I found this quote on Finnish fiddler Emilia Lajunen’s website while looking for more information about her staggering new solo album. It’s titled Vainaan perua: Satavuotinen Sakka, which translates into English as “Legacy Of The Dead: Deep In The Dregs.” It’s an apt title, but maybe not in the way you might think just from reading it. It’s not in any way mournful or morbid or full of lamentations, as is for example Emmi Kuittinen’s Surun Synty which I also review in this edition. It is, rather, a reflection of her project to resurrect the music of the passionate fiddlers of the Finnish tradition from the archives, where she spends much of her life when not performing. They’ve passed on not only their music but their passion to this intense and creative Finn.
Lajunen appears to be one of the most highly decorated and respected fiddlers currently playing in Finland, which indeed has quite a crop of them. Since 2010 she has been the head violin teacher in the folk music department of the prestigious Sibelius Academy, where she received a Master’s in music in 2007, having also studied at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music and under various folk musicians.
For at least 20 years now she also has played with many other Finnish folk musicians, releasing an album as part of a duo with fiddler Suvi Oskala, and also is active with Eero Grundström as part of the duo Juuri & Juuri and with Ritva Nero.
The music on Vainaan perua: Satavuotinen Sakka is part of her doctoral studies at Sibelius, which has also included elements of dance, movement, and play, combining traditional and modern experimental approaches. It combines elements of two different Finnish traditions: the archaic, minimalist rune songs from the Kalevala tradition, which comes mainly from eastern Finland. And the dance-centric “Pelimannimusiikki” violin music of the 19th century, which comes mainly from western and central parts of Finland and is influenced by other European styles.
Lajunen plays the standard fiddle and also the nyckelharpa. She is obviously assisted by several other musicians on this album, but the only one named is Eero Grundström, who is described as an “electronic sound tinkerer,” and with whom the musician has been working for 20 years. In addition to harmonica, his contributions apparently consist mainly of various beats and percussion, and I suspect he also assists with some of the modification of Lajunen’s fiddle’s sound on several tracks.
The two songs that give the album its title are by two legendary Finnish fiddlers, the late Jalmari Siiriäinen and Juho Laitila. “The legacy of the dead is the dregs of folk music that remain even when today’s performers create something new,” she explains. “The dregs of folk music, the unique ways of playing, the stories and destinies that rest in the archives, all that is important to me.” Those two songs appear in reverse order at tracks 8 and 7. Both are instrumental and prominently feature Lajunen’s fiddling and a harmonica, which also appears on other tunes. “Vainaan perua” also has a lot of percussion including what sounds like a balafon, as well as synthesized horn and other droning sounds. It’s a deeply driving fiddle tune with a huge dynamic range. “”Satavuotinen Sakka” is more sedate, something like a mid-tempo polska with Lajunen on nyckelharpa with harmonica and percussion from a Grundström, as seen in this live video.
Looking for some American fiddling analogs for this music, I find that the neo-traditional style of the title songs and some of the other tracks (including the zippy opening track “Elias Leppänen”) call to mind the recordings of Tatiana Hargreaves and Allison de Groot. Some of the tracks with electronic experimentation remind me a bit of the creative play of Anna & Elizabeth. “Menuetto,” for example, lays a simple fiddle dance tune over a bed of electronic bleeps, tweets, and drones that becomes ever denser and more insistent as the track proceeds. “Hoskari” opens as an a capella song with Lajunen and a male singer providing solo verses and duet choruses in a manner that I take as somewhat humorous. Then after a couple of minutes the instruments kick in and the tempo doubles into a very entertaining hoedown-type song that makes you want to kick up your heels. Lajunen sings the lilting “Vilkon laulu” unaccompanied except by harmonica. And “Raatikaista” is a solo fiddle piece that puts all of Lajunen’s techniques on display, complete with some distortion pedals in the final third.
“Viitasaarelta” is the most experimental song, something that would fit on a Lumen Drones album, perhaps, with lots of modern dance type percussive thumping and a tune that is sometimes more space than sound. And of course the album has to end with a waltz, but don’t expect anything very traditional sounding from “Virsu-Jussin valssi.” It’s another solo piece for Emilia Lajunen, this time on nyckelharpa, and it puts her technique and artistic interpretation on vivid display.
Vainaan perua: Satavuotinen Sakka is an exhilerating project, recommended for fans of Nordic folk music who don’t mind having the traditions updated in a respectful but highly creative way.
(Nordic Notes, 2023)