Värttinä: Roots and Branches of Finnish Folk

by Steve Winick

When most people in this country think of Finnish music....

Well, let's be perfectly honest. Most people in this country don't think of Finnish music at all. But Värttinä, a young and brilliant band from Karelia in southeastern Finland, are out to change all that. With startling vocal harmonies, searing instrumental backup, and genuine youthful vigor tempered with impressive technique and style, this is one of the bands that's currently ensuring Finland a prominent position on the world music map.

Värttinä began to get worldwide publicity with their album Oi Dai in 1991. Finnish music has similarities to Hungarian and Bulgarian music; Värttinä have the vocal qualities of a Márta Sebestyén, the harmonies of the Voix Bulgares, and the energy of Muzsikás. These qualities make Oi Dai an astoundingly good disc, full of energy, passion, and flair. This did not go unnoticed in Finland by any means; it was the first Finnish folk album to go gold in almost 20 years, and only the second ever to do so. It's estimated that one in every hundred people in Finland owns a copy. Since then, Värttinä has put out another CD, Seleniko. This is one of only a few CDs of Finnish folk music released in the U.S. to date, having come out on the Green Linnet/Xenophile label. It fulfills the promise of Oi Dai, maintaining the energy of both blazing, over-the-top numbers and slower songs that smolder intensely, mesmerizing and captivating the listener.

When Värttinä took the stage at Philadelphia's Chestnut Cabaret last November, it was perfectly obvious to the audience who was in command of the group. The singers, all women, stood at the front of the stage, with the band (four men and one woman who play accordion, guitar, bass, bouzouki, fiddle and sax) nestled all but invisibly behind them. The four singers, Sari and Mari Kaasinen, Kirsi Kähkönen and Sirpa Reiman, stood in a row, dancing in place and making dramatic gestures to the audience. They moved, synchronized but not mechanical, like some worldbeat mutation of a Motown girl group. It was late in the tour, and their openly flirtatious and almost bawdy behavior came off as funny and endearing, but also rehearsed -- as if they'd made the same jokes and gestures, winked the same broad winks and wagged the same accusing fingers at every gig from Austin to Boston. Still, what the audience came for was music and song, and Värttinä was everything an audience could hope for. Bouncy and vivacious one moment, intensely passionate the next, the singers took the hall by the ears and shook it up. Nimble and adept at both sensitive accompaniments and mighty, thundering dance music, the band was equally commanding. Together, they were sheer power in sound.

It's no surprise that Värttinä are superstars at home. Their popularity is based, of course, on their talent and on the hard work they have put into perfecting their art. But it's also based partly on a changing political situation and on their obvious rootedness in purely Finnish rural traditions. The breakup of the former Soviet Union has ended a phase of the occupation of much of Karelia, the group's home province. By drawing on Karelian roots that have for so long been inaccessible, they touch the deepest part of Finland's national pride. Sari Kaasinen, the group's leader, says that Finnish people often refer to the band as "our Värttinä."

The deepest roots of Värttinä are to be found in the singing traditions of Rääkkylä, the village where Sari, Mari, and Kirsi were born and raised. Sari recounts: "We started in 1983 in our home village in northern Karelia. We started because of our mother." The mother of the Kaasinen girls had proudly arranged for her daughters to sing at other people's parties; Mari says she can't remember the first time she sang before an audience, because she's been doing it since she learned to talk. The two girls sang to the accompaniment of Sari's kantele or zither, the Finnish national instrument. They also performed recitations of traditional song texts. Sari explains, "we didn't know that all that traditional poetry had been sung before. Because in our books, nobody mentioned that. Tunes and lyrics were collected separately. They weren't in the same book. And that's why we misunderstood."

Eventually they became quite busy, singing wherever and whenever they were asked. Still, Sari says, they had ideas for how to make the group better. "We started to think: It would be nice if we were more than only two girls to do that. And then we asked the other girls of our village."

For a while longer, Värttinä's membership would be restricted to girls. It soon became clear, however, that Värttinä could be a better group if both boys and girls participated. The first male member of Värttinä was multi-instrumentalist Janne Lappalainen, who remains in the band today. He was joined by many more until, by 1985, the total number of Värttinä members was 21. "Our little brother was the youngest member," Sari says. "He was 10, and I was the oldest. I was about 18. And the girls were between that, 14 or 15 years old."

