[22 May 2003]
Several years ago, while driving my truck to my next landscape account, I first heard Värttinä‘s recording Seleniko being played on the radio. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have this kind of music.” They had struck a chord within me. Their sound is highly energetic, passionate, and adventurous. I had to run out and buy a copy of it right then—even in my rather dirty gardening clothes! I didn’t own a CD player at the time, so I just purchased a cassette and played it over and over in my truck’s tape player.
Later of course, I found a copy of Oi Dai and played that alternately taking both cassettes with me wherever I went and saying, “Hey, you have to hear these tapes.” Now, I have managed to collect most of their recordings on CD and while they might no longer be my first choice for my recreational listening (as opposed to all those recordings I need to listen to for my radio shows), they still rank pretty high up there. Especially on those nights when I feel the need to be surrounded by some really positive and very strong women who manage to sing a ribald song and then slip into a something more plaintive followed by powerful runic chanting.
Iki is their latest recording and celebrates their 20th anniversary. They have come a long way since their first recordings Värttinä and Musta Lindu released when they were quite young. They started as 15 young women vocalists playing kantele (the zither-like national instrument of Finland) and their back up band of six young men. Shortly after their second recording Musa Lindu was released, the dynamic and very talented Sari Kaasinen streamlined the band down to five women vocalists and the band. They then released their groundbreaking and highly successful recording Oi Dai in 1990 with their combination of traditional Karelian and Finno-Ugric rune songs merging with a modern pop sound. “Marketing” always seems to need to put music in categories and the term that seems to be applied most commonly to music of this sort is “a Celtic sound.” Whatever that is. To me they sound very much like they are from Finland and more broadly Scandinavian—especially their early work.
Over the 20 years of their existence, the band has seen many personnel changes with most notably Sari Kaasinen leaving in 1997 to pursue other projects including work with her group, Sirmakka and a duo album with her sister Mari—Can We Have Christmas Now?. Co-founder Mari Kaasinen is still with Värttinä and is the only vocalist who has remained with the group since their beginning. On Iki, there are now only three vocalists, but with their three-part harmonies they nonetheless convey as powerful an impact as the line up from the early 1990s.
Through two decades and nine records, Värttinä has evolved with various personnel changes. Because of their various travels and appearances at festivals throughout the world, they have added some guest appearances by artists from near and far, such as from their own culture JPP on Vihma and the Tuvan throat singing group Yat-Kha also on Vihma. To my ears, they sometimes also add influences of rhythms and vocal harmonies from places like Bulgaria. In addition to this, they used more pop and electric sounds on their albums Kokko, Vihma, and Ilmatar which created an even greater audience for them and brought them recognition word wide.
Their latest album Iki sees them returning to their acoustic roots while remaining still as fresh and enthusiastic as the best of their recordings; but perhaps more polished and sophisticated. As the liner notes say, Iki translates at “the primal, eternal breath—the wind of a butterfly wing in motion.” Although, I do not have an English translation of their songs on this album, they do indeed sound as if an Eastern wind is blowing across the reeds and through the forests.
Iki opens with a one-and-a-half-minute piece where a solo a cappella voice plaintively sings at the beginning on part one of “Syyllinen Syli” or “Faithless Arms”—a hint of things to come in their song choices and impressive vocal style. Most songs start with the solo voice with minimal back up and then build to the whole band and other voices coming in. On “Sepän Poika” or “The Blacksmith’s Son”, the percussion and bass prevail and we hear a sound reminiscent of a hammer hitting an anvil in the background. “Tauti” or “Disease” features accordion, violin, and drum kit with very fast vocals almost frantic as if death is riding a speeding horse through the village.
The women of Värttinä can make their voices soft and dreamy or harsh, ancient, and spellbinding. Or they can sound as crisp as the crack of a whip as they do in “Nahkarouska” or “The Leather Whip”. The solo vocal at the beginning of “Maahinen Neito”/“Earth Maiden” accompanied by guitar and bass seem to leave an echo-y vapor like trail. When the violin, drum and the other vocalists come in, there is again an urgent pleading sound in the music and voices. This tune seems to have a Bulgarian influence with its daichovo like rhythm and polyphonic vocal style.
Every Värttinä album features at least one instrumental tune and Iki is no exception. “Vihi” or “Wind” showcases this group’s very talented musicians that are an essential part of Värttinä‘s sound. Even though Iki is their 20th anniversary album, the band is still quite young and vibrant and hopefully will continue to expand and evolve for many more years.
Musta Lindu/Black Bird (1989)
Oi Dai (1990)
Live in Helsinki (2001)
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/varttina-iki/