Thursday, 27 November 2008

Finnish folk roots

This is mostly not about books, but lately I've been getting into Finnish music. Finland has a very strong folk tradition. But it's one with a very intimate relationship with modern musical forms, a seamless connection in a way that doesn't seem to be sideline hybrid music into genre (such as "folk-rock" or - like the much under-rated Wurzels in the UK - "comic"); folk groups happily experiment with jazz, scat and electronica. Modern dance forms have readily evolved from folk forms, such as the jenkka and the letkajenkka (based on a schottische); and there's humppa (an astonishingly fast foxtrot style named after the German "oompah" band). The cult band Eläkeläiset ("The Pensioners") are hilarious performers of the latter, who do humppa cover versions of pop and and heavy metal: at YouTube, for instance, Humppamaratooni (Whiskey in the Jar, dubbed over the Metallica version) and Humppa Arvoitus (Nik Kershaw's The Riddle) and Ryhtivaliohumppaare (ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man) are representative.

EARWORM WARNING (Dec 2nd). Follow the asterisked links at your own risk! Ievan Polka is immensely catchy: so much so that there's a strong chance of your getting an earworm that lasts for days, as I've just found. I guess this is why it became an Internet meme. (If you've read the "Tenser, Said The Tensor" section of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, you'll know what I mean).

Moving away from the comic extreme, MetaFilter just mentioned *** Ievan Polkka (Eva's Polka) ***, a horribly catchy tune going way back (trad. arr. Eino Kettunen, 1930). But the MetaFilter version is *** this one *** sung a capella by the Finnish folk quartet Loituma. For whatever reason, Ievan Polkka has blossomed into an Internet meme via the strange decision to use it to back an animated manga character spinning a leek. Go figure.

Loituma themselves have done variants: see *** their MySpace page *** for "house" and "remix" versions, and YouTube for this *** upbeat pop version *** (an example of what I meant by Finnish folk grading seamlessly into mainstream). But the highlight there is a more reflective piece, Missing Him (called Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi on YouTube), a beautiful love song in close harmony backed with the kantele (Finnish zither). The lyrics, along with other songs from Loituma's album Things of Beauty, are here. It'd be a pity if Loituma's other work were buried by the very Internet hit that brought them to notice; their second album is In the Moonlight - full track here of Salaisia kyyneleitä (Secret Tears), which has a very Eastern European flavour.

Missing Him (the standard title - Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi - usually translated as If the One I Know Came Now) is Finland's most famous poem:

Should my treasure come
my darling step by
I'd know him by his coming
recognize him by his step
though he were still a mile off
or two miles away.
As mist I'd go out
as smoke I would reach the yard
as sparks I would speed
as flame I would fly;
I'd bowl along beside him
pout before his face.
I would touch his hand
though a snake were in his palm
I would kiss his mouth
though doom stared him in the face
I'd climb on his neck
though death were on his neck bones
I'd stretch beside him
though his side were all bloody.
And yet my treasure has not
his mouth bloody from a wolf
his hands greasy from a snake
nor his neck in death's clutches:
his mouth is of melted fat
his lips are as of honey
his hands golden, fair
his neck like a heather stalk

The words are late mediaeval, and were among those incorporated into the Kanteletar, the body of folk lyrics and poetry collated by Elias Lönnrot in parallel with his work compiling Finnish folkore into the epic Kalevala. The oldest known printed version was that noted down by the musician and ethnographer Giuseppe Acerbi on a trip to Lapland in 1799. In the mid-1800s, a Stockholm civil servant, Carl Gustav Zetterqvist, was so taken with the poem that he wrote around internationally and solicited 467 translations (they weren't published, but reside in the Elias Lönrot Collection, Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki). As with any orally transmitted text, there are variants such as these two, Finnish and Karelian, of a shorter version, the one Goethe translated in 1810 as Finnisches Lied.

Käm' der liebe Wohlbekannte,
Völlig so wie er geschieden:
Kuß erkläng' an seinen Lippen,
Hätt' auch Wolfsblut sie gerötet;
Ihm den Handschlag gäb' ich, wären
Seine Fingerspitzen Schlangen.

Wind! o hättest du Verständnis,
Wort' um Worte trügst du wechselnd,
Sollt auch einiges verhallen,
Zwischen zwei entfernten Liebchen.

Gern entbehrt' ich gute Bissen,
Priesters Tafelfleisch vergäß' ich
Eher, als dem Freund entsagen,
Den ich Sommers rasch bezwungen,
Winters langer Weis' bezähmte.

The poem also appears on Arctic Silence by Merja Soria, another exponent of vocal/kantele arrangements of ancient Finnish songs. A few samples, though not including Jos Mun Tuttuni Tulisi, are here. If you like this taster of Finnish folk music, there's more at, more or less the experimental wing of the Sibelius Academy of Music, where Loituma originated. See the recordings list: for musicians and groups marked "F" there are samples; for those marked "E", full tracks are available for download.
- Ray

Addendum: I'd wondered what "Loituma" means in Finnish. Tuulikannel at YouTube kindly checked it out: apparently it's the name of a lake in Karelia.

Addendum #2: I just saw (25 January 2009) that a new Ready Brek TV ad is using a version of Ievan Polkka.

See also:

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