- 22 Apr 01
Siobhan Long steps into an electric ballroom of sounds, sense and sensibilities at the KAUSTINEN FOLK FESTIVAL in Finland.
“People silent in two languages”. That’s how Bertolt Brecht characterised the Finns (well, the denizens of Helsinki actually), and although they’re hardly the most voluble of nationalities, neither are they as mute as his acid pen suggests. Then again, they’re hardly renowned for hogging the headlines either.
I mean, hands up all those who know who Harri Holkeri is? Any takers? Actually, Mr. Holkeri was one of the three independent chairmen of the recent Northern Ireland peace negotiations. Hardly a menial task, and yet one that went virtually unmentioned in the newspapers amid the hysteria of dragging Trimble and Adams to the table.
Or, so hows about the flying Finn then? Hands up anyone who recalls the greyhound figure of Lasse Viren streaking to Olympic success? Or try Formula 1 driver Mika Häkkinen, or left-field movie director, Aki Kaurismaki. (I’ve left out Sibelius and Finland’s most treasured national icon, architect Alvar Aalto, in the interests of keeping it contemporary). Never a nation to flag its achievements in the front pages of the tabloids, (despite Monty Python’s efforts at teaching them a bit of self-promotion in the memorably titled ‘Finland, Finland’), Finland’s been content to paddle its own canoe on the outer reaches of northern Europe, and only as recently as 1995 opted to take the plunge into full EU membership.
Which, I suppose, is a roundabout way of saying that Finland’s a bit of an unknown quantity, both culturally and musically. So when Hot Press are issued with an invite to partake of the midsummer pleasures of white nights at the (locally) renowned Kaustinen Folk Festival, we jumped at the chance to lope into the undergrowth.
Preliminary research was more than promising. Being of a northerly disposition, Finland revels in its infamous midsummer ‘white nights’, when the sun barely deigns to inch below the horizon, resulting in 22-hour days, even in late July. According to popular myth, Finns revel in the opportunity to imbibe copious quantities of vodka, and engage in an inordinate amount of carousing, and, according to their central statistics office, the conception rate soars during midsummer, Finns evidently being more turned on and tuned in under the full light of day than they are under the cloak of dusk that covers the country for so much of the rest of the year.
And what of their music? Well, rumour has it that Finland produces some of the most exciting folk/traditional music in Scandinavia(!) Not content to sit in isolation, plucking their fiddles and bows, or belting out the odd tune on their beloved accordions, the Finns have been vibrant central characters on the world music scene, with groups like Värttinä and JPP making quite an impression with their particular brand of iconoclasm. Like their Irish counterparts, they blithely reinterpret traditional culture with one ear to the ground and the other cocked to get a whiff of the prevailing winds.
And so to Kaustinen. On the face of it, Kaustinen is the Knocknagoshel of Finland. A comparison which is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact. A town of barely 5,000 souls, for the past 31 years Kaustinen’s belly has expanded to engorge a full 60,000 punters for nine long days and nights of carousing every July. A Finnish Willie Clancy Week, albeit with more accordions (just picture it), Kaustinen Folk Music Festival chews ’em up and spits ’em out – but only after the best and brightest of local and visiting musicians have given their all.
The programme is a testament to the lateral thinkers who trawl through each year’s applicants in search of the weird, the wonderful and the downright wacky. With a total of over 300 artists/groups performing, Programme Director Jyrki Heiskanen can claim credit for a formidable appetite for the bizarre and the unreal. It’s a broad church he oversees, peopled by purists who revere the kantele, the zither-like Finnish national instrument, and anarchists like Natalie McMaster, Jai Shankar and even the dubious Kuwait Folklore Group who use their performance to distribute polemics on the so-called ‘martyrs of Kuwait’ to a puzzled audience.