The two albums recorded by this "hometown" version of Värttinä give the listener an idea of the group's early work together: interesting, but not as compelling as their more recent efforts. The first album, Värttinä, includes a lot of dance music and a few songs. At this stage, Sari was playing both kantele and accordion, and the band included two more accordionists, two fiddles, a mandolin, a double bass, percussion, Lappalainen on flutes and pipes, and no fewer than 10 kanteles. The sound of so many instruments made subtlety in playing and arrangements difficult to achieve, and the line-up on Värttinä sounds like a Finnish version of an amateur Irish ceili band. The second album, Musta Lindu, is better. It maintains an unfinished frizziness compared with their later work, but it clearly sports an abundance of raw talent as well as budding thoughtfulness and grace. The greater emphasis on singing and on texturing their instrumental work presages the group's later, more impressive records.

By 1989, only one final step was needed before Värttinä developed into the phenomenon it is today: they needed to grow up. A certain edge, a power that comes only from maturity, professionalism and hard work, needed to enter their music. Sari recalls a time of transition for her bandmates when "they had to decide what to do in the future. What to study, where to work, so on. I had started to study in the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. And Mari and Janne also wanted to study there and they came to Helsinki. And Kirsi wanted to continue to work with Värttinä, so she came to Helsinki. And so we were four left from that big group."

Four small-town kids form a band and try to make it in the big city. It might sound like a cliché better consigned to bad novels and hackneyed screenplays, but the experiment that Värttinä had performed together was so powerful an inspiration that they were unstoppable. Sari explains their determination: "We just had learned something, we just had done something new in Finnish music. We had that singing style and accompaniment together, and not so many bands had done that before.... And we thought, `Oh, no! We can't stop now. We can't finish now. We have just learned something!' "

In 1989, they set out looking for new musicians to replenish their line-up and restore the band to its former vigor. It was at the famous folk festival in Kaustinen, Finland, that they found what they were looking for. As they played their set, they began to notice familiar faces in the crowd, faces that belonged to very famous Finnish rock musicians. The presence of such well-known spectators unnerved the young folkies a little, but Sari's courage and irrepressible drive won the day. After the performance, when the rock stars came to congratulate Värttinä on their performance, Sari daringly asked them to join the band. In her own proud words, "Nobody said no."

The transformation of Värttinä from a girls choir to a mature and experienced acoustic folk-rock outfit would soon be complete, and Finland was ready. "That was interesting to everybody in Finland," Sari says, "because we were folk singers, and then we had those rock musicians together. And then we started to work."

The work consisted of picking and arranging enough songs to constitute both a concert repertoire and an album. This was a difficult and multifaceted job. Melodies and words needed to be picked or written, wedded to one another, and arranged for the group. For these tasks, which Värttinä must continue to do, the group looks to Sari and to fiddler Kari Reiman for leadership. Usually, Reiman comes up with the melody, Sari with the words and vocal harmonies. Then the band works on the arrangements together until they have created a unique and polished performance.

In selecting songs, Värttinä looks mostly to women's traditions. Their feeling of connection with traditional women's culture, obviously a product of their own experiences, is evidenced by the band's name. Värttinä means "spindle," and it's a particularly appropriate name for a women's folk group. The spindle, a tool used by women in traditional culture, is one of the implements that turns such raw materials as wool and flax into cultural artifacts like thread and ultimately cloth. As such, it represents the transformation of nature into culture that is so much a part of traditional women's lives. Viewed this way, Värttinä is a source of women's power and a symbol of feminine creativity.

They use several sources to find raw materials for that creativity. One is to the choir tradition in Setuland, which is located on the borders of Estonia, Latvia and Russia... inside what used to be the Soviet Union. The Setu are a people whose adherence to the Orthodox faith has kept them culturally isolated to some degree, so their traditions are quite old. The Setu language is a dialect of South Estonian, a Finno-Ugric tongue that is related to Finnish.

The Soviets, who never treated cultural minorities with great respect, were eager to eliminate this religious, non-Russian group. Sari explains: "The problem has been that, when we had that Soviet Union, these people couldn't speak their own language, and their own dialects, and they couldn't sing their own songs, and that's why we have only very very few singers of that kind of music left." But, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, "old cutoms and habits are being revived, and people are again speaking the Setu language and teaching it to their children. In doing so, they have also recalled the Setu songs...."

