Vieux Farka Toure

Värttinä

Classy and commercial survivors of the Finnish folk scene ... exquisite three-part female harmony vocals

Sunday 10th December 2017, 7.30pm

The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield

Snow in December? Some members of the audience may not have been able to get there from the remote reaches of outer Sheffield ... but the band managed to ... eventually. And what an evening!  Celia Mather captures it all.
Unfortunately we have no pics of this gig ...
if you happen to have been there with a camera, we'd be delighted to hear from you!

TalkingGig with Värttinä, Sheffield, 10 December 2017

by Celia Mather

 

Would they make it or not? Their plane was delayed by seven hours in Dublin. There were taxi problems at East Midlands airport. And it was snowing - although maybe that's appropriate for a group of musicians from Finland. Anyway, they did make it to Sheffield. The three women who make up Värttinä endured a quick turnaround (without a proper meal), and then there they were, on stage at the HUBS. Such professionals, and what a delightful, amazing trio.

 

This, the 30th TalkingGig, was another sell-out, though there were a few vacant seats, presumably because of the weather. It later became clear that there were some long-time fans present, from as far away as Birmingham and Hull. From the sales of CDs and books afterwards, we could see how much Värttinä was appreciated.

 

They opened with a very old song, recorded on the group's first album in 1983. As they told their interviewer Liz Searle, Värttinä was set up by the mother of one of them, Mari Kaasinen. Living in a village in the Karelia region of eastern Finland, she was very keen on traditional poetry and the 'kantele', a Finnish harp played horizontally. Almost all the village girls wanted to join, and the group started off with fifteen girls and six boys. It has gone through many incarnations since then.

 

The three women who comprise it today, Mari plus Susan Aho and Karoliina Kantelinen, have incredibly compatible voices that meld beautifully, veering off into close harmonies before coming together again, sometimes with monotones behind, plus 'heys' and 'oys' and 'achs'. They range across various traditional styles from their region of Karelia, including 'yoik', a form of singing or chanting from Viena Karelia across the border in Russia.

 

Plus they play a wide variety of instruments. The kantele they had with them had just ten strings, easier to travel with than the forty-string version, they said. Similarly, they had a lighter version of the accordion, though this one was specially decorated with 'bling' to reflect the Northern Lights. Apparently, the accordion - with buttons rather than a keyboard - is seen as Finland's national instrument. Their other instruments included a Sami drum and bone set made from reindeer, a 'bodhran' style drum, and various pipes and bells. Some were 'traditional' acoustic, while others were 'modernised' electronic. They also brought some traditional embroidered shawls to decorate the stage.

 

Their second song was 'Lothlorien', which they had composed for the 'Lord of the Rings' musical. Orchestrator Chris Nightingale had told them he needed another song by the next morning and, though very tired, they improvised with a video camera in their hotel room and came up with this in just ten minutes. It has extraordinarily close harmonies, expressing something very wistful and magical.

 

More recently, they have been involved in a musical celebration of the 100th anniversary of Finland's independence, working with the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. The main organiser wanted to include traditional Finnish music, which Värttinä is well-known for at home, as well as involve more women, and so of course they fitted the bill. He picked three songs from their latest CD and created a scene out of them. They said it was their first such experience, and somewhat challenging to fit their traditional style with classical. They sang us a verse from one of those songs, again with close harmonies, plus now a very forthright style. Apparently, Värttinä is famous at home for being 'louder and higher'. As we'd hear again later, they can be beautifully assertive, as well as funny.

 

Many of the women from whom they learnt their music have now passed away. In 2015, they made a trip across the border to Viena Karelia, in preparation for their latest CD. There they met up with several elderly women singers, including a special one whom they regard as a mentor. "It meant a lot to her that we were there, and for us that she could sing to us. We are the generation doing the revival. For us, it is important to keep the Karelian style alive." In answer to a question from the audience, they also said there are many good young Finnish folk musicians, mixing it with hip-hop, rap and beatbox. Finland has a very high level of folk music education at university level, they added.

 

They started off the second half with a very strong, forthright 'welcoming' song, with many key changes. The next was an old song, with two on kanteles and one on accordion. For the third, they were back to a relatively new one - about girls who just want to dance and have fun - with plenty of 'hehs' and 'yohs'!

 

Next came a very old song: a gentle, wistful one about longing for home while in the land of strangers. This, they said, resonated for them because they tour so much. The one after that opened with a flute and a quiet, breathy solo. As they moved into their glorious harmonies and pumped up the volume, they accompanied themselves with drum and shaken bells.

 

They introduced the next with "You know when you get older and the body is not so young, you don't have so much energy. Well, this song is against all that pain and troubles. After it, we will all feel young and fresh again". And off they went, with very strong voices, plus accordion, kantele, recorder, and smiles, energising the lot of us.

 

Then back to love again: "If you feel something in your body burning, it's just normal", with fast lyrics, accordion and lute, all in perfect time with each other. But then came the downer. "When you have found your love, get married and live together, things change: all you do is the washing." It was a new song, in acapella, going through all the stages of washing, wringing out, and hanging up to dry!

 

Now they turned to the audience, to check out for any handsome guys, they said. They asked whether we have the same problem as they do in Finland, where handsome men are seen as 'käppee' i.e. dumb (as blond women can be here...). "Oh well, you can't get everything you wish for", was their comment. It was another acapella song, almost rapping at one point, while they humorously kept scanning the audience, and ending with an 'ach'.

 

We then were treated to a song about three drunken women which they had learnt from British folk singer Eliza Carthy. They'd collaborated with her in 2016, and joined her at WOMAD in 2017 as a surprise to the audience. "But we sing it Karelian style", they added. The final number and then the encore were full of life, with their amazing vocal harmonies, key changes, accordion, and assertive foot-stamping, met with thunderous applause.

 

After almost all the audience had left and we were clearing up, a young couple approached the stage. The man had been a fan for some twenty years, and he mentioned his favourite song. Despite the long day they had gone through, they broke out into an impromptu rendition of it for him, and he left just a tad tearful.