One of the standout performances of the festival was provided by Nova Scotian fiddler extraordinaire, Natalie McMaster, a mistress not only of the fiddle, but also of step dancing like you’ve never encountered, Riverdance included. With barely a second to catch breath, she ricochets across the stage; a fiddler possessed of the finest fingers and toes, her bright-eyed ebullience a contagion that nobody resists. And as her latest album title suggests, (My Roots Are Showing), this bottle blonde is most at home playing the tunes of her native Cape Breton.
“The tradition will always be my number one love,” she declares, “because that’s what I grew up with and that’s got me where I am today. It’s what’s responsible for carrying me around the world, and I really want to keep that sound in my music. It’s just the accompaniment to the fiddle that’s changed.”
And how! McMaster draws on the strengths of a bass and lead guitarist from heaven, a percussionist with a passion for esoteric bells and whistles, and a keyboardist that’d knock the socks off Michael Flatley in the dance stakes, as well as being in lawful possession of a pair of seemingly six-fingered hands. It seems like only a matter of time before McMaster & Co. are wending their way to top billing at more festivals than this one.
Ambling along to the nearby Arts Centre (a beautiful wooden structure that’d be the envy of any national capital), I’m struck by the thought that Kaustinen seems to be a magnet for feisty women performers. Sari Kaasinen, the founder member of front running Finnish group, Värttinä, is another performer who is a veritable one-woman rural electrification scheme. Now a solo artist, she launches a skein of new material in the heady environs of the Arts Centre to unanimous applause. Kaasinen paints in broad, bold brush strokes, drawing the listener in with a vibrant stage persona and a strident vocal that never once falters for position.
“I think that I have a huge number of colours in my music now that I didn’t have 10 years ago,” Kaasinen offers, “simply because I have changed personally. I’m now a mother, I’ve moved back to my home village, and I see things differently. Ten years ago everything was in black and white for me, and my music didn’t reflect what I was living . . . fully.”
Speaking of living and breathing music, occasionally the vibrantly organic vies for space beside clunky, academic couplings that seem to be the brainchild of some Brussels bureaucrat. One such example of this Euromuso speak comes in the shape of a nameless quartet hailing from Russia, Norway, Bhutan and India who uses voice, kantele, flute and tabla to create sounds which at times render the eardrums numb, and at others, thrill the senses into utter obeisance. The reason for the latter is largely Jai Shankar’s extraordinary tabla playing. Still a mere 17 years of youth (as opposed to age), Jai Shankar is certainly one to watch. A native of India, but now living in Norway, he’s one of the best tabla players the Indian subcontinent has produced, and is surely poised for great things. Fact is, it seems only a matter of time before Ry Cooder looks him up and whisks his reputation right into the stratosphere.
Shankar (no relative of Ravi’s) is remarkably modest about his abundant talent.
“To understand how the tabla relates to other drums, I see other drums as having 10 drums and two sticks”, he offers meekly, “whereas, the tabla has only two drums but 10 fingers. I think to have control of the 10 fingers is more sophisticated and more complicated than control of the sticks. It’s a humble sound but when it comes, it’s very nice!”
JPP, one of Finland’s most popular groups is another festival find. Their live performance sees 13 violinists sharing a minuscule stage with a bassist and a harmonium player. Their music is sweeping, grand, and at the same time, unassuming, nonchalant even. Waltzing, shimmering, it’s the kind of sound that would sit as comfortably on a movie soundtrack as it would in a traditional session. Such ensemble playing is alien to my ears, reared on sessions that thrive on a mix of instruments. But the ears welcome this northern exposure, delighting in the difference, and rising to the challenge of making sense of it all.
With some 300 performers, this was merely the tip of the Kaustinen iceberg, but it was about as much as a novice could handle first time round. Of course there were countless others who baffled and bathed the senses in bliss: Myllärit, a fiery Russian quintet with an ear for beautiful mournful melodies, Ida Kularová and her gypsy voices ensemble, and most spirit shocking of all, Afro Beat, a Zairian rumba-playing quartet now resident in Finland!
And that was just for starters. If you want to hear the rest you’ll have to take a pew . . .