A recent article in the highly informative Finnish Music Quarterly on Finnish music festivals, of which there are an estimated 500, pointed out that the Flow Festival has attracted a lot of positive international media attention (last year’s got coverage in the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the Huffington Post), and in 2014 ten percent of its punters came from abroad. According to Flow’s female managing director, Suvi Kallio, the aim is to double that amount in the next few years. We were told in the press tent that there was an unprecedented 250 international media people here, but all we were provided with were luke-warm bottles of water as well as coffee, and unlike last year, there wasn’t even a fridge. Not that I’m complaining – it’s better than spending 4 euros on water in the festival zone. This was also the first year that Flow had generated another festival, in Ljubliana, which was held at the end of June. There has also been a feminisation of rock festivals, with 63 percent of women responding to the local Festival Barometer survey, and the long-running Turku-based Ruisrock festival attracting 75 per cent of women ticket buyers. Flow Festival has been active since 2004, and moved to its current venue in Suvilahti industrial precinct in 2007. This year’s expected goal of 70,000 people over the three days was achieved, making things highly congested towards the end of each day.
One of the most attractive features of Flow is its eclecticism. All genres, including jazz, experimental and avant garde, are represented, and this year there was even a couple of contemporary classical ensembles performing in the Voimala Other Sound venue, which last year moved to a bigger space. Defunensemble, an active new music group who are also performing at the more conventional, and expensive, Helsinki Festival later in the month, presented a program of individual and collective works, including Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, for live and recorded clarinet, and a piece by US composer Bryan Jacobs, along with works by contemporary Finnish composers, to a very attentive full house. The NYKY Ensemble, who have collaborated with Defunensemble in the past, and were founded at the Sibelius Academy in 2009, performed a ‘video opera’ by Fausto Romitelli, An Index of Metals. Both events, which included electronics as well as instrumental performaners, including a harp, although attended by relatively small niche audiences, were very welcome, and entirely new to me.
Things got underway on the Main Stage on the Friday with Yona and her Orchestra, a versatile Finnish folk and pop singer who has performed tango, iskelma (Finnish shlager music) and old Finnish film music as well as in other popular genres. Winning a ‘Rookie Emma’ award in 2010, the Finnish Arias, she has released six albums to date, and collaborated with cutting-edge jazz musicians such as the feral drummer Tatu Rönkkö. A good way to immerse early-comers into Finnish music without a safety net. Some ominous clouds gather during her performance, but they soon disperse, and we’re in for a gloriously sunny weekend. After that, I had to catch trumpeter Verneri Pohjola on the Bright Balloon 360 stage, where he’s played for the past three years, and virtually established a residency. With his quartet, and in other combinations, he’s been playing frequently around Helsinki this summer, although he’s getting increased international attention with his latest album Bullhorn, released on Dave Stapleton’s London-based Edition Records.
Pohjola is always brilliant, and his quartet is tight, especially pianist Aki Rissanen, who flourishes, and the Balloon Stage, which is in the round and has a large balloon suspended over it, is ideal for his music, making it resonate superbly. Then it’s into the Other Sound, to catch virtuoso drummer Olavi Louhivuori, who also records on Edition with his quartet Oddarang but is today doing a dazzling solo set accompanied by electronics (which he doesn’t really need) and video. He has also performed – and toured Australia – with the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, and is one of the most proficient drummers on a scene not short of them by any means.
