Interview with Värttinä’s Mari Kaasinen

Reprinted from Green Man Review. Interview was done in 2003.

In 1983, in the tiny, remote Finnish village of Rääkkylä, young sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen founded a group called Värttinä. Originally created as an outlet for young girls to sing traditional Karelian songs, Värttinä has evolved over the past twenty years to become one of the driving forces in Scandinavian folk music. Mari Kaasinen has seen a great many highly talented performers enter and exit Värttinä during this time, including her sister Sari. Regardless of who plays in the band, however, Värttinä continually produces music of the highest caliber. I recently had the opportunity to ask Mari some questions via e-mail. In this interview, Mari talks a little bit about the history of Värttinä, culminating with the recent release of their tenth album, iki, and some of the influences which have shaped the band’s output over the years. She also explains the meaning of the album title, and describes a couple of her own songwriting contributions to the album; “Syylinen Syli (Faithless Arms)” originated as a choral piece, and “Nahkarouska (Leather Whip)” tells the tale of a wife who takes a rather aggressive stand against her husband’s philandering. Finally, Mari talks about the new contributors to Värttinä’s music, and tries to explain how the band has successfully endured through all the personnel changes in its history.

Scott Gianelli (SG): How and when did Värttinä get started?

Mari Kaasinen (MK): We started in 1983. My mother Pirkko taught my sister Sari and I about old Karelian poems. We started by reading these poems, singing and playing kantele. I was very young, only 12 years old, but I had been singing since age two! Word went round our village of Rääkkylä about our new hobby, and we began to attract our friends. Then we became a small group and called ourselves Värttinä, which means “spindle.” Soon it grew into a large group, including some local boys playing instruments like violin, guitar, and bass for example. At one point we had 21 members!

SG: What was your original intent, or goal, when you and Sari created Värttinä? How has that goal changed over the last twenty years?

MK: At first it was just a fun hobby; music was in our blood. But when we discovered that there was such incredible interest in what we were doing, it began to take up much of our time and became more important to us. We soon realized how special and endangered Karelian culture was, and the hobby became more of a mission to keep the musical tradition alive, from the old songs, poems, and runos to the old women’s stories and songs. It was fascinating for us, and we realized that we had to perform these songs and poems so that they would not disappear. Not long after we got going, we also realized that we could not just perform these songs in the same way as the old women, but we had to make them more contemporary, to inject ourselves and the modern world into the songs and styles. That is the real birth of Värttinä, and our goal ever since. Over the years, our compositions have developed to a point that most of our actual melodies are totally original, although many are still based on traditional themes and melodies. Vocal arrangements are our own as well. Lyrically, we remain very true to old Karelian text styles, stories and dialect. Even though most of our words are our own, we have a deep conviction to express the style of the old poems. Our goal in that way has not changed. But now we also are committed even more to making original and good music, to try not to repeat ourselves, and search for new paths.

SG: How much of a role does folklore play in contemporary Finnish folk music in general, and in Värttinä’s music in particular?

MK: Finnish folklore doesn’t have a huge role in contemporary Finnish music, although it does play a significant part. Several pop, rock, jazz and classical artists have dipped into the folklore well over the years, taking from the Kalevala, for example. Pop singers and classical musicians have used artists like JPP and Maria Kalaniemi on records and in concerts. Värttinä has contributed to albums and concerts by some rock and pop artists. But Värttinä’s music isn’t so much about specifically Finnish folklore. It is more about Karelian tradition, like the Kalevala and Finno-Ugric women’s vocals.

SG: What exactly is the Kalevala, and how has that shaped your music?

MK: The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic, a collection of Karelian poems collected by Elias Lönnrot. The stories, poems, characters and dialect are all vital elements to Värttinä lyrics. There is great beauty and wisdom in these stories and characters. Children in school are forced to read and study Kalevala and unfortunately, some develop an aversion to it after leaving school. It’s a shame, really, because there are so many beautiful things in it. We hope to remind people of that.

SG: What role has the Sibelius Music Academy played in Värttinä’s career?

MK: Almost all of Värttinä’s members have been involved with the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. The department is a very important part of the contemporary folk music scene in Finland, teaching about tradition as well as composition, arranging, improvising, playing multiple instruments and more. It was the perfect place for us to spend time, as it suited our ideas and musical visions perfectly. The Sibelius Academy didn’t have so much to do directly with our career, but it did give us greater opportunities to expand our horizons in more ways.

SG: Aside from Finnish folk music, what do you like to listen to? What performers have been the biggest influence and inspiration to you?

MK: I have always loved Bulgarian and Hungarian music, especially the Bulgarian singers and Marta Sebestyen. But with a group of nine people, I get to hear so much more also.

