Värttinä 25 Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

One of Finland's most popular bands abroad.

Jon Lusk 2009

Now celebrating a quarter century in music, this neo-folk group are an institution at home, and one of Finland's most popular bands abroad. Their music is based on ancient (and sometimes effectively extinct) traditions, mostly from Karelia in the country's east, and they tend to polarise listeners. Despite being relatively well known, they aren't the most
accessible or even typical of Finnish artists, so the novice should definitely try before buying.

Värttinä got limited exposure outside the world music ghetto in 2006 when they collaborated with the Indian composer A.R. Rahman on the music for the stage version of Lord Of The Rings. Perhaps due to the fact that the results showed little evidence of the trademark Värttinä sound, none of that work is
represented on this compilation. Instead, it cherry picks the ten studio albums and one live recording they have released since their eponymous 1987 debut.

The group was founded by sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen in 1983, and has been through many personnel changes on the way to its present line-up of three female singers and six male instrumentalists. The women use a mixture of strident unison and close harmony singing, which can be jarring to non-Finns. On the instrumental side, things are dominated by rapid-fire
accordion, fiddles, drums and various more exotic sounds such as the kantele (a Finnish plucked zither) and nyckelharpa, a Swedish keyed fiddle.

The earlier part of the disc covers more rough-hewn 'trad. arr.' material, and later as both the singing and playing improve, the group start to write their own compositions, with various rock, pop, folk and other influences creeping in. The use of mandolin gives a bluegrass flavour in a number of places, while the wind instruments on Laulutyttö offer hints of
Scandinavia's surprisingly well developed jazz scene, and the whistle on Marilaulu suggests connections with Celtic music.

The ballad Kyla Vuotti Uuta Kuuta builds nicely and allows you to hear the singers individually for the first time as they join in one by one. Aitara is an enthralling a cappella work song that effectively evokes the rhythms of women washing clothes, in the same way that Scottish 'waulking songs' were once used to accompany weavers' work. Kokko is another of the more user-friendly pieces, with some lovely instrumental textures and an agreeable melody.

Having said that, listening to all twenty-two tracks in row might drive even
the most adventurous listeners to distraction. The unusual asymmetrical time
signatures and often hectoring vocal tone of the women (which sometimes
reflects scolding lyrics on songs such as Käppee and Nahkaruoska) does get a
bit overpowering.

If Värttinä's somewhat hardcore music (based on the archaic ‘reki-song’ and
'runo-song' formats) proves hard going, there are – whew! – gentler
introductions to Finnish folk music. These include the pensive accordion of
Maria Kalaniemi, various kantele players, and the more digestible ensemble
music of the excellent Swedish-Finns Gjallarhorn. Suck them and see.

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