A display of local hip hop, featuring DJ Dope HKI and a series of male rappers, plus one female, most of whom did very little, apart from chorusing ‘Yo’ and ‘Check’, proved a big disappointment. Noah Kin is a local rapper born in Oslo to a Finnish mother and a Nigerian father, but now based in Helsinki, described by the Finnish Music Quarterly as ‘shockingly young’ at 21, having already released three albums. He raps in US-accented English, has a complex about being short, and claims to be ‘underground’ (at least in the sense of in the metro subway) as well as ‘experimental’ and ‘alternative’, but is reasonably proficient, if a bit clichéd, and a regular performer at Flow, although he doesn’t shine in this particular context. He’s performed with senior Helsinki rapper Paleface, and started when he was 12, heavily influenced by Kanye West, which isn’t unusual these days, and his very personal approach to hip hop, focusing on his own experiences, is quite refreshing and unthreatening. Gracias is another rising young rapper based in Helsinki, of Congolese extraction, who has released three albums. His track HKI is an ode to Helsinki – ‘Helsinki doesn’t get much shouted out/The hell with those trying to hush and shut it out’ – and the video clip is filmed around the city. He’s a smooth rapper, like Kin, also using US-accented English, but quite pleasant, without any aggression. Biniyam is another Finnish-African hip hopper, like the other two on the local Cocoa label, and of German-Ethiopian extraction. He released his debut EP at 18 in 2013, free on Soundcloud and is also a producer, and raps in US-accented English. Also in this line-up is Tippa-T, a Finnish language rapper, and Pajafella, another Finnish-language rapper, apparently of African origin; Kube, who also raps in Finnish, as do Adi-L Hasla, who has an album out, and the very sartorial Reino Nordin, who looks like he’s at a debutante ball rather than a hip hop jam. The Finnish hip hop scene is becoming so vast it’s impossible to keep up with, with PhD theses appearing on various artists, and conferences taking place about it, but this event does little to showcase it.
Lännen Jukka, a veteran solo acoustic folk singer and banjo player, plays an unprecedented two sets on the Bright Balloon stage, drawing an overflowing enthusiastic crowd for his US-styled bluegrass. In 2006 he released an album of Finnish-American folksongs, all self-composed in Finnish in the guise of songs by Finnish migrants to the USA, with titles like ‘Drinkin’ Man’, ‘Moonshine Man’, ‘A Hobo’s Christmas’ and ‘The Boat to America’, with a series of YouTube clips featuring old photographs of US-Finnish immigrants. His style is rough and raucous, but very authentic, and the crowd go into raptures, as this is a rare appearance for him.
Then it’s back to the Other Sound, where US female artist Grouper does a very self-effacing but gentle show, sitting on stage with guitar and electronics, immersed in a video back projection. She is followed by the immensely impressive Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals Live Show, an eight-piece group, including Rhys Chatam, Gavin Russom of LCD Soundsystem, and Peter Zummo of the Lounge Lizards, led by Peter Gordon of the Love of Life Orchestra, who conducts and counts them in periodically, as well as playing organ and saxophone. They play continuously and powerfully for an hour, and even include some vocals towards the end. Russell’s Instrumentals were first performed in 1975, and based on nature photography by Yuko Nonomura, when Gordon first met Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992, in the New York Downtown scene. It’s an exhilarating experience, and one of the Flow highlights. After catching some of Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, who doesn’t seem as grotesque as I expected, on the Main Stage, I go back to the Other Sound for Vladislav Delay, who is headlining the Other Sound, but he sounds exactly like a jackhammer, and I soon tire of him.
Saturday is bright and sunny, and I catch some of Dave Lindholm, a legendary Love Records recording artist since the 1970s, whose 1973 album Sirkus is considered to be a major Finnish rock album. He’s played solo and in numerous bands over the years, including a stint in the Leningrad Cowboys, and switched between English and Finnish, although today is a solo acoustic performance in Finnish. LCMDF (Le Corps Mince De Françoise, or Françoise’s Thin Body) are a female electropop duo – normally a trio – of sisters who sing in English and could easily be dismissed as ‘girly pop,’ but one of them is responsible for the beats, and there is a veritable army of stunningly dressed girls out in force dancing and celebrating in the Black Tent, which I visit for the first time. The group has performed in the UK and at the Paris Fashion Week, and got positive reviews on Radio 1 and in the NME, and although they only have one album out, along with numerous singles, since forming in 2007, they have considerable presence and credibility. The emphasis is purely on fun, and girl power is at a premium, which is great to see after so much male solemnity.
