Värttinä: So near and yet so far

Posted on May 23rd, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

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This article originally appeared in Songlines #116.

Simon Broughton catches up with the Finnish group Värttinä and speaks to them about the Karelian influences on their latest release, Viena

Viena, the title of Värttinä’s 13th studio album, is a word full of meaning for Finns, but one that needs a bit of explaining for those outside. Viena is a place, not a misspelling of the Austrian capital, but somewhere more like Middle Earth. The essential difference is Tolkien’s setting for The Lord of the Rings is fictional, but Viena Karelia is real – over Finland’s eastern border in Russia’s Republic of Karelia – and in recent years it has become more and more accessible.

“It’s so quiet,” says Mari Kaasinen, a founding member of Värttinä. “The silence was something – just birds. Kind of scary.” Surprisingly, the visit to Viena Karelia in 2014 – the inspiration behind their latest record – was her first. “Going back to the roots,” she says.

Finland’s most successful folk group, Värttinä, was started by sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen in 1983. Based in the small town of Rääkkylä in the east of Finland, the group began singing the traditional Karelian repertoire of the region. From the early 90s, with key members studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Värttinä became a smaller, harder-hitting outfit with a strong feminine identity. With a more contemporary sound they started to get international attention. They’ve toured in Japan and Brazil and worked with AR Rahman on the musical of The Lord of the Rings. Over the years, there have been personnel changes, but the core has always been three female vocalists upfront and male members in the backing band.

Värttinä’s singers need to be versatile and accomplished. The three voices intertwine and swop parts. Sometimes even they can’t tell who’s singing which part, one of them tells me.

‘There’s peace upon these shores

Where the free waters glimmer

Against the horizon; houses on the shore

Are outlined on vast skies, beside the water.’

These are the words of Mari Kaasinen in ‘Taivasranta’ (The Heavenly Shore), the opening song of Viena, inspired by a visit to Haikola, one of the villages on a small island in a lake. “It’s a song about the nature,” she says. “There is simply so much nature there. So much forest, so much sky. But it’s also sad that people have to move and don’t have work there. If there’s a message, it’s that we should be proud of this area that is so near and yet so far.”

Why is Viena Karelia so important for Finnish people? In English it’s generally known as White Karelia, after the White Sea into which the rivers flow. It goes back to the period of the national revival in the 19th century when Finland was asserting itself against centuries of Swedish and Russian domination. The key figure was Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) who travelled into Viena Karelia and collected the songs and runo poetry that he forged into the Kalevala, the national epic which was finally published in 1849. Most of the poetry that went into the Kalevala was collected in the villages of Viena Karelia. In Lönnrot’s footsteps went artists, folklorists, song collectors and a whole artistic movement of Karelianism was born.

The Karelia region is particularly fascinating because of the primitive lifestyle and poetic traditions, which had disappeared in Finland, were still alive over the border in Russia. It was like touching the wellsprings of Finnish culture. “It’s Karelian dialects on both sides of the border. They’ve never been part of Finland, but it’s the same tribe,” says Kaasinen. “It is very natural for me to write lyrics in the runo song style of Karelia.” The ‘Kalevala metre’ is very recognisable (like Longfellow’s Hiawatha) and the poetry is full of alliteration and repetition. The Kalevala, of course, has been influencing musicians in Finland for years, from Sibelius to heavy metal bands and many folk musicians as well as Värttinä (see the feature on the Kalevala’s musical legacy in #61).

Mari Kaasinen was born into that Karelian culture in Rääkkylä and, she says, the dialect and the poetry isn’t so different to that of Viena Karelia. It’s a common culture. “The difference is that in Viena Karelia it’s still alive, but it’s not in Rääkkylä.” The same reason that Lönnrot became fascinated with it nearly 200 years ago. What’s also preserved these villages in aspic is that in Soviet times, this border region with the West was off limits to foreigners and even to Soviet citizens without a special permit, so it remained frozen in time. It only started to open up to visitors in the early 90s.

Värttinä’s new singer Karoliina Kantelinen, who joined in 2013, is a specialist in the singing of the Viena region. So in the summer 2014 Värttinä gave a concert in Kuhmo at the Sommelo Festival and made a ten-day expedition into Viena Karelia. It was the first time for Mari Kaasinen and singer Susan Aho. In Russia they visited many of the old villages and runo singers, which is what has fed into this new record.

“I first learned the songs of Viena Karelia from the archives – recordings from 1915,” explains Kantelinen. “And then ten years ago I got the opportunity to go. I went to Jyskyjärvi and met the singer Helmi Rekina. I sang her a joik from northern Karelia and she told me I had a great voice for Karelian joiking (different from Sámi joiking).” For their visit, Rekina assembled a group of about eight veteran singers in Uhtua. “They sang for us and we sang for them.” But Helmi Rekina died in October, so the number of surviving runo singers dwindles every day.

They also met Raija Zabrotskaya in the village of Vuokkiniemi whose welcome song, ‘Raijan Joiku’ (Raija’s Joik) has been arranged for three voices so that it almost sounds Bulgarian with its clashing harmony. In their original form joiks are just single voice, and quite hardcore listening.

‘You are very welcome here

My grand, my honoured guests 

To join our joyful party

To celebrate the day.’

This welcoming song opened Värttinä’s album launch concert in Helsinki. The women, dressed in bright red skirts, were backed by violin, accordion and guitar. Viena is evoked with a wedding song, a comic weaving song, a shamanic seer casting spells and a lot of songs about nature, including the birds – notably the Ukonlammas (The Thunder Bleater). “It’s a mystical bird and you hear it when thunder is coming,” says Kantelinen. “It’s a strange cry and we heard it many times.”

Viena Karelia is a harsh and unforgiving environment, where there are few roads and endless lakes and forests. In the summer it’s beautiful as the sunset meets the dawn and the light is refracted through the trees in the mirror of the lake. But mosquitoes flourish. In the winter it’s dark and frozen. These days the villages are almost deserted, although the renascent tourism has, in places, slowed the decline. Karelianism in the late 19th century presented a romanticised picture of the region. And that’s true of Värttinä’s Viena too, although they’re keen to avoid Kalevala nostalgia.

One of the songs full of twilight melancholy is ‘Ikuikävä’ (Longing), which comes from a meeting with runo singer Vera Kieleväinen in Vuonninen. This was one of the richest villages for Lönnrot’s collecting. Here there were two bards, Ontrei Malinen and Vaassila Kieleväinen, who recited key scenes that went into the Kalevala, particularly about the bardic hero Väinämöinen.

“Vera is over 80 years old and living in quite a primitive way on her own in the middle of the forest,” explains Kantelinen. “She’s very lonely, waiting at the window for someone to visit but nobody comes. She has three sons, but they are busy. She made us recognise how lucky we are to have everything around us that we take for granted. She has so little, yet is so generous and open-hearted. It’s kind of sad. And in a way, with this ever-lasting longing, she’s like a symbol of the place.” The song describes her waiting by the window, her tears and her longing for the next world.

Morning breaks, merciful, under the window

I should be in the churchyard, shriven with water

With pine twigs forever, on a brass bed

Tucked in, with eternity’s blankets around me.’

“In a way it’s also our story with Viena Karelia. We’ve learned that we should connect with nature more than we do. And we’ve also found our peace there.”

Viena was a Top of the World selection in issue #116. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs

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