Finnish Folk Music | An Introduction and some festivals

Early this week it dawned on me that I had barely any knowledge, or awareness, of the folk music traditions of Finland, despite knowing many Finns who earn their living as musicians. I couldn’t think of a single artist or group from here that performed in that genre, which is an appalling state of affairs for an Irish man with a ‘grá mór’ for his own traditional music. So I set myself the task of learning something about the musical traditions, and have been listening to tunes and songs I’d never heard before all week. To say I’ve been impressed would be akin to describing Usain Bolt as being quick on his feet. There is such a variety here, such quality, and best of all so many young artists embracing the form, that it’s a wonder Finnish folk music hasn’t been embraced around the world in the same manner that Irish traditional music has been.

Now, I’ve admitted that I’m new to this so I’m chancing my arm by even considering writing a post to introduce Finnish folk music, but as anyone who has any experience of Irish politicians, property developers or horse traders will tell you, I come from a land of chancers. Bear with me. If you happen to be Finnish and reading this, and you see glaring errors or omissions, please feel free to point them out in the comments section – it would make a nice change to see a comment that hadn’t been generated by some relentless spambot.

From what I’ve been listening to, there seems to be three strands of folk traditions here. By far the most influential, and most ‘Finnish’, is the music that has been influenced by Karelia. It is from Karelia that the national epic, the Kalevala, springs, from Karelia that Finland’s most enduring myths and legends have come. Karelian culture is seen in Finland as being untainted by Germanic or Slavic influence, marking the country’s unique position between the East and West. In Lapland the Sámi people have their own musical heritage, Sámi music, where songs (joiks, Kvadd and Leudd songs) are of primary importance. The joik is one of the longest living music traditions in Europe, and is reminiscent of the chants of some Native American cultures in North America. A joik is traditionally chanted a cappella and often dedicated to a human being, an animal, or a landscape as a personal signature. Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be a joik of the Northern Lights, nor do the Sámi speak of them overmuch. Finally, in Western Finland the folk traditions have more in common with other Nordic folk music, sounding more mainstream or recognisable.

( Angelin Tytöt performing ‘Giddat’: The Girls of Angeli come from the village of Angeli in the municipality of Inari, one of the few purely Sámi villages in Northern Finland. The entire population of Angeli are native speakers of Sámi).

Traditional Finnish instruments include the kantele (a member of the zither family) which was played by the heroic Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, and the jouhikko (a traditional 2 or 3 stringed bowed lyre). Other instruments used include whistles, horns, clarinets, accordions, concertinas, trumpets and fiddles. Sámi instruments include the sak-pipe and wal-pipe (types of bagpipe), the fadno (a reedpipe), and the Sámi drum, which is only used for ceremonial purposes. They also use the lur (a long trumpet) and harpu (similar to the Finnish kantele), with modern groups using the fiddle, concertina and accordion.

There are a couple of easily identifiable Finnish folk song types, of which runolaulu is the most common. This is a four-footed trochaic form using only the first five notes of a scale. It doesn’t rhyme, but is highly alliterative, and often tells stories about heroes like Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Kullervo from the Kalevala. Rekilaulu is a type of rhyming sleigh song that first became popular in the 17th century, despite opposition from the church, and continues to be popular today, often as an element of pop songs.

( MeNaiset  performing ‘Viinarattihin rakastuin’).

Foreign dances like the polka, mazurka, schottische, minuet and polska became popular in the early 19th century, and in time this led to distinctively Finnish forms of these dances, most particularly the humppa and jenkka which are now known collectively as ‘pellimanni music’. It was during this time that the spread of fiddles, harmoniums and accordions occurred.

In recent decades Finnish folk music has undergone something of a revival, with a considerable crossover into popular music – even into heavy metal. The roles played by the International Folk Music Festival in Kaustinen, launched in 1968, in this revival can’t be understated, as it became a folk  musical centre for the country.

Today, Finland’s folk movement is thriving, as can be seen from the number of festivals held annually and the number of artists recording and performing here throughout the year. The same year as Kaustinen launched its international festival saw the Finnish Folk Music Association (Suomen Kansanmusiikkiliitto) being formed, whose 19 member organisations arrange all manner of activities and workshops to help continue and develop the folk tradition here. It arranges folk music tours around Finland every Spring and Autumn, selecting four bands to tour different Finnish cities like Helsinki, Tampere, Kuopio, Seinäjoki, Kokkola, etc. The Association also arranges the Samuelin Poloneesi folk event in March every year, moving the location from year to year (in 2012 it will be held in Helsinki), and collaborates with the organisers of the JuuriJuhla RotFest in Espoo (April 4th to 9th in 2012) and the Kaamospelit Folk Week in Vantaa (10th to 18th of November in 2012).

The following is a short introduction to some of the more notable festivals in Finland, although it is in no ways a full or complete list, if any reader knows of a festival that they feel should be included feel free to add it to the comments section.

The Folklandia Cruise which goes from Turku to Stockholm leaves on January the 13th and returns the following day features a wide range of folk performances. The theme for 2012 is the harp.

One of the longest running festivals is Folklore Festival Jutajaiset, now in its 40th year. From the 27th of June until the 1st of July a series of culturally diverse events take place from Sodankylä to Rovaniemi, presenting contemporary folklore through the energies of northern folk musicians.

The Sommelo Ethno Music Festival in Kuhmo runs from the 28th of June until the 2nd of July, and features concerts, conferences, workshops and courses, art exhibitions and plenty of other family entertainments.

I haven’t found the exact date for the Haapavesi Folk Music Festival, but in 2011 it began in late June and continued into July. This is an international affair, and combines folk music with church concerts, jazz performances, children’s music, dance and theatre. It attracts around 10,000 visitors or more annually.

The longest running festival in Finland is the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, which will be held for the 45th time sometime around the second or third week in July. This is the largest of all the Nordic folk festivals, attracting thousands of folk musicians and dancers, professional and amateur, for a joyous week in a town well known for its own traditional music and musicians.

Held in the towns of Kauhajoki, Teuva and Isojoki (south of Vaasa, north of Pori) the PolskaSpelit Festival programme includes the Finnish national harmonica and mandolin championships as well as a series of folk music and dance concerts. The 2012 theme will be the music of Venni Saarinen and Erkki Rankaviita, and of the Riskun Pelimannit folk group.

Riihi-Iltamat is a traditional music festival that takes place in the Jyväskylä city centre during the summer.

For anyone keen to listen to more Finnish folk music, I highly recommend the youtube channel of Kantelar
or visit Kantelar’s facebook page.