It all started in 1983 in the village of Raakkyla in the Karelia region. The young singers and kantele players Sari and Mari Kaasinen started a project: they intended to recite Karelian poetry. They formed a group of 21 people and were immediately successful. This line-up recorded the first two "Värttinä" cd's: Debut and Musta lindu. In 1990 several members left the group and, together with Janne Lappalainen and Kirsi Kahkonen, Sari and Mari formed a new band. They took a new musical course: they also started using the traditional music of other regions, arranging it into folksongs with a modern touch as we can hear on Oidai, an album breaking new ground. It was this album that made me a Värttinä fan once and for all. I remember hearing it in a small independent record shop in my hometown and being impressed with the unique and, to me, completely new sound. Although Seleniko was their breakthrough in many parts of the world, I consider this album to be a bridge between Oidai and their fourth album Aitara that sounded faster and happier than ever. It would have been easy for "Värttinä" to go on making music in a style similar to that of Oidai, Seleniko and Aitara but they decided otherwise. In 1996 they recorded Kokko, a cd with a sound that was quite different from their previous work. Again, I think this album is a bridge between the "happy" sound of the earlier albums, and the more modern and subtler sound of their next two albums. After recording Kokko first-hour member Sari Kaasinen left the band to concentrate more on her solo work and the band "Sirmakka". Together with "Sirmakka" she recorded a more than average cd in 1996 called Tshi Tshi. "Värttinä" then started work on their biggest project so far: recording Vihma. Paddy Moloney, Yat-kha, JPP and other guests give an extra dimension to the "Värttinä" sound. This cd has a more "popular" sound than the afore-mentioned, but due to overproducing it is not their best one. Last year they released their latest album: Ilmatar. The music sounds fresh again and I consider this to be their best album since Aitara. This new album was a reason for me to call Finland and ask Kari Reiman, the band's violin player, about Ilmatar.
Kari has been a member of "Värttinä" since they recorded Oidai. After the release of Seleniko I was present at their concert in a small theatre in Nijmegen, Holland. After the show I remember seeing them take the posters with their names on it from the walls. When I asked the drummer what the reason for this "theft" was, he answered me that it was the very first time they had seen their names on posters hanging in a foreign town. A lot has changed since that concert, as they are now well-known all over the world. In what way has this influenced the band? Kari: "To be honest, we still take the posters with us after a concert. We like to take them home as souvenirs. However, you are right when saying that a lot has changed since Oidai. That record has made us known throughout Europe and somehow it has forced us to be more professional. Until then we had always played simply and solely for fun. We still do so, but we have learned a great deal and are approaching our music in a more adult way now. Furthermore, our music has developed; on the earlier cd's we used material that had a cheerful sound and the melody was easy to hum along with, even for those not understanding Finnish. Nowadays, our music is much more complex. Partly because we have started using material from an earlier date and also because the traditional songs we now use have a more mystical atmosphere. Apart from that, we are so famous now that we can do what we want. We have the budget to record what we like and that gives us wonderful opportunities."
Going back to what Kari has said about the music they use as a basis for their songs: how do they transform a traditional song into a "Värttinä" song? Kari: "You cannot imagine how much material there is to be found within our culture. I love going through old books for inspiration. I used to browse in secondhand bookshops, but now I also use the Internet a lot to find new material and to order books that were once printed in Russia. It's such a challenge to find a small treasure in one these books and present it to the band. After finding a song or melody we like, we try to figure out what we can do with it. Most of our songs are only partly traditional. We often add parts to a song or take a special chord or refrain we like and build our new song around that basic element. Making a "Värttinä" song can be a long and slow process. The whole group is involved and because there are ten of us you can imagine how much discussion it takes before everyone agrees with the arrangements. Once we tried having only one musician work on a song but we didn't like that at all. We want to have the feeling that the song is a group "project", not an individual one"
I was much surprised to discover that Hughes de Courson had produced the latest "Värttinä" album. He has produced and played with some legendary bands like "Malicorne" and "Kolinda". How did you meet eachother? Kari: "When we started work on Ilmatar, we had five names of producers we would like to work with. A friend of ours just kept on talking about Hughes. He loved the man's work! With his name on our minds we toured Spain and there I found a cd with Flamenco music that impressed us very much. It had been produced by Hughes and we knew that he was the man we wanted to work with. We called him and he visited us in Helsinki. The group and Hughes got on very well together and we started our cooperation. We recorded about twenty songs in the months after meeting him and we kept on sending them to Paris and Hughes would comment on them and send them back to Helsinki. After we had recorded the final versions, he came to Helsinki again and added the finishing touch. When listening to the cd, it will be clear that its sound is very different from our earlier work. For us that is the fun of it! A year ago I wouldn't have been able to tell you what Ilmatar would sound like. We just start working and see what will happen next. That's also the reason I cannot tell you what our next cd will be like; we ourselves don't have any idea yet."
The final song on Ilmatar, Meri, is a song with such a sad atmosphere that it makes you feel very small. They have mixed an old recording from the fifties through the song and that makes it very special. Where do you find such marvelous old recordings? Kari: "To be quite honest, that song still impresses me, too. It has such a great sound. After having finished the song we liked it, but we missed something. We thought it would be a good idea to mix an old recording through the singing of the girls. I searched in the archives of the national radio and when I heard this recording I was thrilled. This was so sad! She sings a song while she is crying but she keeps on singing. I did not know what she was singing about because the crying prevented me from understanding the lyrics. I had to ask permission to use the song and normally that is no problem as it only takes a few days. This song, however, turned out to be Hungarian and it took quite a while before I had obtained permission from Hungary to use it. We were anxious to use this recording on our album and it was worth waiting for because it has turned Meri into a very special song."
The cd is almost a year old now and I consider it to be the second best album of the year 2000. I still listen to "Värttinä's" old and new work quite often. Unfortunately they didn't tour Holland last year but I do hope that they will be performing somewhere in your neighborhood in the near future. If not, get yourself a copy of Ilmatar and enjoy the very special sound of one of Europe's most successful folkbands!
Check their homepage: www.hoedown.com.
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