw him three years ago playing with his mate Juhana Nyrhinen, an instrument builder who specialises in kanteles made from skateboards.

But there is also a large number of female kantele players, most notably the duo Unaja, the blonde Jutta Rahmel and redhead Maija Pokela, who perform on August 19, and play mostly their own compositions set to the lyrics of traditional ballads, along with a couple of instrumentals. They rise from a whisper to full-throated singing, and switch between a 15 string kantele played on the lap and a 38 string, bassier version mounted on a platform. They’ve been playing together since childhood, and produce sweet harmonies undercut by the beguilingly tinkling sound of their instruments, and are absolute charmers. They’re also part of a 10 piece ensemble called the New Better Spring Band, who sing in English, and sound like a mixture of Carole King and the McGarrigle Sisters, and a 9 piece ensemble ENO : Entisten Nuorten Orkesteri. Rahmel also plays in the band Maara, who follow on from Unaja, and are a five piece group with one lone male clad in a shockingly loud gold shirt, who sings and produces electronics from his computer, along with four female vocalists, who play funky double bass, percussion and a harmonium as well as kantele. The percussionist/vocalist goes into a frenzied dance during one of their numbers, and they mix their own compositions with traditional Karelian, Finno-Ugric and Eastern Finnish songs.

Pelimanni is a Finnish term for a travelling folk musician, often a violinist, who plays by ear, and one musician who seems to embody this description is Eero Grundström, who appears in a couple of groups in this event, as well as playing in the bizarre harmonica (huuliharppu in Finnish) quartet Sväng. The leader of Sväng has a doctorate in the instrument, and plays a rare Harmonetta chordal harmonica, while another member plays bass harmonica. They’ve released five albums – one comprising music by Chopin – and even appeared on Jools Holland’s New Year Hootenanny TV show. They usually appear in impeccable old style suits, play self-composed music ranging from Balkan to tango to Finnish traditional, and are arguably the leading – if not the only – harmonica quartet in the world. Gundström also plays what looks like a home-made harmonium housed in a green box and the kantele, and when he appears with fellow pelimanni Tuomas Logrén, looks a bit like a priest behind his harmonium, with specs and pony tail. Logrén used to play in the celebrated world music group Värtiinä when he was ten, and now sings and plays guitar and dobro with his own band Savuana Kirnu (smoky buttermilk), who mix bluegrass stylings with Finnish folk, have a funky female double bassist, and open proceedings on August 10. They do an instrumental version of ‘Red River Valley’, a song about Logrén’s home town in Eastern Finland, which translates as ‘Night Lake’, a song with a ‘Yippie-yai-ay’ chorus to keep the US themes going, and a song about an owl and the smallest nesting bird in Europe (a goldcrest – I looked it up). So Finnish nature is obviously an important theme.

Logrén, who has just released a solo album, is also part of the well-established Frigg, who describe themselves as ‘hot fiddles from cool Scandinavia’ (there are five violinists in the group, as well as mandolins, woodwinds and brass). Frigg’s line up includes a Finnish bagpipe player, Petri Prauda who appears on August 18 with the group Päre (instrument reed), and also have mandolin and cittern, along with a Norwegian violinist, and the group has released four albums and toured the US several times. They are a five piece who include a female violinist, mandola, percussion, and the jew’s harp player Tapani Varis, who also has his own trio, who perform on the 11th, combining a lead jew’s harp with kantele and persussion. So as you can see, it’s all very complicatedly interconnected. A jew’s harp is as unlikely a lead instrument as a harmonica, and one of Varis’ tracks is called ‘Jew’s Harp Hero’, obviously an ironic play on ‘guitar hero’. They are described in the program as ‘creat [ing]a sound world that brings together forest, meadows, swampy landscapes and urban life’ as well as ‘tak[ing]their listeners from Mongolian steppes to Norwegian mountains and glaciers’, which covers a wide geographical and environmental range. But back to Päre, whose black velvet bagpipes delight the audience, who give them an encore. Prauda, who sports a Tin Tin hairstyle, tells them (in English): ‘Remember this – you came to Finland, you heard bagpipes, and you asked for more!’ But it really is a special instrument, much softer and far less shrill than Scottish bagpipes, and Prauda specialises in hunting songs and the like.

