Dispatches from the road from our wayfaring travelers.
After spending a weekend packed with Americana, I was eager to learn more of Finnish traditional folk music, particularly fiddling. What I didn’t realize at the time is that my quest would reach much further into the past.
Some of the best bluegrass-style pickers played with the Mappets, a band formed around Mappe Saukkonen, a red-headed mother of four. Mappe played a solid boom-chuck guitar in the big jam we had the first night in Ruotsinpyhtää. In conversation at the bar later, she told me in her halting English that she grew up in a house where both parents frequently sang Finnish folk songs. Mappe writes her own country-flavored songs in graceful and flowing English. But at the bar, she sang for me in Finnish a few verses of the Kalevala that she’d learned from her parents.
The Kalevala is a multi-faceted tradition of sung poems comprising over two million verses collected from traditional singers and old printed sources over the course of several centuries. The epic adventures of Väinämöinen and other ancient Finnish heroes, lived for centuries in the performances of folksingers from Finland, Estonia and Karelia (the latter was partitioned between Finland and Russia after World War II). In 1835, Elias Lönnrot, a pioneering folklorist, compiled 22,795 verses, divided into fifty cantos, into a coherent narrative. The publication of Lönnrot’s Kalevala was one of the foundations of Finnish nationalism and the emergence in 1917 of a sovereign Finland, independent from Sweden and Russia.
On our first day in Finland, we four Old Town School teachers stumbled upon a monument dedicated to Elias Lönnrot and his unification of the Kalevala. Little did I suspect that the next night, I would have some verses from the epic sung personally for me by a singer who heard it sung at home by her mother and father.
The Kalevala tradition is larger than even Lönnrot’s 19th century compilation. Old songs and folk poetry dating from the misty beginnings of Finnish culture and history survived in oral tradition. Such rune songs or songs in the Kalevala metre contained charms and beliefs as well as legends and tales. The old songs expressed collective joys and sorrows, and belonged with the daily tasks, community celebrations and social rituals (particularly weddings) of the herding, fishing and farming peoples who lived in Finland, Karelia and Ingria.
Väinämöinen was not the only hero of this ancient tradition. But he was, indeed, a favorite. As a shaman he held sway over nature through his playing of the kantele, a five-string plucked zither often regarded as the Finnish national instrument.
In this song, from a CD published by the Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (Finnish Literature Society) in Helsinki, Iivana Onoila sang about how an old man who had a grudge against Väinämöinen could not shoot him else all the world’s songs would die. Instead, he shot ‘s boat and left him to the mercy of the seas, where he floated for six years.
This short excerpt of “Maailman Synty” was recorded in 1905. Nearly a century later, Holtti, a group of women singers from Central Ostrobothnian University arranged some verses from the Kalevala to music composed by Pauliina Kumpulainen, a member of the trio. All were students in a folk music education program at the school
Another singer from the group Holtti is Kaisa Pudas, an accordion player who became amusical companion and friend as I continued my quest for traditional Finnish folk music. More to come on the kantele, jouhikko, and Torupill (Estonian bagpipes). And, of course, on Finnish fiddling.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Finns are often described as reserved and quiet. But that is only part of the story. They also show a lot of fire and passion. It helps to know the word they use to describe their spirit as a people: sisu. There is no exact English translation for sisu, but the term suggests strength, courage and Finnish soul.
When we got back to Helsinki on Monday night, we did some Old Town School style classes for a dozen fiddle students, a half dozen mandolinists, and a handful of guitar and banjo pickers. Through the equivalent of two class sessions, we taught each group two old-time tunes from the Songbook, “Waterbound” and “Goin’ Down to Cairo,” plus a fiddle tune I learned from my southern Indiana mentor, Lotus Dickey. We invented a new kind of Second Half by bringing all the students back together to play all three of the songs, first slowly and then more up to tempo.
A Second Half at the Kansanmusiikkiopisto in Helsinki
For more about the Kansanmusiikkiopisto, check out the resources posted on the Flog (Fiddle Blog)
The Finns are absolutely wonderful people. Many of them speak English well, most understand it better, and all are incredibly patient and helpful during our tortured attempts to communicate. I feel quite dumb, because I speak only one language and know only two Finnish words: kippis and kiitos. I learned the first word years ago as a toast, thinking it meant nothing more than ‘cheers’ or ‘bottoms up.’ It literally translates as ‘keep peace.’ Kiitos means ‘thank you.’ And if you say kiitos to a Finn after he has made the effort to help you in English, his face will light up. The Finns are a peaceful people.