French Films in the Lapin Kulta Blue Tent are a case in point – an up and coming boy rock band who appear to have been influenced by the jangle of NZ label Flying Nun – one of the tracks on their debut album is even called ‘New Zealand’. They sing in English, but seem a bit tryhard. Regina, a local dance-pop trio fronted by Finnish language singer-composer Iisa Pykäri, then gets things going on the Main Stage. They’ve released five albums, have been signed to US label Friendly Fire, and got a rave review in Pitchfork, so they’re making progress, producing a kind of Cocteau Twins-like dream pop where the lyrics don’t matter much. They’re curtain raisers for a big trio from the UK – Belle and Sebastian, Róisin Murphy (originally from Ireland, but she has lived in the UK since the age of 12) and the Pet Shop Boys, who I’m very excited about, so they seem appropriate. In the meantime, French prog group Forever Pavot are a weird bunch, producing lots of spacey ‘woo’ sounds on a synthesiser, and ending with the theme from ‘Tin Tin’. My attention is distracted by a couple from Lapland who indulge in some wildly interpretive dancing which lends the whole event a slightly comical edge.
Belle and Sebastian are as charming as ever, with Stuart Murdoch immediately chatting to the audience about the weather – ‘is it like this all year round? – and the Helsinki marathon that’s been happening today, which provides an introduction for ‘Stars of Track and Field’. They open with the powerfully personal ‘Nobody’s Empire’ from their latest, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and its accompanying video. Murdoch’s also liberal with his ‘Giitos’, and makes a point of interacting with the huge audience. I’m standing on a cube at the back of the arena, but still get a birdseye view. Murdoch then invites a girl up to stage to dance, which she does very confidently. He tells us she’s called Anastasia, and she comes from Russia – ‘the first time I’ve ever danced with a Russian girl!’ which is probably not so thrilling for the audience whose parents lived under Russian domination for several years in the 20th century. For their last three numbers they invite a whole group of couples up on stage, with help from complying security guards, as we go into ‘Boy With the Arab Strap’. It’s all over too soon, but it’s a great performance – their first time in Helsinki.
I’ve never paid much attention to Róisin Murphy, and never had much time for Moloko, but she pulls out the stops, and lots of theatrical props and costumes, tonight. Coming on dressed as an old lady in a mask doing her shopping, she delivers a rave about ‘music not being the same anymore, with all this electronic rubbish’, before pulling a red ribbon from her shopping bag and transforming her self into a younger woman (she’s now about 40) for ‘The Scarlet Ribbon’. There’s a costume change for every song, and even the band have to assume costumes, like the keyboard player who sprouts two extra heads, but it’s all very entertaining, and clear and easy to see in the videos either side of the stage. She does something strange with a pool toy, but the theatricality helps the music along, and the audience go along with it. She’s also liberal with her ‘kiitos’, tries out ‘moi’ (hello) and compliments the crowd on their ‘nice town’. It’s her first time here too.
The Pet Shop Boys are doing their greatest hits show, and start with a medley, with lasers and videos making Neil Tennant all but invisible (Chris Lowe never moves from his keyboards so he’s invisible throughout). They have two on-stage dancers who are reproduced in the video, causing a bit of confusion. During ‘I Wouldn’t Usually Do This Kind of Thing’ the dancers don bulls’ heads and dance to a segment from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. At this point the guy in front of me turns and asks ‘do you like this music?’ I answer ‘Yes, it’s Stravinsky!’ ‘But nobody’s dancing’ he replies. It’s true, the crowd seems numb as there’s been no live interaction, and everything looks virtual. Later Tennant reveals ‘we’re a bit sad tonight, because we’ve done this show so many times’. Things liven up towards the end however, and when I get closer to the stage, the crowd is dancing and even singing some of the lyrics, and by the time we get to ‘Go West’, they’re ecstatic. Tennant is now more chatty, making up for Lowe’s aloofness, and things end in a real flourish. Another first for Helsinki.