Setu harmonies, like those of the related Bulgarian women's choirs, use a lot of seconds and fourths, intervals that are unusual to western ears. The sharp harmonic effect of these intervals is one of the hallmarks of Värttinä's sound.

In contrast to the Setu tradition, Röntyskä songs are sung without characteristically eastern intervals. In fact, Röntyskä songs boast no harmonic intervals at all; they're sung entirely in unison. Still, the Ingrians who sing them bear similarities to the Setu in both history and musical style. Ingrian Finns migrated east in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and in the twentieth century found themselves within the borders of the Soviet State. For many years they were, like the Setu, the victims of the Soviets' aggressive attempts to eliminate cultural minorities. Of the 138,000 Ingrian Finns who inhabited the area before the Soviet Union, half are dead. Two-thirds of the remaining half were exiled to Siberia or dispersed through emigration, so that only about 20,000 remain. Röntyskä is a women's choir tradition that overcame tremendous odds even to come into existence. Although the songs and dances performed by the choir are themselves much older, the modern Röntyskä group was created as recently as 1977 by Hilma Biss, a deportee returned to Ingria from Siberia. During the Soviet Union's final chaotic years, the reins of authority loosened; the group was allowed to travel all over the Union and even into Finland. Now that the Soviet Union no longer dominates the area, they are at greater liberty to interact with other Finns, and have had quite an influence on Värttinä. Several of their songs, as well as their style of singing in unison, have found their way into Värttinä's repertoire.

These two distinct types of women's choir are a marked influence on the band, but Värttinä draws even more strongly on homegrown Karelian rune songs. The rune songs are the most famous of Finland's folksongs, and peculiar historical circumstances led to their being collected intensively during the nineteenth century. Elias Lönnrot, a prominent medical doctor, linguist, and folksong collector, constructed the Finnish national epic Kalevala (published in 1849) from rune songs. The Kalevala was an instant international sensation, and became crucial to the national pride of Finland. When it was suggested some years later that there was more of Lönnrot's own work than there was of genuine folklore in the Kalevala, many collectors set out to vindicate the epic-maker by collecting enormous numbers of rune song texts with which to compare the epic. It is partly due to this controversy that Finland boasts one of the strongest and most respected traditions of academic folklore scholarship in the world, a tradition that has helped Värttinä develop a unique repertoire. As Reiman points out, "without that, there wouldn't be any Värttinä, because we wouldn't have any material left." As it is, there's no lack of material, because the total number of rune songs collected in Lönnrot's wake is huge. "I have this book of all the lyrics that have been collected," Reiman offers. "It's more than two meters in the bookshelf."

Considering the important role played by the Kalevala in Finnish cultural nationalism, it is surprising that recordings of rune songs haven't been hugely popular in Finland before this. Värttinä has brought this quintessentially Finnish tradition into a more contemporary musical environment, and clearly that has helped them command popular attention. Some of the appeal of the rune songs, however, is inherent to the texts, and to their sincere reflection of the feelings of the people who sang them. These feelings are often shared by the women of Värttinä and communicated to their audiences.

The emotion expressed at a Värttinä concert is the joy and the sorrow of generations of Finnish women singing lyric songs. Even within the Kalevala, which is a narrative focusing on a male hero, some of the songs are lyrics sung by women. These songs are even more common in the rune song tradition at large. Sari pointed out that in Karelian tradition, as in many European traditions, women were much more often singers than instrumentalists. This may have had to do with restricted access to resources like musical instruments, to relative amounts of leisure time (singing can be done while working) or to other occupational considerations, but Sari has other ideas. Rural couples in Finland, she said, can be taciturn, and the silence of the traditional home could last several days. It was broken only by the singing of the woman of the house. "It was the easiest way to get your feelings out, by singing. For example, before getting married, you were singing these dance songs, and very very glad and fast songs... After getting married, you were singing your maybe very sad and angry feelings out. Because you had nobody to tell, because your husband was out hunting or drinking or playing or doing something else, and because you had to take care of the home."

An excellent example of female loneliness turned into song is "Kylä Vuotti Uutta Kuuta" ("The Village Waited for the New Moon"), a piece that originally appeared on Musta Lindu, but that was considered worthy of reprising on Seleniko. Sari explains that the song was part of the traditional Karelian wedding. These weddings lasted four days, at the end of which the bride went to live with her new husband in his village. Often it was far away, and the bride was alone, facing a village full of strangers coming to check out the new girl. "You were singing about that feeling of being on your own," she said.

