Finnish folk singer Emmi Kuittenen and her trio of backing musicians delve into various shades of nostalgia, longing and mourning on her debut album Surun Synty (The Birth of Sorrow). Solidly based in Finnish folk traditions but with touches of modern and popular songs, Surun Synty is a fine example of contemporary Finnish folk.
Emmi Kuittinen, who lives in Helsinki, has roots in both western and eastern Finland and Karelia (Karjala), the far eastern region that is split between Finland and Russia. She specializes in the songs and laments of Karelia and Ingermanland. In addition to lead vocals she also plays keyboards, accordion, ukulele and the Finnish-Karelian zither called kantele. Here she’s joined by Antti Rask, with whom she shares vocals in both leads and duets and who also plays ukulele and cello; Mimmi Laaksonen on wind instruments, harmonium, and vocals, and Kirsi Vinkki on vocals, fiddle, and the bowed lyre called jouhikko. Some of the best moments on Surun Synty come when all four join in marvelous harmony singing.
Many of the songs are old folk songs from archives, in some cases with melody by Emmi and arrangements by the ensemble; some are composed by Emmi herself. The booklet provides lyrics and information on each song’s provenance.
Although the mood is somewhat varied on Surun Synty, the focus is on laments and dirges and old Finnish rune songs. The title song “Surun Synty” asks where is the birthplace of sorrow, because in Karelian and Finnish traditions, knowing the origin of a thing can give you mastery over it. “I wanted to explore the nature of grief in our musical tradition and explore how different melancholy can sound,” she says. This track has a sing-song nature to it as though of a chant or conjuration, backed by a simple arrangement of plucked strings; Emmi shares the verses with one of the other women, and more voices and instruments are added as the song grows into powerful statement of purpose and ownership. There’s some wordless polyphony that’s subtly moving. A good choice for a title track, though it doesn’t come until next to last on the album.
The album opens with the sunny “Hyvä Ol” (It was good), about remembering happy days of youth, with call-and-response vocals and a very upbeat march tempo. The lilting waltz “Niin Aikaisin” (So early), describes being on a beautiful road on a summer morning – harmonium and cello give it a suitably pastoral air.
But indeed many of the songs have somber lyrics and arrangements. The second track is the stately “Kuin Muistuu Mieleheni” (If I remember), a song from the 19th century about longing for a distant homeland and family, which has been in her repertoire for many years but suddenly became more topical with the Russian war against Ukraine and its displacement of thousands.
Directly following the a capella song “Kurja kyynelikko” is the mostly instrumental “Suru marssii” (Sorrow marches), my favorite on the album. The serious but by no means dark arrangement features counterpoint by flute and cello over the droning harmonium, which gives way to beautiful multi-part wordless vocal harmonies. The lovely “Marja Leena” in a slow waltz time, sounds like a song of longing for a distant loved one, the violin and cello providing bowed harmonies for the kantele that emphasizes Emmi’s sweetly sad vocals.
The album ends on “Kaiho” (Longing) a lament for loved ones who have already passed away; unlike totally traditionl laments or dirges, this one is accompanied by flute and was recorded outdoors among chirping birds; appropriately, the lyrics ask the birds to go to those who have passed and bring them their greetings. Emmi brings palpable emotion to the song, which fades away to wind chimes and distant bird song.
Surun Synty is a strong debut album for Emmi Kuittinen. Its choice of songs is a fine reminder of the power of music to give voice to the panoply of emotions that are part of the common human experience.
(Nordic Notes, 2023)