Tina K. Ramnarine: Ilmatar’s Inspirations: Nationalization, Globalization, and the Changing Soundscapes of Finnish Folk Music

Scott Gianelli wrote this review for Green Man Review.

In the Kalevala , Finland’s national epic poem, the air goddess Ilmatar gives birth to Väinämöinen, who sings the Finnish landscape into being. Väinämöinen creates the kantele, and mesmerizes all of creation with his singing and playing, before departing and leaving his instrument behind. Music; therefore, lies at the heart of the most primal elements of Finnish folklore, and as ethnomusicologist Tina K. Ramnarine shows in her highly informative book Ilmatar’s Inspirations , it took on a pivotal role in the development of Finnish national identity. The songs of the Kalevala were embraced by the largely academic Finnish nationalist movement as being a pristine product of the small villages of Finland, unaffected by anything coming from the outside world. Naturally, the truth is not nearly so simple.

Today, more than a hundred fifty years after the Kalevala was first published, Finnish folk music has developed significantly, but as Ramnarine makes clear, some elements remain common. For one thing, Finnish academia continues to actively and aggressively support the folk music of Finland. Most significantly, though, the people creating and performing new Finnish folk music eagerly incorporate new and foreign elements into their music, while continuing to accept the identification of their music as being significantly Finnish. In Ilmatar’s Inspirations , Ramnarine thouroughly examines the historical and contemporary elements of Finnish folk music, often providing lyrics (including her own translations of them) and sheet music, or a description of the musical styles. She augmented her analysis by spending most of 1992 in Finland, meeting and interviewing the new Finnish folk musicians and absorbing as much of the music as she could, and does as good a job of describing the sound as can be done in book form.

Ramnarine begins her introduction by discussing how in the nineteenth century, as Finnish nationalism developed, Finland’s folk music was perceived as the product of the simple folk of poor, rural villages. The purity of the music needed to be both preserved and protected from outside influences at all cost. I couldn’t help thinking that Ramnarine’s portrayal of the movement’s relationship to folk music was a double-edged sword, given the level of condescension in the quotes presented here from urban, educated, classically-trained élites to describe the peasant music. The Finnish nationalist movement started as an academic movement at a time when Finland was a province of first Sweden and later Russia. Elias Lönnrot, a medical doctor by profession, also belonged to a society that intended to establish a Finnish national culture through folklore. He took field trips into Karelia, and decided to tie the various songs he learned there into one great big epic poem. His own intentions are made clear in the first rune of the Kalevala , where he writes “I will sing the people’s legends, and the ballads of the nation.” Meanwhile, as the nationalists in the cities promoted the purity of the folk music, the fiddle had replaced the Finnish kantele as the folk instrument of choice in the villages, and groups of pelimanni played dance tunes much like those in the rest of northern Europe.

Interest in the folklore dwindled as Finnish political aspirations were fulfilled, and people began to migrate from rural areas to the cities. “During this period,” Ramnarine writes, “folk song traditions, which were already dying out at the time when nineteenth-century folklorists were collecting their material, continued to diminish.” And yet, somehow, these traditions survived, but the people who kept these traditions afloat for over a century despite being off the radar of mainstream Finnish consciousness are not acknowledged by Ramnarine in this book. Instead, she abruptly jumps to Kaustinen in 1968, when Finland’s largest folk festival was established. Like the Kalevala , the establishment of the Kaustinen folk festival had political motivations, in this case to promote the region of Ostrobothnia in which Kaustinen lies. The festival established the pelimanni fiddling tradition, exhibited most clearly by Konsta Jyhlä at the time and by the band JPP today, as the most recognized element of Finnish folk music. In addition, folklorists played a role in putting the festival together, and in spreading the revival to the rest of Finland and to other Finnish traditions.

Unlike in the past, contemporary Finnish folk music has a major urban center, in the form of the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki. Many prominent folk musicians from across Finland have converged at the Academy, influencing each other’s music and themselves becoming influenced by the urban experience of the national capital. The immigrant experience in Finland has brought foreign elements like Cuban drumming and the Senegalese kora into Finnish music, and the Academy has courses on foreign styles and does not discourage their incorporation into Finnish folk music.

