This fall will bring a rare opportunity to witness the ancient, haunting art of Finnish runo singing. Three members of the Tampere-based Uulu Culture Cooperative will be visiting Toronto, and bringing with them a wide variety of traditional instruments, as well as their own musical and historical curiosity.
The tour is called The Sound Of The Forest And Lakes – 160 Years Of Kalevala, and arrives in Toronto on October 16. The event is being hosted by Musideum, a musical instrument store located on the main floor of 401 Richmond – a multi-disciplinary “village-in-a-box” located at Richmond and Spadina.
The tour, as its name suggests, is a celebration of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The Kalevala was created in the mid-1800s by folklore scholar Elias Lönnrot, based on extensive research into the oral tradition of runo [poem] singing that existed in Finland, as well as Estonia and Russian Karelia. The monumental work that arose from his efforts became the inspiration for modern Finnish language and nationalism. In the 20th century, it also caught the attention of J.R.R. Tolkien, who used it as the basis for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien was so enamoured by the Kalevala that he taught himself Finnish in order to read it. Today, the Kalevala has been translated into more than fifty languages.
One of the event’s organizers, Juhana Nyrhinen, explains that in addition to musical performances, the planned lectures and workshops will be delving into the musical tradition related to the Kalevala, as well as its characters.
Pekko Käppi plays the ancient Finnish-Karelian jouhikko – a three-stringed, bowed lyre that produces a tone similar to the hurdy-gurdy. His ethereal vocal style and “dark melodies, grainy drones and primitive rhythm patterns” can be heard on several recordings, including his latest solo effort, Jos Ken Pahoin Uneksii.
Käppi has been studying the jouhikko since 1997, and has performed both solo and with various ensembles and theatre productions. He was initially drawn to the instrument when he discovered one in a builder’s workshop. “It was broken, but I sort of managed to get some sort of sound out of it, and I fell in love,” he explained in a video interview for the website “Architects of Harmonic Rooms” in 2008.
Juhana Nyrhinen will present a “traditional instrument showcase” including wind, string and percussion instruments. The showcase will give audience members the opportunity to try out many of the items themselves, as well as shedding light on the secrets of building ancient instruments.
Nyrhinen, 31, began his musical journey with the guitar. Unlike many guitarists, however, he started to wonder about the origins of the instrument. He began to dig up any information he could find about ancient music and instruments. As he puts it, he “found out how music has evolved from sounds and signals, to scare predators or otherwise attract prey.” Nyrhinen became fascinated with adapting this “primitive habit,” as he calls it, to the modern world.
“The sound attracts me. I can’t stop fancying it, and it only gets me deeper,” he says.
Joonas Keskinenwill host a children’s storytelling workshop entitled Metsän ääni (“sound of the forest”). During the event, “a group of kids are led deep into the forests and stories of Kalevala by storytelling and music.”
Keskinen has a background in ethnomusicology, as well as teaching and conducting workshops for all ages.
The “culture business”
The Uulu Culture Cooperative came together in 2003 and consists of seven members, with more than fifty others making various contributions last year. Its members don’t confine themselves to exploring a narrow, parochial path of Finnish folk music. Their interest extends to many different non-western influences, as well. Nyrhinen finds that these traditions mesh well with Finnish music. “Music somehow seems to be a quite universal phenomenon, so ‘surprising’ connections come up everywhere,” he says. “Joonas spent this summer in China learning erhu [chinese violin] and Chinese music, so I guess something weird and interesting will come out of that eventually.”
In December, some Uulu members plan to travel to Tanzania in order to make a record with the local musicians. Explains Nyrhinen, “The coop members are actually not playing on the album themselves, but taking a portable studio with them to let the Tanzanian musicians get their voices and music heard all around the world.”
Asked to describe the nature of Uulu (which means “force” in ancient Finnish), Nyrhinen says, “we who are in Uulu, commonly own the firm. And we do the decisions together in a democratic way. We basically want to encourage each member’s personal ambitions and support them in all the ways possible.”
“Culture in this case means, that we work in the culture ‘business’, even though it’s not always such a profitable business. We still have lots of ideological interests, which in many cases overrides our ‘business’ interests.”
“Members of our cooperative are experts in various fields of culture. Instrument building is only a part of the activity,” he explains, and gives examples of some of their other pursuits: concerts, lectures, music instruction for various age levels, to name just a few. “We mainly work in the field of music, but we have interests also in many other fields of human behavior ie. culture.”
The Sound Of The Forest And Lakes – 160 Years Of Kalevala promises to be a fascinating event, not just for those interested in Finnish folk music and mythology, but anyone who appreciates the mystery and magic that this ancient art form evokes.
For more information, please visit www.musideum.com.
Celebrating the runo in Toronto