This is a song to put chills down the spine, starting out in a lonely whimper and building in strength to an absolute wail. The exquisite anguish felt by the bride, as well as the power she mustered to overcome it, shine through beautifully in Värttinä's raw and desparate rendition of the song.

Although their repertoire does concentrate on songs by, for and about women, it would be a mistake to make too much of the potentially feminist interpretation of Värttinä. Sari resists the idea that Värttinä's purpose is to send a message to women specifically. "Everybody's asking: is this band feminist? No, no! Not at all! These songs and these tunes are women's tunes. That's because we are women, we are girls, and of course we are singing our own lives and our own thoughts... what else could we do?"

As an example, she cited Seleniko. The vast majority of songs on this album focus on love, marriage, and the relationships between young women and men. This is not so much intended to make a statement about marriage as it is to express her own inner feelings: "Of course, the latest album, the Seleniko album, we've had many happenings in our own lives. For example, my marriage. And these songs are coming from these experiences. Because, in that tradition, also, all these same ideas have been sung."

Some would still argue that the very act of foregrounding women's lives and experiences is inherently feminist. Värttinä do not believe so. In the end, it's a matter of interpretation.

Interpretation is a key word for Värttinä. Everything they do is given new meaning within the context of their group. They adapt the songs they sing to suit their own needs. They often translate the lyrics to a more comprehensible dialect, they sometimes change the meanings of the songs, and they usually speed them up. In short, they feel free to interpret. As Sari pointed out, improvisation has always been a part of the tradition. On Seleniko, she took that improvisation one step further and began writing her own songs based on the traditional forms. She explained: "Earlier, I collected the lyrics from different kinds of books, but in the Seleniko album, I have written most of the lyrics myself. And I don't know what will happen in the future." She does not see her invention of new words to be unusual for a traditional singer. "It's the same thing you do with tunes," she said. "You have words, and you have that meter in your mind. And if you are playing or if you are singing, you have ideas. And suddenly, you remark that, `Oh, no, that's a melody I have never heard before! That's my own!' Because the whole tradition is based on improvising. It's the same thing when you are working with lyrics."

The song traditions from which Värttinä has taken its material are the most obvious contributors to the group's sound, but there are also instrumental traditions that feed the band's accompaniments and dance tunes. Obviously, each member of Värttinä has his or her own favorite styles of music, and that affects the group's playing. Reiman, for example, has been a member of Korkkijalka, a Finnish band specializing in Irish music, and a certain Irish bubbliness occasionally comes through in his fiddling. Traces of bluegrass, jazz and rock and roll are also strong undercurrents in Värttinä's sound. Lappalainen put it best: "It's like `you are what you eat.' We are what we hear."

They are musically omnivorous, but the most salient components of their sound are still Finnish. Finland's passion for the tango, for instance, has ensured a high standard of accordion playing. Riita Potinoja, the only woman in Värttinä who is primarily an instrumentalist, plays rhythmic accordion riffs that generate a lot of lift. She's an excellent example of the influence of Finland's favorite "naturalized" tradition. More importantly, Värttinä participate in what their manager Phillip Page refers to as "the underground Finnish folk scene." That scene was more or less started by a fiddler and composer named Konsta Jylhä, who made a record in 1974 with his band Kaustinen Purppuripelimannit. The record went gold, the only Finnish folk album to do so before Oi Dai did in 1991. Reiman sees Jylhä's success as absolutely crucial to the Finnish folk revival. "That saved folk music," he said, "because everybody started to play that type of polska tunes, and they had harmonium, a few fiddles, and double bass. That was the typical line-up." This kind of group came to be known as a pelimanni band, after a Finnish term translating roughly to "folk musician." The most popular band now performing in this style is Järvelän Pikkupelimannit, "the little folk musicians of Järvelä," better known as JPP.

The phenomenon of pelimanni bands was widespread, completely dominating Finnish folk music for more than 10 years. "Every time you heard folk music," Reiman said, "it was that type. Just instrumental fiddle tunes with the same line up every time." Värttinä has had to work hard to be accepted, because they have dared to deviate from that norm. As Lappalainen said, "there's lots of orthodox people who think we are playing the wrong way, because we aren't playing the traditional way... so people think this is not even folk music that we are doing. But there isn't any tradition except what happened in the '70s."