SO III are a trio of female vocals, five string violin, electronics and percussion as well as improvisation, traditional folk and composition. The violinist/vocalist Suvi Oskala also plays with a female accordionist and mandolin player in a trio called the Polka Chicks, whose name epitomises what they do. Celenka are a gipsy-oriented trio of trumpet, harmonium (Grundström again) and kantele/vocalist Emmi Kujanpää, who play Finnish, Karelian, Ingrian, Romanian and Bulgarian love songs, as well as their own compositions, and each is described as ‘an awarded pelimanni’. Formed in 2013, they have a self-titled album released this year. They are followed by No One’s Land, a four-piece Balkan gipsy group, whose members include German, Finnish, Karelin and Serbian members, led by Karolina Kanalinen, also formerly of Värtinä, which seems to have provided a training ground for a number of Finnsh folk musicians. No One’s Land describe themselves as ‘the nightmare of Finnish folk’ as they comprise so many different nationalities, hence the name.

I’m not sure if the term pelimanni can be applied to women, but it certainly should be in the case of Laura Iso-Metsälä, a blond dreadlocked singer who’s not involved in Etno Espa, but does a solo gig as part of Embar’s Acoustic Tuesday on August 11. A singer and kantele player, she also plays a frame drum, which she sings to, and reminds me uncannily of the Faroe Islands singer Eivør Pálsdóttir in her early days, when she still had a feral appearance and beat the frame drum to her tribal-sounding song ‘Faroe Islands My Mother’, before she switched to singing in English. Also with an all-male forest folk group called Aalto, whom she only joined in 2014, Laura now appears to operate solo to great effect, drawing her inspiration from the old Finnish song tradition and the mysticism of the ancient national epic, the Kalevala. She is also part of the female trio Amas (You Love), formed in 2012, who interpret the music of Konsta Jylhä, a Finnish master folk musician, in Latin. And she co-wrote a film called ‘Inner Trial’ set in Helsinki, about a troubled romance between a drug-addled student and his girlfriend. She has a powerful presence, and gets a very strong response from the audience.

Aila-duo are a highight of Ethno Espa, a young and relatively new Sámi female duo dressed in northern Finnish (Jessika Lampi) and Sámi (Heili Aikio) attire, Heili complete with dark glasses on this very sunny day. They are based in Inari, a small town in the far north which has its own language, Inari Sámi, spoken by about 400 people (a rapper called Amoc has already produced an album in the language). Aila-duo sing and play kantele, guitar, Sámi frame drum and ukelele, are backed by a male drummer and bass guitar, and their first song is about the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, which are a prominent feature of Lapland in winter. They mix traditional songs with pop, and won the 2014 Sámi Grand Prix. They produce whispers, chants, dog and other animal sounds, and are absolutely charming. For an encore, they sing an Inari Sámi version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, with Lampi vocalising the guitar riff. I’d seen them previously on a video in the Inari museum, but they are so much better live. They’re followed by Indreni, a Nepalese group who migrated to Finland three years ago, with a female vocalist who mostly improvises, and a traditional hand-made violin-like instrument called a sarangi, along with a Nepalese madal drum. They initiate a series of multicultural groups who include an Estonian duo who play bagpipes, a Guinean-Finnish group, Lanyi, and a West African group Faso-Khan, who contrast with the predominantly very white Finnish groups. Unfortunately they all clash with the Flow Festival, so I’m unable to see any of them. This is the section that most illustrates the ‘Etno’ aspect of the series, as up until now we have mainly been dealing with Finnish and some Baltic folk in its numerous guises.

Post-Flow, the country’s most prominent accordion player Maria Kalaniemi, accompanied by Timo Alakotila on piano, gives a magisterial set, ending with a well-known Finnish tango called ‘Wonderland’. Her most recent album featured collaborations with adventurous guests like Eero Grundström and Pekko Kääppi, and was her first venture as a singer of songs from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, her native tongue, but she confines herself to instrumentals today.

She’s followed by Harri Kuusijarvi Koutus, who are basically a rock group, featuring innovative drummer Tatu Rönkkö, whom I’ve written about before. They play instrumentals with Kuusijarvi on lead piano accordion, along with lead guitar, bass and percussion, and are the loudest group on show here. Their track ‘Raindeer Derby’ features lots of percussion and vocalisations, while ‘Joik’ is named after the traditional form of Sámi throat singing, which it simulates mainly on Veikki Virkajärvi’s guitar. Their debut album, released last year, is generating considerable interest outside Finland as they extend the boundaries of conventional folk music into rock and jazz terrains.

August 20th is Night of the Arts, on which more than 500 musical events take place all over Helsinki, along with literary events such as poetry readings, art exhibitions, stand up comedy and theatre. I stick with Etno Espa, which moves for the occasion down to the city market in the harbour on a stage area perched under a ferris wheel run by Finnair, which turns throughout proceedings, but without any patrons on board. Three acts are on the bill, beginning with Jarkko Martikainen & Haaga Folk machine, a quartet who combines Nordic pelimanni music, bluegrass, Celtic influences and rock on acoustic instruments. Martikainen is noted for being one of the most ingenious lyricists in Finland, but unfortunately I’m unable to assess that, and they get a very enthusiastic response from the audience. Pietarin Spektaakkeli is a three piece who combine blues, folk, rap and schlager music, and again the lead singer entertains the audience with his lyrics, with blues the most prominent idiom.

