Fin de Siècle Music

John Cho

Pop music, viewed from a global perspective, has a funny way of periodically unleashing on the unsuspecting world a startlingly ``new'' form: the postwar explosion of the mambo and rumba; the British Invasion, bossa nova, and salsa of the Sixties; reggae in the Seventies; merengue and zouk in the Eighties; and hip-hop in the Nineties. From the local viewpoint, though, the roots of these ``fresh'' styles are always discernible in the continuity with the older music, whether it is the son and guaguancó, rhythm-and-blues, jazz and samba-canção, rock steady, cadence, or dub. So what appears to the world like the sudden flowering of the pop-musical culture of country X is, to the inhabitants of X, simply the result of a long process of tradition, evolution, inspiration, and synthesis. And, for whatever combination of reasons, at certain times a local music will jump over the usual linguistic, ethnic, and socio-political barriers to become wildly popular across the globe. (Of course, it doesn't hurt to be ``discovered'' and relentlessly promoted by a multinational record company.)

Recently the world has ``discovered'' Finnish pop music. Yes, Finland. A country with only five million people that was long in the insecure shadow zone between the Soviet Union and the West, it appears to have caught artistic fire since the collapse of the Communist bloc, especially in the fields of music and film (witness the droll, border-hopping comedies directed by Aki Kaurismaki, sometimes called the Jim Jarmusch of Finland, and his creation, the Leningrad Cowboys, who are the Spinal Tap of Finland). It has received the attentions of ethno-music popularizers and those of international record labels. But, with apologies to the Leningrad Cowboys, the group that is contributing most to spreading the Finnish sound throughout the world is Värttinä.

How do I describe the Värttinä sound? First try: Wall of estrogen. Värttinä, in its current incarnation, is fronted by four women singers. And it is their voices that dominate. One chord blast from them will immediately convince you that the standard Western European bel canto vocal style never made it across the Baltic. The absolutely unwavering, vibratoless attack of these women have more in common with Bulgarian women's choirs than with, say, ABBA from neighboring Sweden. Their singing is bracing and energizing (one could almost imagine the vocal technique applied to punk rock), but also clean and pure in that the harmony locks in very tightly due to the lack of resonant overtones and pitch fluctuations.

The vocal quartet is backed by an acoustic band consisting of topnotch musicians from both the folk and rock communities playing a mixture of instruments--such as kantele, accordion, bouzouki, violin, guitars, bass, and drums--that are drawn from both musical arenas. Värttinä writes their own music, but much of the melodic and lyric material is drawn from traditional songs of the various regions of Finland: Karelia, Setuland, Mariland, Ingria, etc. Another distinctive feature of these songs are the irregular meters (5/8, 7/8, 13/8) that are used liberally (or perhaps just naturally, as they follow the meters of the rhymes).

The reference to estrogen I made earlier does not only concern Värttinä's high-pitched vocal assault. Many of their songs are written from the point of view of a village girl who lives within the confines of the traditional expectations of marriage, but is discovering her sexual power over boys or the credible alternative of singlehood. Examples from the album Seleniko:

``Matalii Ja Mustii'': Let's all young girls sing so loud that everyone can hear. In this village the boys are just like pigs in their pen and the girls are just like the crows of our village, but I am like a small cat who wants to purr on boys' arms.

``Hyvä Tyttönä Hypätä'': It is good to live as a maid. The old man will never scold or chide you and you don't need to quarrel with him. Dear mourning maidens, don't mourn for suitors. You don't have to live in a stranger's house and fawn upon your mother-in-law.

One can only speculate on why Finland has produced a pop music so distinct from those of their neighbors. Perhaps it is not so surprising given the uniqueness of their linguistic heritage. The Finnish language does not belong to the vast Indo-European group, but together with Estonian and Hungarian forms the Finno-Ugric group. As soon as you pick up a Finnish newspaper you realize how ill-matched the language is to the Latin alphabet (much like how the Japanese language fits poorly to the Chinese characters that were imported long time ago); full of double letters and umlauts, some words are so long that they don't fit into the standard column! To me the herky-jerk meters and the defiant vocal charge of Värttinä are just another aspect of the intriguing mixture of accommodation and independence with which Finland faces the world.

Värttinä CDs available in the U.S.:

Oi Dai, 1990, Xenophile GLCD4014
Seleniko, 1992, Xenophile GLCD4006
Aitara, 1995, Xenophile GLCD4026

Copyright 1996, The San Juan Star

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