SG: What does “iki” mean? Where does the title come from, and why was it chosen?

MK: In Finnish, “iki” means “eternal.” In Japanese, it means “breath.” This word suddenly appeared to us after we finished the album, and it fit perfectly. We chose “iki” to mean “the primal, eternal breath.” It completely describes the focus of the album, and in fact the true meaning of the band. The main thing about our music is the voices, and we wanted to present the vocals in a very intimate, naked way with this album. And after twenty years, the vocals are still the main thing in Värttinä. Eternal breath. That is Värttinä.

SG: The lyrics to a number of the songs on the new album are credited to “M. Kaasinen, trad.” From where do you take the traditional portions of your lyrics? Do you generally add a few of your own lines to an existing song, or do you look for a few traditional lines that go with what you’ve written?

MK: Usually what happens is I chance upon a word, phrase or idea from old texts of Kalevala or Kanteletar and get an idea for a new story or song. That is always great fun and a creative challenge: to build something out of a word or phrase and make something new while staying true to the original style, dialect, metre or whatever.

SG: In a few of the new songs, particularly “Tauti” and “Maahinen Neito,” there seems to be a strong Balkan, or perhaps gypsy, influence on the sound. Is the band as a whole deeply interested in Balkan music, or have a few members in particular brought this element into the band?

MK: We all love Balkan music, so that influence has always been a part of our sound. We love the odd rhythms and enjoy performing them live. There is a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension in those songs that we just love.

SG: Who are the Philomela choir? What was it like working with them, and hearing them perform your song “Syylinen Syli”?

MK: Philomela is a group of about thirty female singers. They approached Antto (Varilo, Värttinä’s guitarist) and me to write a song for them about two years ago. We wrote “Syylliinen Syli” for them. They loved it, recorded it and put it on one of their CDs. When it came time to do iki, we decided to try our hand at it. In our 20-Year Anniversary concert in Helsinki last month, it was great to see and hear them perform it on stage as our special guests. By the way, after they sang “Syyllinen Syli,” we three Värttinä singers joined them for “Emoni Ennen” (the last song off of Värttinä’s 1996 album Kokko). That was great fun.

SG: What was the inspiration for “Nahkarouska”?

MK: I just saw that word one day and liked the sound and idea of it. A song just jumped right out! It is maybe the most traditional sounding song in iki, with that repetitious melody and metre in the A part. But the boys made an amazing arrangement of it, it really cooks and I am quite happy with it.

SG: Who is Timo Kiiskinen, and how did he wind up contributing to the lyric-writing on the new album?

MK: Timo is a well respected writer and musician in Finland who happens to be married to Susan Aho (one of the other two singers). Together they wrote some songs.

SG: How have the new members of the band affected Värttinä’s style and sound?

MK: Johanna (Virtanen, the third singer) has a great voice, and her character suits our personalities perfectly. She loves to work, explore and try new things. Lassi (Logren, the fiddler) is from the original band and has amazing skills as a player, picking up melodies and parts very fast. His energy gives the band more power. Bass player Hannu (Rantanen) is also technically brilliant. He can play anything, anytime. Drummer Jaska Lukkarinen is not just a great player, but he has a youthful energy that keeps us on our toes. He is always there anticipating the beat. Altogether, the new members have strengthened Värttinä’s chemistry to an all-time high. Värttinä’s style and sound hasn’t changed so much, but the band’s energy has really broken loose.

SG: What do you think it is about Värttinä that has enabled the band to go from strength to strength in spite of all the personnel changes?

MK: Good question, and I’m not even sure I have the answer. I guess it is the dedication of the band and the organic way we work with composing, arranging and rehearsing our music. It’s a group effort, and it’s always challenging and great fun. We all enjoy finding new melodies, new arrangements, and new ideas, and it never gets old. Also, we love to perform, especially when audiences respond so intensely. One of the best moments of my singing career was in Budapest, I think it was 2001. We had played past the curfew for an audience of about 10,000, and then the festival organizers had to shut off the power because of strict city laws. But the audience wouldn’t leave. So we singers came back out, went to the front of the stage and sang “Aitara” (the closing song and title track to their 1994 album) with no microphones. The first 10 or 20 rows of people were right in front of us singing the words, cheering and jumping, and going bananas! It was incredible, and it reminded me why I love to sing and be with Värttinä. I think when the band gets this kind of charge with audiences, it boosts our energy a lot.

SG: What are Värttinä’s travel plans for the coming year? Will there be any North American shows in the fall?

MK: Back to the Budapest Pepsi Festival for the third time! And yes, we’ll come to North America in November, and also to England, Scotland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Sardinia, Holland, and Belgium.

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