Värttinä

They are one of Finland's biggest musical exports but they could hardly be described as typically Finnish. They are, simply, Värttinä: musicians with a unique sound, with their feet firmly rooted in Finnish ground, in its language, culture and history, yet with the courage to develop over nearly two decades, something no-one else in the world has been able to copy.

Värttinä’s devoted and loyal fans all over the world may not all be Finnish speakers but they are intoxicated by the voices of Susan, Mari and Johanna, singers with the stage presence of a Wagnerian soprano, acting out roles from fishwives to lovers, while the guys lure the listeners with beguiling bouzouki, sax, accordion playing to die for, searing drums, guitar and bass.

Driving all this forward is the Finnish language itself, with its unique rhymes and rhythms, and spitting throaty sounds; words that launch themselves into the atmosphere and return several syllables later. Think of the pumping rhythms of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and you’re half way there.

For Värttinä it all began in the Finnish village of Rääkkylä in 1983 when a few mothers and grandmothers encouraged the children to sing and play some of the old songs from the Karelian region. Ancient stories once told with a simple accompaniment on the kantele (the Finnish zither-like instrument) suddenly woke up to find saxes, fiddles and guitars in their midst. This wasn’t important just for the birth of Värttinä but for the revival of Finnish folk music in general.

What emerged though wasn’t a folk band but, eventually, a ten-piece pop/rock style ensemble which established the formula (if you could ever say there was a Värttinä formula!) of female voices at the front, boys at the back! Blessed by the no-nonsense and sometimes shocking lyrics of the ancient traditional sagas of blood, sweat and a lot of tears, the confrontational style of singing and song-writing won the music-world over until the band was propelled into Finnish stardom in 1991 with the album Oi Dai. A lifestyle of international touring took over with WOMAD, Glastonbury and Dranouter festivals in Europe, major US tours, awards for best albums and TV while the music and the albums pummelled the common ground, or even the no-man’s-land between folk, pop rock and jazz.

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