Posts Tagged ‘varttina’

Live Review | Songlines Encounters Festival 2016, June 2-4

Posted on June 6th, 2016 in Live, Recent posts by .


Simon Broughton, Jo Frost and Alexandra Petropoulos report from the Songlines Encounters Festival 2016 at London’s Kings Place
(Photos by Alex Harvey-Brown, Simon Broughton and Miriam Abdulla)

Thursday, June 2

“I got this bone from my grandmother,” said Karoliina Kantelinen as the audience collapsed into laughter at the thought it might be her grandmother’s thigh bone. Then there was the amusement, for us, as she realised what she said had been misconstrued. The bone for playing the shaman drum was actually from a reindeer, handed on by Kantelinen’s fondly-remembered grandmother.


The story underlined the intensely personal nature of Värttinä’s music, founded over 30 years ago by Mari Kaasinen, still at the centre of the group. There were songs they’d written about their own experiences and songs they’d learnt from old singers they had met over the border in Viena Karelia, Russia, one of the heartlands of Finnish culture.

For Songlines Encounters, they did a superb set as just three vocalists without their regular backing band. It brought a great sense of women power. They accompanied themselves on kantele (the zither that is Finland’s national instrument), flutes and superb accordion playing from Susan Aho. But the highlights were the a capella numbers, which really emphasised the superb focus and versatility of these singers. Melodies, shrieks and percussive vocals create an astonishing range of textures and make this music that is distinctly local in origin work on an international stage. And Värttinä perform it with an infectious joy.

Simon Broughton

John Williams & Derek Gripper
Friday, June 3 

This was one of the most successful concerts we’ve held at Songlines Encounters. Not only because it sold out, but because it revealed two different musical personalities exploring, mainly, West African kora music played on classical guitar. Arranging kora music for guitar has been the passion of Derek Gripper for the past 15 years or so. Kings Place is perfect for a concert like this where you can concentrate on the intricacy of the playing and enjoy the warm, rich sound.

They opened with the two of them playing together, then Gripper doing a solo set, followed by Williams, and then joining together again at the end. The fundamental question is why listen to kora music arranged for guitar when you can easily listen to Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté or Seckou Keita playing the real thing? This concert clearly demonstrated why it’s worth doing. It becomes rich and beautiful concert music on the guitar with a totally different acoustic. Gripper brings a whole variety of textures to his playing, delicate harmonics, snapping  the strings, abruptly stopping them and knocking the neck of the instrument. These come from kora techniques, but never just imitate them.

John Williams took an accompanying role in the duo repertoire but showed the smooth and refined style that he’s famous for in the singing legato melody by Paraguayan composer Agostín Barrios in the first of his solo pieces. And followed with some dance-like Venezuelan repertoire.

Together they created a rich and intricate sound that is beautiful and absorbing. I think we all felt it was something very special.

Derek Gripper plays Thursday June 9 at Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth, Wells and Friday June 10 at Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan.

Simon Broughton


Vula Viel
Friday, June 3

After the serene intensity of Friday night’s first billing of Derek Gripper and John Williams’ guitar duets, the concert in Hall 2 proved to be a wonderful foil. Vula Viel are a London-based quintet, led by Bex Burch, a classically-trained percussionist. Burch became interested by the minimalism of Steve Reich and how Ghanaian music influenced him, so she went to Ghana and spent three years studying the Dagaare gyil (xylophone). Gyil music is mainly ceremonial, in particular it’s played at funerals. “Dagaare funerals aren’t about consolation: it’s an opportunity to confront difficult truths and explore your grief. The harshness of mourners’ judgements often sparks a renewal,” Burch told Songlines in June 2015.

Vula-Viel-©Miriam-AbdullaVula Viel means ‘Good is Good’ – and it’s the name Burch was given when she had finished her apprenticeship. The focal point of the band is the gyil, with the two drummers – Dave de Rose and Simon Roth – sat on opposite sides of the stage so that they could eyeball each other as they played with incredible precision. George Crowley swayed back and forth behind Burch on sax and Dan Nicholls looked unassuming yet has an integral part in creating the band’s hypnotic sound on synth and keys. I was initially stood at the back of the hall and was convinced that Burch had smuggled a trampoline onstage as she bounced up and down, left and right Zebedee-style, a completely compelling figure. I found myself drawn to the front to join in with the crowd who were dancing and soaking up the incredible energy emitting from the musicians. They played tracks from their debut album and also some new compositions, with Burch giving brief introductions and fascinating insights into Ghanaian life. One of the tunes translates as ‘You’re Sitting with Your Enemy, You’re Sitting With Your Drink,’ and Burch explained that it’s a common occurrence in Ghana to put poison in drinks, so you never accept a drink from someone without them drinking it first – so there was much amusement when just after this explanation, the stage manager came on with bottles of water for the band.

Vula Viel really embody what Songlines Encounters is all about – music deeply connected to a tradition, yet new, exciting and innovative at the same time. There’s no denying that they really are very good indeed.

