Finland longs for happier songs. An identity crisis?


In a recent survey published by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE, the general public of Finland longs for happier music, especially during the holidays. The country, which often defines itself as the home of Jean Sibelius, the cellphone giant Nokia and the sauna, has also been the host of Europe's longest lasting tango music. The traditional gloomy moods may be an expression of the mere five-hour daylight in the capital Helsinki at winter solstice. But nevertheless, the population of five million has now had enough of their songs in minor, and need "happier music" for their daily lives. Finns have certainly changed in the past fifty years and this would justify a revisit to the expression of the culture, but is the era of pizza, video games and text messaging disconnecting the people from the honest Finnish folk soul?

Today, a younger generation of Finns, as in many other countries, are exposed to its cultural heritage in a far lesser degree than the opportunities of the information technology would allow. The values and interests are based on foreign – often American – TV series, movie stars and infotainment facts as tested in popular quiz programs. Although there is a popular music scene in Finland today, and a general awareness for the Finnish, the quality is far inferior to what it used to be. This young nation first became conscious of its national identity in the mid 19th century, earned its independence in 1917 from Russia, and fought two courageous wars against Soviet Union in the late 1930s and mid 40s. The nation has been able to retain its unique identity largely due to its highly original folk and popular music. But while classical composers and conductors are ceremonially treated flagship-style, quality popular music figures earn comparatively little respect. Not only Jean Sibelius and his famous Finlandia are genuine fathers for a Finnish soul, there are great and vast fields of unexplored alternatives for diversity. Today's possibly most overlooked author is the popular music composer and prominent figure of the Finnish music scene for fifty years, Toivo Kärki. Kärki was a major figure in popularizing Finnish folk dance rhythms, lending his musical ear in order to heal the country's emotional wounds after the traumatic World War II.

Toivo Kärki was born in 1915 and he died in 1992. He was a composer, musician, pianist and producer. Kärki is mainly known as a prolific composer of Finnish tango, a modified version of the famous Argentinian style. He also composed in the Jenkka (pronounced ['yeng-ka]) folk tradition. Although Kärki's original passion was jazz, particularly the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, he transformed his musical preferences to fit his own environment and society. Before realizing in the 1940s what a tremendous need Finland had for quality music, he pursued his ambitions for a career abroad. The 1939 first prize in songwriting from the Rhythm Magazine in London was an opportunity for wider success. His plans to migrate to the United States were dismantled by the Finnish-Soviet Winter War, which changed the course of his life forever. After World War II, Kärki worked as a songwriter but was also the most prominent Finnish music publisher. He used his musicality, knowledge and professionalism to serve the convalescing Finnish audience by providing tunes of the highest quality.

In the 1980s, as Finnish translations of international pop hits were substituted by direct import, the value of Kärki and other prominent artists such as Reino Helismaa, Tapio Rautavaara, Olavi Virta, Kauko Käyhkö and Henry Theel, was unjustly discounted, in favor of foreign language popular culture. In recent years, Finnish jazz groups have tried to revive some of the music. Saxophonist Jukka Perko's Hurmio band, performing music by Virta, and A Lark in the Snowstorm band, performing the music by Kärki are lonesome travelers in the masses of today's cheap pop music figures. Similar to jazz and classical music, the Finnish songwriting tradition is now enjoyed by a fraction of the population, largely as a result of an emotional surrender for the large enterprises' consumption industry. The Finnish cry for "happier music" is therefore an alert of a true need for change, but in contrary to writing faster songs about happier things, the results of this survey ought to call for an involvement with the country's own beautiful songwriting history. Finns now do have a window of opportunity in order to revive the popularity of its own quality music. The music does exist in original as well as revamped formats. The answer may be a thorough reintroduction of the treasures, as opposed to adhering to every international trend out there. History has proven that people with a strong homegrown identity also do well internationally.

Kind: Opinion
Keywords: Culture,Entertainment,Music
Genre: Vocal
Published: Thursday, December 31, 2009

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