The history of contemporary Finnish folk music has long been a direct reflection of the political situation and identity of the relatively young nation. Long part of first the Swedish and then the Russian empire before achieving full independence, Finland’s music tends to sound like the countries that are now its neighbors, while still retaining native styles. In an increasingly interconnected world, it only makes sense to hear more and more distant cultures integrated into Finland’s musical scene. That’s where Jaakko Laitinen and Väärä Raha come in.
Hailing from the far north of Finland, Laitinen has the voice of a classic Finnish tango singer, a little lighter than Olavi Virta but with a similar charisma and gravitas. He has the heart, though, of a world traveler, and with Väärä Raha, he cuts a southward swath across Europe and lends that powerful voice to a number of other styles from his own homeland and abroad. Näennäinen sees Väärä Raha spending an especially extended period of time in the Balkans, playing the brassy, romantic tunes of the Romani peoples of that region. The group takes cues from Russian and Finnish folk traditions, too; after all, no culture exists in a vacuum, and Väärä Raha isn’t afraid to mix things up a little.
The romance and melodrama with which the group performs sometimes sounds like it isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and such may be the case; exhilarating opening track “Valheet ja kahleet” has a rustic bounce to it that has the kind of infectious energy meant for dancing in spite of its subject matter (the title translates to “Lies and Chains”). As fun as it starts out, though, Väära Raha quickly turns up the heat, and it’s easy to get sucked into the feverish allure of “Aman aman” or the slow burn of sensual tango “Mustikan”. By the time swaying single “Naamiloleikki” rolls around, it’s hard to tell if Laitinen’s delivery still feels over-the-top or if it actually feels like the appropriate amount of emotional indulgence for such unguarded music.
Of course, this is an album for a niche market; Finnish tango mixed with Balkan folk isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and Näennäinen’s continued mixing of genres may narrow their audience more than widen it, at least on an international level (how many humppa fans do you know who also appreciate a good Macedonian dance number?). For the adventurous few, though, accessible tracks exist among the more obscure fusions. Near the end comes “Niin paljon sanomatta jää” (“So Much Left Unsaid”), a melancholy song that draws softly from all of Väärä Raha’s favorite places and brings them together in a deceptively mellow blend with a quick tempo. The more strictly Roma-influenced sounds on “Aman aman” and “Kukkakimppu kainalossa”, too, will sound more familiar to many than fusions between northern and southern Europe.
There’s a certain kitsch inherent in any kind of Finnish tango, and mixing it with Russian and Balkan folk music doesn’t do much to negate that. Jaakko Laitinen and Väärä Raha embrace the corny side of their music, though, to the point at which it becomes sincerely enjoyable. Näennäinen’s goal as an album is to entertain, and for any head-scratching cultural mélanges that might pop up on the album, there’s no question that it does just that.