Jo Frost

Roby Lakatos
Saturday, June 4

On Saturday afternoon, Kings Place was treated to a second performance by the sublime pairing of John Williams & Derek Gripper after a sold-out show the previous night. What followed later that evening was something completely different – flashy music from Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos. 

Lakatos is a descendant of the legendary violinist János Bihari (1764-1827). Bihari’s playing, rooted in traditional dance music, became the sound of 19th-century Hungarian music. He would go on to inspire composers like Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, so it seems perfect that Roby Lakatos straddles the line between classical and traditional performance, though for this show he focused mainly on his Gypsy repertoire.

The flamboyant violinist came out on stage dressed in bright red trousers, a long blue jacket and his signature halo of grey hair, and he was joined on stage by Jenő Lisztes (cimbalom), Kalman Cseki (piano) and Vilmos Csikos (bass). Lakatos paced himself, starting with an elegant opening over a shruti box drone that sounded as if it could have been improvised. But it wasn’t long before he launched into his trademark nimble fingerwork for an uptempo Gypsy swing piece, complete with slap bass from a giggling Csikos.


Throughout his set, Lakatos’ unbelievable playing was definitely on display. His fingers can certainly move faster than you expect is possible, and he showed off the most impressively fast double-fingered pizzicato playing I’ve ever seen. But the virtuosic playing didn’t belong to Lakatos alone: Lisztes’s cimbalom playing was out of this world, especially on his arrangement of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’; Cseki’s playing on the piano was expertly jazzy or classical whenever the mood called for it, and Csikos put on an excellent show on the bass, and the fact that he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself – even throwing in a joke glissando in the middle of one of Lakatos’ solos – meant he was a joy to watch.

Unlike any other Songlines Encounters Festival performances to date, this was an evening of mind-blowing virtuosic technique from a quartet of musicians who are certainly not only at the top of their own game, but at the top of anyone else’s game too.

Alexandra Petropoulos


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Värttinä: So near and yet so far

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

Varttina-©Seppo Samuli-Free1

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:

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Songlines Encounters Festival 2016, Kings Place, London, June 2-4

Posted on April 1st, 2016 in Live, News, Recent posts by .


Photography by Seppo Samuli

Songlines Encounters Festival returns to Kings Place, London, in June

Celebrating its sixth year, the upcoming Songlines Encounters Festival champions adventurous and groundbreaking artists we feel passionate about. This year’s programme of concerts features music from South Africa, Mali, Hungary, Ghana, Finland and the UK.

Book your tickets on the Kings Place website or call +44 (0)20 7520 1490.

Thursday June 2, Hall 1, 8:00pm

The trio from Finland’s Karelia region perform the UK premiere of their new album Viena, selected as a Top of the World choice in our latest issue (April, #116). 
 ”I’m delighted that we’ve been able add Varttina for the opening concert of Songlines Encounters this year. They are extraordinary singers and with Viena they have made music that is wonderfully fresh from deep traditions that go back years,” says editor-in-chief Simon Broughton.


Friday June 3, Hall 1, 8:00pm AND Saturday June 4, Hall 1, 2:00pm

John Williams & Derek Gripper
Acclaimed guitar virtuoso John Williams plays alongside South African guitarist Derek Gripper; as well as playing solo, the pair will play a selection of kora music of West Africa arranged by Gripper.

Due to popular demand, the duo will repeat Friday’s performance the following day at an earlier time of 2pm.


Friday June 3, Hall 2, 9:45pm

Vula Viel
London based five-piece Vula Viel, led by percussionist Bex Burch, showcase their versatile mix of electronica, minimalism, and Ghanaian Dagaare xylophone music.


Saturday June 4, Hall 1, 8:00pm

Roby Lakatos Ensemble
Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos revisits some of the Gypsy repertoire of ancestor János Bihari. The Stradivarius player will delve into rare pieces of music ingrained in the family tradition.


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Värttinä – Viena | Album Review | Top of the World

Posted on March 17th, 2016 in Recent posts, Reviews by .

Varttina-©Seppo Samuli-Free1

Words by Fiona Talkington

Varttina - Viena Cover

An astonishing return to form

Having worked with Värttinä earlier in 2015, I had a sense that their new album was going to be something special. There was a light in their eyes when they talked about it, and an excitement about returning to their musical roots. The result, Viena, exceeds expectations. The sound is superb, the playing immaculate, and the three singers are on fire. It’s also enormous fun and a huge achievement for a band that has been through so many changes: they can proudly say that the Värttinä sound is as strong as ever.

Thirty years in the business has made them part of Finnish musical history and given them the scope to explore many different paths. This album connects right back to their early days as children performing traditional music. Now their visits to Karelia to hear the last surviving runo singers has given them new inspiration. The clean, sharp sound of the unaccompanied vocals in ‘Raija’s Yoik’ are bristling with energy and ‘Kanaset’ is simply Värttinä at their very best. Die-hard fans will be putting this right up there among their best albums; new arrivals will find it a great place to start.

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