Itku is an exciting new album by the Finnish folk pop group Okra Playground. Their third full-length, following their 2015 debut Turmio and 2018’s Ääneni yli vesien, it was released in late 2022. The three powerful singing women of Okra Playground draw largely on Finland’s centuries-old runo singing tradition, embellishing it with elements of electro dance music, pop, and rock to great effect. Not every track on this nine-track album is fully to my taste, but there’s plenty here for fans who enjoy various aspects of Finnish contemporary folk music.
Okra Playground is the three vocalists Päivi Hirvonen, who also plays the fiddle and the Finnish bowed harp called the jouhikko; and Maija Kauhanen and Essi Muikku, both of whom also play the Finnish lyre called the kantele – 15-string versions. They’re joined by instrumentalists Sami Kujala on bass guitar, Veikko Muikku on accordion and synthesizer, and Oskar Lehtonen on percussion. Hirvonen, Kauhanen and Essi Muikku write and arrange the songs, drawing on folk and modern styles for the lyrics and tunes.
The leading title track “Itku” is one of my favorite songs of the year. It opens with a driving fiddle and drumbeat in a quick 4/4 time, then the singers join in for a couple of choruses of wordless vocals in the close runo-style harmony, and pretty soon all the instruments and voices are united in a glorious soaring anthem. After a brief interlude of energetically strummed twin kanteles, the vocals resume for a rousing conclusion.
The follow up with another song that leads with the group vocals, “Ukkonen,” backed by lots of percussion and some stirring bowing of the jouhikko by Hirvonen; with lots of synth keyboard sounds and a slightly tricky time signature, this one really blends the traditional and modern.
“Laula!” blends folk and pop, reminding me a bit of Abba – one voice leading with the other two singing response lines and then joining in unison on the choruses. And “Kylmä lintu kyyneleeni” is a soft acoustic ballad that’s mostly pop with folk instrumental backing blended with synth and electric bass. The ponderous rhythmic backing and portentous fiddle line of “Veri” is a nod to Nordic metal – I bet this one slays in concert! The lyrics (included in the booklet in Finnish and English) are filled with blood. Literally.
The album continues to explore varied sonic territories. “Kymmenniekka kylässä” is a soft pop ballad. “Hetkeen” puts plucked strings up front with the very folk-sounding vocals. “Juoksen karkuun aurinkoa” sounds very traditional when it opens with a choppy fiddle and straightforward vocals, but it gets a little overwhelmed with synth strings and a complex vocal arrangement. The final track “Hypnoosi” is what it sounds like, a droning, atmospheric song featuring very creative playing on accordion, fiddle and keys, and wordless vocals. It’s one of the longer songs, and by the end it’s rumbling right along with a dancefloor beat and tons of synths.
Like I said, not all of it’s to my taste, but I bet these songs plus the rest of Okra’s repertoire go down great in a live setting. And good news on that front for fans in North America; they’re planning more than one tour there in the coming years, beginning sometime in 2023. Keep an eye on their website or social media for updates.
(Nordic Notes, 2022)