Monday, 20 April 2009


Further to Finnish folk roots, a wander on YouTube led me to another brilliant group that has made a seamless crossover from trad folk to highly eclectic fusion (and such experimental eclecticism seems characteristic of the Finnish music scene). Check out Värttinä ("distaff" would be the best translation) whose official site describes it as a "band that has grown from mostly traditional vocal music to combining traditional language and lyrics with modern music and themes". Here's the MySpace page.

The mix is pretty unusual; Värttinä comprises a trio of female vocalists who sing both folk and original compositions in Karelian, drawing on traditional Finno-Ugric close harmony, using lyrics sourced in the Karelian "runo" poetry, but with instrumental backing that recalls elements of Irish, Asian, Cajun, jazz and rock. My favourites so far include Paivan Nousu Nostajani ("Dawn, my rouser" - above), Itkin ("I cried"), and Seelinnikoi (a bride's lament at having married unwisely) and Linnunmieli. Not that it's all gloomy: Värttinä also does gentler material such as the beautifully mellow Suurenmoinen Tyttö ("Magnificent girl" - I think) and Kylä vuotti uutta kuuta (a wedding song, "The Village Awaits the New Moon").

As the Guardian review of the album Miero said, the vocals are "taut, raw and scary. Even scarier when you read the English translations". Finnish folk roots seem come from a darker wilder time and place than the English. Outside death metal, it's hard to think of anything else as ferocious as Äijö, a song about an elderly man - evidently a shaman - who is bitten by a snake and, unable to find it after pursuing it with an axe, deals it a powerful curse 1 - before he dies.
Treacherous and cold-skinned viper,
slithering and slit-eyed fiend,
heather-colored belly-crawler,
learn now of your contemptible extraction,
hear and know your lowly provenance:
Earth it was who first uncoiled you,
as it did much crawling vermin,
even many-colored serpents.

As for what your proper hue be
I can't say, nor does it matter
if you were nine different colors,
whether you are black or greyish
or perchance a shade of copper.

Evil, stinging devil's minion,
never shall my blood refresh you,
nor my flesh sustain your body.
Hissing ghoul with jagged backside,
long-fanged, vicious, wicked creature,
find a hillside in the forest,
hide amongst the tender willows,
slink into a stony hollow,
creep, black worm, into a burrow
and take my affliction with you,
carry off the pain I suffer
to those killing fields of battle,
to the very sites of warfare.
Cleanse the grievous wound you gave me,
rid my veins of this your venom.
Henceforth do not hasten thee hither,
never wend your winding way here,
be, foul thing, forever banished.

I imagine it's even more striking in Karelian, in which it's heavily alliterative (see the lyrics page). The words allude strongly to Finnish pagan mythology, where Äijö is one of the names of its Odin-like chief god Ukko - both "äijä" and "ukko" mean "old man" - who wielded a stone axe (a Ukonvasara) and whose symbol was a viper. (Readers of 2000 A.D. will recognise the name as that used for the dwarf sidekick and chronicler of Sláine).

As discussed on many websites - see Are High Elves Finno-Ugric? and More about Quenya's relation to Finnish in the Net - Tolkien's Elvish language Quenya was inspired by Finnish; no surprise, then, that Värttinä were on the musical team collaborating with A.R. Rahman for The Lord of the Rings stage musical. See the Montreal Mirror - Wizard’s words, woman’s wiles - for background; it also gives further insight into the origins and intent of Värttinä’s "fierce and focused" exploration of darker female emotions.

- Ray

1. This curse is as studied and vicious as that used by Skírnir in the Poetic Edda's Skírnismál to scare Gerðr into agreeing to marry Freyr.

You shall be sent where no son of man
Or god shall see you again,
With earth behind you, on an eagle's mound,
Facing Hel, for ever sit. Fouler to you shall food look
Than the snake seems to warriors.
A sight you shall become ere you come out.

Hrimnir shall leer at you, everyone jeer at you,
A more famous figure you'll be
Than the god's watchman when you gape through the fence.

May error and terror, blotches and blains,
Grow on you, grief with tears.
Crouch low while the curse I pronounce,
Heavy torment and twofold grief.
Orcs shall pinch you the whole day long
In the grim garths of the giants,
Every day to the halls of Frost
You shall creep, crawl without choice,
Without any hope of choice

Lamentation not laughter know,
Dejection instead of joy.
With three-headed trolls shall your time be spent,
Never shall a man come near you,
May your senses be numbed, your sadness weep,
May you be as the thistle, thoughtlessly crushed
Underfoot at the gate of the garth.

To the woods I went, through the wet trees,
For a spell-binding branch,
And a fitting branch I found.
Odin is angry, angry is Thor,
All the gods shall hate you
Base maiden, you have brought on yourself
The anger of all the gods.

Hear me, giants, hear me frost-trolls,
Sons of Suttung, hear me,
What I forebode, what I forbid,
Joy of man to this maid,
Love of man to this maid.

Hrimgrimir shall have you, the hideous troll,
Beside the doors of the dead,
Under the tree-roots ugly scullions
Pour you the piss of goats;
Nothing else shall you ever drink,
Never what you wish,
Ever what I wish.
I score troll-runes, then I score three letters,
Filth, frenzy, lust:
I can score them off as I score them on,
If I find sufficient cause.

- The Elder Edda, trans. Paul B Taylor and WH Auden, Faber & Faber, 1973

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