Finn group Värttinä not plain folk

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

16 January 2007


Janne Lappalainen understands all too well the concept of lost in translation.

The Finnish musician and his heralded folk band, Värttinä, collaborated with Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman on the score for a stage version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

“Some people liked it, some not,” says Lappalainen from his home in Helsinki, referring to the Toronto production that opened last March and closed in September.

“I saw 50 shows, and I was there during the preview. There were eight performances a week. All the comments from the audience (indicated) they loved it. The critics didn’t all see it the same way. It was too long, the characters too superficial. Those were the main criticisms. But if it needed to be shorter, how can there be more (depth) to the characters?”

In a few weeks, Lappalainen will head to the UK to work with Rings orchestrator and musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale to prepare for a June opening in London.

Värttinä has released 10 albums, the latest of which is Miero. Reviews have been uniformly positive since its release a year ago, and the 13-song collection is considered one of the best examples of the group’s music, which is rooted in the traditional oral poetry of Finland’s Karelia region and the female vocal traditions of Finno-Ugric tribes.

Like many of its other discs, Miero features sometimes exultant, sometimes baleful singing by Värttinä‘s three blond vocalists—Mari Kaasinen, Johanna Virtanen and Susan Aho—who are backed by six male acoustic musicians playing instruments both exotic (bouzouki, nyckelharpa and guitalele) and commonplace (accordion, fiddle, drums).

But Värttinä‘s music also has a modern sensibility, so the material is accessible to pop-rock as well as folk and world-music aficionados.

To Lappalainen, who plays the bouzouki and saxophone and is Värttinä‘s chief arranger, Miero is the most “sinister” of the group’s albums. “We were creating the music while we were composing the tracks for Lord of the Rings,” he says, “so there must be some kind of connection.”

Miero‘s dark tone is evident from the opener, “Rieno (Anathema),” which calls to mind Led Zeppelin indulging its prog-rock leanings, only with acoustic instruments. And sample this translated lyric: “I tear from my tongue words as twisted as tree roots ... my loathing drips blood, my pain slashes, curses, drenches with pus ...”

“There’s a great energy in the music,” says Lappalainen. “That is one thing we really wanted, something powerful, striking, different. We have done lots of happy music in the past.”

Then there’s “Mataleena,” a tale of infanticide that opens with whispers and the cries of small children. In the song, the “bitter and twisted” young maid Mataleena kills her three baby boys. “The song was inspired by the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic compiled from national folklore by Elias Lonnrot in the 19th century),” says Lappalainen. “We tried to think harmonically, and put in a Bulgarian (vocal) twist.”

Asked why Mataleena killed babies, Lappalainen says the answer is not clear. “In the old days, if she wasn’t married, (having children) wasn’t allowed. That could be one explanation.”

And the voices at the song’s beginning? “Those are the sounds of the dead children.”

Lappalainen, 35, and Kaasinen have been with Värttinä (which means “spindle” in Finnish) since the beginning, in 1983, when the band was more of a hobby. “I come from a small village, so there weren’t too many (things) to do in your free time,” says Lappalainen, whose dad was a janitor and mother was a cook at his elementary school. “You could ski or play music.

“My first instruments came from my brother. He tried to learn guitar and recorder. He tried for a while, but I could just pick them up and play. It was then that I thought I had some talent.”

“When I was young, folk music was mostly played by older people, ” he continues. “For young people, it wasn’t a cool thing to play.”

Lappalainen chose folk “because it is more expressive. It gives you some freedom. Classical music felt too formal for me.”

It is somewhat ironic, then, that Värttinä has been working with the symphony orchestra in Joensuu, a city in eastern Finland. “We had our first concert last May,” says Lappalainen. “We play our songs and then we play them (with the symphony) using arrangements by Helsinki modern-classical composer Tapio Tuomela.” A recording with the orchestra is a possibility, he adds.

At one point, Värttinä included as many as 21 members. But by the early 1990s, after some in the group left for college and others to find full-time jobs, “we got some new members from the rock and folk scenes who were really professional musicians. That was a new beginning.

“I never imagined when I started that we would go this far. But I can’t tell you what our peak moment is until I know if we can we go any further (musically).”

Asked how musical differences are resolved by the band, Lappalainen says, “We have a discussion and sometimes have a vote about things. It’s democratic. ... The person who composed (the song) has the last word.”

Is there any friction between the men in the background and the women in the spotlight? “There is no tension,” he says. “We are equal members. From the audience it looks like the girls are leading the band, but when we are working, everybody is equal.”

And finally, what has he discovered to be the biggest difference between Finns and Americans?

“Finn people don’t talk so much, but when we say something we really mean it,” Lappalainen replies. “Americans may say real nice things, but not necessarily mean that. An American will say: `The concert was great, really amazing.’ A Finn will only say: `It was OK,’ which to a Finn means amazing. Finns are dead honest about things. We say things the way they are.”

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