Sunday is another beautiful day, and it’s kids day – there’s even music and circus workshops for the under tens – but I go back into the Black Tent for Black Lizard, one of the numerous bands signed to the Helsinki Soliti label run by Englishman Nick Triani. Although they still sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain, they’re in a different league from French Films the previous day. Then Finnish singer Emma Salokoski, who has recorded with Verneri Pohjola’s Ilmiliekki Quartet, and still plays with them occasionally, is first up on the Main Stage, dressed in bright red. Next Friday afternoon she’s performing jazz arrangements of some of Sibelius’s songs with Ilmiliekki in a central Helsinki park, but today she’s more eclectic, with her own ensemble.
Since Australian feminist group Collective Shout’s recent successful efforts to get LA rapper Tyler the Creator to cancel his Australian tour on grounds of misogyny and rape references in his lyrics, and Odd Future being taken off the bill at Auckland’s Big Day Out on grounds of homophobia, I was curious to see Tyler perform here. He complained of a dislocated shoulder, which might have explained a fairly lacklustre performance to a highly enthusiastic crowd, who went into a frenzy when he did a new track, written especially for Europe, called ‘Open It Up’. Whether this was a brutally clumsy sexual command or a hypocritical plea for open borders, I wasn’t sure, but a group of Brits I heard joking about it afterwards seemed to confirm it was the former. A Finnish flag was even produced rather mysteriously in the crowd at this point, and it was obvious that most of the audience was much more familiar with his output than he was with their culture. Unlike other touring artists, he hadn’t even bothered to learn the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, and he seemed to be playing a game of ‘Simon Says’ in getting us to repeat expressions like ‘Hot Dog’ and ‘Cherry Bomb’ (the title of his latest album). A redundant indoctrination into US culture, perhaps? More perplexing was his addressing us ‘Are you ready, niggaz?’ when black faces in the crowd were so few and far between. Was he taking the piss? And when he ordered us to ‘crouch down until I get up’, everyone in the vast Lapin Kulta Blue Tent complied (except me, of course), and was happy to chant ‘Fuck That’ after him, although it wasn’t clear what was being dissed. Evidence of his misogyny was clear in a track that went ‘I hate you, but I love you’, and ended ‘Fuck you, bitch!’ but he did utter a rather limp shout-out to gays. There certainly seemed to be no concern amongst the crowd about misogyny or homophobia, and it was a bit disturbing to see three girls barely into their teens standing on a bench near me dancing, punching fists and chanting along throughout the show, and eventually running up to the stage to get more involved. I bet they weren’t at LCMDF yesterday. I couldn’t detect any open references in Tyler’s lyrics to sexual violence, but then most of them were pretty difficult to decipher if you didn’t know them in advance, which I didn’t, and have no desire to. He came across as just unpleasantly boorish and megalomaniacal, and far from creative, but that’s probably par for the course.
Tyler was followed by Flying Lotus, who basically did a DJ set with his head enshrined in a balaclava, in a vortex of back projections of firework patterns, which was reasonably interesting for about five minutes.
By then it was time for another craft beer, at the one stall providing an alternative to the crappy small cans of Lapin Kulta (Lapp Gold, the most well-known Finnish lager that is a festival partner this year) for six euros plus one euro deposit on the can, which I managed to make a bit of money back on by collecting discarded cans. Florence and the Machine were headlining on the main stage, but I’ve seen her before and was pretty unimpressed, and Alt-J were following her in the Lapin Kulta Blue tent. That would mean crowds from all over the site converging on one small spot to an overwhelming extent, and things were already highly congested, so I decided on an early exit rather than risk getting crushed. But by all accounts, a very enjoyable festival, with a wide range of musical genres, and enough to keep one occupied almost continually throughout the three days. And more visitors coming to Helsinki and the rest of Finland in glorious Autumn weather with so much music on display here and all over the city can only be a good thing for this decidedly under-recognised place. As Gracias said: ‘Helsinki doesn’t get much shouted out/The hell with those trying to hush and shut it out’!