After discussing the general folk music scene in Helsinki, Ramnarine devotes a chapter to the band Värttinä. Despite having roots in Karelia and embracing the same song styles that shaped the Kalevala , Värttinä are based in Helsinki, and many of its past and present members have studied at the Sibelius Academy. In addition, Värttinä’s sound is shaped by multiple influences from outside Finland, including Balkan folk music, jazz, and rock. Still, the band presents itself, and is seen by the public, as a purveyor of specifically Finnish music. Värttinä founder Sari Kaasinen, in an interview with Ramnarine, rejects the notion of folk music as something constant: “That is how folk music lives, it changes, it goes forward with people, it changes with people.” A significant political element in Värttinä’s music comes from their reinterpretation of traditional folk song themes in a way that empowers women and challenges traditional gender roles.

The cosmopolitan influences that have infiltrated new Finnish folk music in Helsinki have reached villages like Kaustinen, where the whole village participates in the annual festival. Folk music remains prominent in Kaustinen the rest of the year as well, on account of its Folk Music Institute. Plenty of non-Finns come to Kaustinen to study folk music, and the selection of courses includes folk music from other places and cultures. The Folk Music Institute differs from the Sibelius Academy in that it welcomes amateur musicians, while the Sibelius Academy aims to groom professionals. The theme of the 1992 Kaustinen Festival, which Ramnarine attended, was “Roots in Finland.” The performances featured ethnic Finns from other countries, like the American Eric Peltoniemi, often performing together with prominent Finnish folk musicians.

The pelimanni tradition of instrumental playing has developed over several centuries, featuring several instruments in addition to the fiddle, and incorporating many tune styles that have entered Finland from elsewhere. For several generations, traditional fiddling in Kaustinen has been dominated by a handful of families. One of these families, the Järvelä family, is currently well represented by the new folk group JPP. JPP composes many of its own tunes, and caters a number of styles, including the Finnish tango, to its own needs.

Ramnarine concludes the book by placing new Finnish folk music in the broader context of “world music,” starting with with the impact of minority cultures in and around Finland on the new Finnish folk scene. Music from the Russian part of Karelia has gained a following among Finnish Karelians, in addition to the musicians studying at the Sibelius Academy. Saami music from Lapland, most notably the improvisational singing called joiking, has gained a foothold in Helsinki. Senegalese immigrants have brought their music to Helsinki as well, and several have collaborated with Finnish folk musicians. The Argentine tango has become a staple in Finnish music, and a thriving scene for Irish music exists in the capital. Still, folk music continues to be seen as essential to maintaining a Finnish national identity; the music is encouraged and well-funded by the government, and is promoted as Finnish regardless of what external forces influence and shape it.

In Ilmatar’s Inspirations , Ramnarine makes a convincing argument that despite any images of Finnish folk music as being a pure, undiluted product of the nation’s villages and rural areas, the people who make this music are happily open to external sources of inspiration. Indeed, the musicians themselves, while promoting the “Finnishness” of their music, don’t seem to be preoccupied so much with what element of their sound comes from where, but how to make their music better. They firmly believe that music should never stagnate, and that a good musical idea should not be dismissed because of where it came from. They are quite matter-of-fact about embracing change; as JPP’s Arto Järvelä beautifully and simply put it, “before it was like that, and now it is like this.”

Having listened to a lot of Finnish folk music myself, and owning several CD’s each of Värttinä and JPP, I would never have argued with Ramnarine’s central theme, nor do I doubt that this embrace of the external by new Finnish folk musicians is a good thing. Indeed, I cannot imagine that there is any contemporary folk or “world” music across the globe that is absolutely unique to a particular region. Purists of all stripes abound in the world, though, and I suppose that it is important to periodically keep these people in check with a dose of reality. I’m reminded of the critics (American, not South African) who accused Paul Simon of committing “cultural rape” when Graceland came out, even though it was blatantly obvious that the “township jive” music that inspired Simon had itself been influenced by rock and roll. My biggest criticism of Ilmatar’s Inspirations is with Ramnarine’s dry, academic writing style; objectivity has its place, but Ramnarine’s writing is too dispassionate to do justice to her subject matter. She must like new Finnish folk music a great deal to have put this much effort into her book, but evidence of her passion for the music does not emerge in her writing. I also think she should have added a chapter on why the music sometimes generates strong positive responses from foreign listeners who have no ties to Finland or any sense of the history of the people or their music. Perhaps, though, that would be the subject of a whole other book.

(University of Chicago Press, 2003)

Leave a Reply