I picked these two nice Finnish dance-music albums up at a workshop in Vancouver, British Columbia. What a pleasure to listen to them!
The seven to eleven-piece Spelarit is based in Vantaa, a northern suburb of Helsinki. The band has existed with various members since 1982 and plays from the Finnish, Swedish, and Finnish-Swedish repertoires, including both traditional and original tunes. The name of their second album Kalabaliiki means … well, it’s not in the dictionary. So I asked and fiddler Jussi Suonikko answered: “It means a sort of a chaos or general hassle, for example when you’re in a market square and there are a lot of people and everyone’s yelling and rushing and making noise and so on.”
Seven of the twenty tracks are tunes from the Vantaa area, interpreted from century old transcriptions. Despite the title, Spelarit is far from a chaotic band, and the album title better suggests the band and dancers energetically rushing around having a great time. The album also moves at a fair clip, with the sound always changing within the bounds of context. With all these instruments – a couple of fiddles, mandolin, accordion, harmonium, moraharpa (the oldest form of nyckelharpa), double bass – Spelarit’s sound is full and sometimes complex, with the fiddles and their JPP sound usually leading the often Swedish influenced tunes. Here are polkas, polskas, schottisches, waltzes, a polonaise, a springleik, and a few miscellaneous items, played with elegance and sparkle, tradition enhanced by contemporary influences.
Accordionist Jari Komulainen is responsible for composing the odder tunes, which not surprisingly feature Komulainen’s five row. His “Silimissa” is an urbane tune with some contemporary influences; “Kalabaliikki” is goofier and explains how the chaos title came about. The other tunes have the fine touch of uniqueness, even though they may be traditional. “Futter Petters Vals” is an odd, primitive combination of guitar and what sounds like scratchy fiddle. The melody of the traditional “Kaksi Poskaa Oskar Lindforsilta” (“Two Polskas from Oskar Lindfors”) is played on the bagpipe. The traditional Finnish minor key “Metsapellon Polkka” (“Forest-field Polka,”) has an introduction that could begin a klezmer tune. Other tracks, especially the ones from Vantaa, seem to be arranged as normal dance tunes, but often have little twists or characteristic underlying rhythms or foot taps, something to make each little tune unique and a little spicy.
Tradivaara is from the Finnish province of Kymenlaakso in the extreme southeast of Finland, along the path that Russian tourists travel for disco weekends in Helsinki. The five-member Tradivaara is a young band and has been together five years. Keikki Soittaa, which means “Everybody Plays,” luckily translated in the liner notes, is their first album. In this case, “Everybody Plays” fiddle, kantele, harmonium, accordion, bass, mandolin, and guitar. The smooth fiddle prevails on this album too, but the less eloquent harmonium plays a greater role than the accordion.
Tradivaara’s roots are in “… Finnish fiddle music and local traditions.” Here you will find the polskas, polkas, schottishes and waltzes, as well as kadrilles, a march and a hambo. Though there are a few traditionals, the majority of the dance tunes were written by members of Tradivaara: mandolinist Petri Syrjanen, harmonium player Aki Hietala, fiddler Eero Kupias. What a surprise to listeners who don’t look at the liner notes! The compositions usually do follow the tradition quite well. The tunes show not only a heavy influence from Finnish (and hence Swedish) fiddle tunes, but also classical music, which may be how they picked the name Tradivaara. Some tunes seem to be co-authored by Bach, and often they seem measured and a little stiff. At other times, they show more abstract or jazz-like influences.
Besides the tunes, Tradivaara sings a couple songs. One is “Voi Kun Ma Saisin” or “If Only I Could.” The calmly danceable melody was composed by Syrjanen to accompany traditional lyrics and like many Finnish folk songs it is sung in simple, childlike style. It’s supposed to be about longing, but I can’t catch enough words to decide if the subject really is a child (though the phrase “Papa ja Mama” should be a giveaway!). Of the tunes, the first, “Gronlundin Kustaan Polkka,” (“Kustaaa Gronlund’s Polka) dating from around 1900, is as good as any and captures the joy of dancing. “Revontulihambo” (“Hambo Of the Northern Lights”) provides a good chance to hear Susanna Apo-Syrjanen’s kantele, at least before it is overpowered by more recently introduced instruments.
If I had a choice of bands, Spelarit would win hands down. The skill level is higher, the sound is richer, and they are more inventive. But Tradivaara has a stately charm all its own. In my life, there is way too little Finnish dance music, so comparing the albums is like comparing diamonds and gold.