Then there’s Asa, a prolific folk rapper who has gained attention in an article in the Finnish Music Quarterly, and his band, who include both a DJ and a violinist/mandolin player along with guitar, bass and drums. Drawing on traditional runo singing, he attracts a hip hop audience, with quite a few women in evidence. Blond-featured like most Finns, he doesn’t really look the part of a rapper, but has released numerous albums under various different pseudonyms since 2001, most of which have reached the Finnish album charts, and make reference to Sami and Finno-Ugric traditions as well as using what he calls a ‘rhyme bicycle’, addressing philosophical rather than political issues. He’s just released an album called ‘Love’, which consists of samples from the archives of legendary 60s and 70s Helsinki record label Love Records.

Ironically, he’s on at exactly the same time as Helsinki’s other most well-known rapper Paleface and his band Räjähtävä Nyrkki (Exploding. Fist) uptown in Mbar, while a bunch of lesser-known rappers have taken over the Espa stage. Paleface has released albums both in English and Finnish, and has also been described as a ‘folk rapper’, having worked with joik singer Wimme and master female folk singer Hilja Grönfors, a collector and performer of Romany songs, whom he refers to as ‘a Finnish soul mama with a huge sound’. He’s probably the most well-known Finnish rapper, releasing his first album, ‘The Pale Ontologist’ (in English), in 2001, and having popular success with his 2010 album ‘Helsinki-Shangri-La’ (in Finnish). To date he has also released eight albums, half of them in English, half in Finnish.

That Finnish rap and hip hop embraces Finnish folk music and its traditions, such as rune singing, so readily, is a sign that it has become truly indigenised, and it has been growing at such a rate over the past few years that it’s now almost impossible to keep track of. Apart from at least five rappers of African extraction, Finland boasts the only deaf rapper in the world to be signed to a major label, Signmark, who has toured more than 40 countries, including Australia in 2010.

Signmark (real name Marko Vuoriheimo), born to deaf parents, is against being referred to as handicapped or disabled, and prefers to call himself a speaker of a minority language ‘with its own culture, community, history and heritage’. His sidekick Brandon Bauer transfers his raps into ‘normal’ language, while Signmark finds visual rhymes in sign language, which are very different from spoken rhymes. His shows are always bilingual, with international sign language and usually spoken English. His first, self-titled album appeared in 2006, along with a DVD, and was mostly in Finnish, with a cover photo of Signmark with his hands raised to sign but impeded by handcuffs. There is just one track on it in English, ‘Our Life’, set in a university classroom where he raps to group of gents in collars and ties about his upbringing, his life, and the mercenary attempts of doctors to ‘cure’ him. Another track is dedicated to Carl Oscar Malm (1826 – 1863), a Swedish Finn who founded the first school for the deaf in Porvoo outside Helsinki in 1846, and Signmark addresses the statue of him that is erected there. Another track, which created controversy in Finland, tells of how in Finland in the 19th century deaf couples were not allowed to marry, and an unknown number of Finnish deaf women were sterilised. A book about Signmark by Nuppu Stenros appeared in Finnish in 2007, and in 2009 he won the Outstanding Young Person of the World prize. In the same year he was very nearly the Finnish representative in the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow, with a track called ‘Speakerbox’, being pipped at the post by Waldo’s People, a daggy disco band who came last in the final with 22 votes. In the meantime, he appeared on the US website, The Weirdest Band of the Week, along with the likes of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

Signmark’s second album, Breaking the Rules, was released by Warner Music in 2010, also with a video, and was of course entirely in English, and far cheesier and poppier than its predecessor, even using autotune. Silent Shout appeared in 2014, and tried to redress the balance, back on his own label, with a video for every audio track, most with English subtitles, and numerous guests, both male and female, and even the odd babe. ‘I might not fit on MTV, but I’ll be damned if that stops me’, he declares on the opening track, ‘Now Is the Time’. The album uses folk instruments like a violin and an accordion, he’s a very engaging personality, and one hopes he can break through to a wider audience than just deaf people, as he has lessons about deaf people to teach all of us. As he states in his track ‘The New Dawn’:

I do a set of things different, yet I am valid
My right to exist as I am is rock solid
I know I’m different, but I am able
Don’t try to lock me out, with some narrow-minded label

Finland is really a remarkable place for its music, and I keep coming across new, hidden depths in all kinds of genres, from forest folk to deaf hip hop.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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