This is ironic because 20 years is a short time for a tradition to become set in stone. "Yeah," said Lappalainen, "but people tend to grab something and think that this is right and everything else is wrong."

Despite the purists, by the early eighties a few enlightened folks began to realize that something different could be done with Finnish folk music. Among them were the directors of the Sibelius Academy, Finland's national conservatory, its highest institution of music education. They also exerted a strong influence on Värttinä. In 1983 (coincidentally, the same year given by Sari for the genesis of Värttinä) the Sibelius Academy opened its folk music department. Eventually, Sari and Mari Kaasinen and Lappalainen became students there; it was the Academy that brought the group to Helsinki, immediately precipitating their rise to fame.

In addition to their historical connections, The Academy and Värttinä also share an underlying philosophy, an approach to the folk music of Finland that is deeply respectful of tradition and at the same time eager to create new and exciting music. In the words of Heikki Laitinen, the Academy's founding director, "the most important goals of the department were these: to learn the old styles of playing and singing and to break through all perceived limits to create the folk music of the future." These goals are also at the root of Värttinä's musical explorations. As for the tension between tradition and innovation, Laitinen says: "[They] may seem opposite but they are, in fact, bound together as a part of an overall search for folk music's character and expressiveness." Värttinä couldn't have put it better themselves.

The effect of the Sibelius Academy on the Finnish folk scene has been enormous, making it a much richer and more stimulating place to work. The academy prescribes a rigorous, demanding program for its students. Lappalainen, who is still a student there, described his curriculum: "We have lectures on music history, for example, what the folk singing or the playing has been. And then there's group playing: you study different instruments with teachers. Folk dance, also, and instrument building. I'm studying wind instruments, so that's a really big thing. Because you have to play so many things. For example, shepherd instruments, the different kinds of cow horns and flutes and whistles also. Really, it's vast. Vast. There are hundreds of pipes from Finland."

By the end, every graduate is a master musician as well as a storehouse of knowledge about folk music and traditions. And the Academy's effect will be bigger still. According to Reiman, "during these 10 years, [they] have had tons of great players and wild ideas, and now this is happening a lot, not just in the Sibelius Academy but all over Finland. There are centers where young people study folk music and people go there to teach and have workshops. In five years there's gonna be something special."

What about Värttinä? In five years where will they be? Many members already have other projects that occupy some of their time. Sari and her husband own a record company, Mipu Music, that is currently releasing Finnish folk albums. Lappalainen and Kari Reiman are both members of Ottopasuuna, an excellent group performing textured arrangements of Finnish instrumental music. Lappalainen is also in the group Väinönputki, performing more experimental forms of Finnish folk. Still, they all enjoy both touring and recording with Värttinä.

Although Värttinä frequently tour in Europe, this was their first U.S. visit, and they hope to return here again. Despite the longer distances between cities, which makes travel both time-consuming and expensive, they had a good time here. The band members credit their manager with keeping everything running smoothly. Page, a native of Austin, Texas, moved to Helsinki because of his love for Finnish music. He runs Digelius Music, a prominent record shop and mail-order business in Helsinki, is a DJ on Finnish radio, and is an excellent cultural go-between for Finnish musicians. "That's actually crucial," says Lappalainen, "that we have somebody from here [the U.S.] who understands the culture.

They have had a chance to meet fellow Finnish people, since many Finns who live in this country went to see their shows. Reiman says that Boston was a particularly Finnish audience. "I was surprised, because in Boston, in a 400-seat place, I think that one quarter was Finnish."

All this means that Värttinä's future includes more concerts Stateside. In fact, the fiery Finnish folkies are booked to record and tour solidly until next winter. "After this tour," Reiman said, "we make a new record. In February, we'll go to the studio and it probably will be released in Finland in May or the beginning of June."

That record will incorporate the contributions of guitarist Antto Varilo and funky bass player Pekka Lehti, Värttinä's two newest members, and it's likely to be a bit different from the band's previous work. So, they'll hit the road to support the album and give audiences a taste of their new material. "We tour in Europe during the summertime, and in Finland," said Kari. "We'll probably come back here in late autumn." Fishing for compliments, Lappalainen closed the interview: "If there is interest in that...."

Somehow, I think we'll be hearing more from these folks in the future.