Väarttinä has blended the age-old folk sounds of Finland's Karelia region with modern influences ranging from studio electronics to elements of pop instrumentation, to cross-cultural collaborations with musicians from other traditions. At the center of the group's sound is the virtuoso harmony singing of its female vocalists, applied to lyrics with a perspective that has universalized the experiences of women in a traditional society. Not classifiable either as a folk act or as a feminist one, Väarttinä gained fans around the world during the 1990s and snared the attention of pop fans and musical experimentalists as well as world music devotees.
The group began in the town of Rääkkylä (population 3,500) in Karelia, a chilly region that straddles the Finnish-Russian border well north of the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Its original membership grew out of a high school girls' youth group that had an interest in the traditional poetry of the area. Sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen brought the group together in 1983; Sari played the kantele, a Finnish folk zither, and began to experiment with setting the poems to music, although women in Finnish culture traditionally sang without instrumental accompaniment. The name "Väarttinä" referred to a spindle, the stalk on which thread is wound in a traditional sewing apparatus.
Augmented by other singers and musicians, some of them from the folk music department of the Sibelius Academy music school in Helsinki, Väarttinä grew to become a 20-member choir devoted to traditional Karelian music. The vocalists were all female, although some of the backing musicians were men. With its tight vocal harmonies, the group became something of a Finnish analogue to the highly successful Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria women's choir, which experienced major success in the late 1980s and recorded two albums. In Finland the members of Väarttinä were big fish in a very small pond. And they weren't comfortable with the laid-back performance styles of traditional Finnish music at the time. "If we do something, it has to be fun," Sari Kaasinen told the Boston Herald. "But in Finland, the performance tradition is so poor, so boring. When people are on stage, it looks terrible. It's like they're saying, I'm sorry I'm here, I'm sorry I'm playing, but I'll go away soon."
Väarttinä took its first step toward wider popularity with the album Oi Dai in 1991. In preparation for that release the Kaasinen sisters, along with other core members of the group, cut Väarttinä's membership from 20 to nine or ten, with four (later three) vocalists, and began to recruit instrumentalists with pop backgrounds. A zippy collection of traditional tunes that All Music Guide called "a bracing disc of speed folk," Oi Dai was a sensation in Finland. The album sold about 50,000 copies—one for every hundred Finns—in a country with a population of about five million. Part of the album's success may have been due to the lyrics of the songs Väarttinä selected, some of which had an upfront attitude toward female sexuality.
The buzz over Väarttinä settled down in Finland, where subsequent releases began selling at less stratospheric levels. The Finnish language lyrics were naturally lost on foreign audiences—unlike many other European languages, Finnish is spoken by few non-Finns—but when international disc jockeys and promoters in the burgeoning world music scene began to get wind of Väarttinä's music, the effect was electric.
Word spread fast about Väarttinä's high-energy live shows at such venues as Barcelona, Spain's Expo '92 and at England's WOMAD festival, a focal point for the new genre known as worldbeat, which mixed traditional styles with modern pop. A Väarttinä concert featured onstage dancing, quick-witted interaction with audiences, and rapid-fire singing delivered, in the words of the Australian, "at a speed that would leave even the most hasty of rappers gasping for air."
Väarttinä's album releases of the early 1990s, such as Seleniko (1992) and Aitara (1994), began to notch sales in various European countries, and the group toured the United States three times, doing well in areas of the upper Midwest that had large Finnish populations. The group began to add original songs, many of them by fiddler Kari Reiman, to their repertoire of traditional numbers, and their instrumental palette grew to include Celtic, Eastern European, American, and even African sounds. Though these innovations weren't unique—groups like Ireland's Clannad and Scotland's Capercaillie were experimenting with similar fusions—Väarttinä's powerful and perfectly blended female voices, still very much rooted in Finnish sounds, made their music instantly recognizable.
The high point of Väarttinä's appeal to fashion-forward American musical audiences may have come with the Kokko album of 1996, which marked the group's most decisive move in a pop direction. Signed to the None-such label, known more for experimental music than for folk, Väarttinä benefited from a major marketing effort in the United States that included a push to place the group's music on the sound systems of stores and restaurants. Väarttinä toured widely in the United States (despite the theft of their Finnish accordion from a San Francisco hotel room) and won a CD Review award for Best World Music Album of 1996. "In the new Warner Classic catalog, Väarttinä is listed alongside such artists as Bill Frisell and the Kronos Quartet, not in the world music section," the group's American manager Phillip Page told Billboard, as Väarttinä went from traditional to cutting-edge. "That tells you a lot."
Subsequent Väarttinä releases backed off a bit from high-tech sounds, but each album took its own direction. "Every record we have made has been a complete surprise to me," Reiman told Billboard. The 1998 album Vihma, whose title referred to a specific variety of sleet, brought another American tour and an interview on National Public Radio's All Things Considered program. That album was released on Ireland's Wicklow label, home to the legendary Irish folk band the Chieftains; after Wicklow's demise in 2000, Väarttinä's Ilmatar album was picked up in the United States by Northside, a Minnesota-based independent label devoted to new Scandinavian music.
With constantly evolving personnel but with a core of members intact, Väarttinä marked its 20th anniversary in 2003 with the release of Iki, an album that All Music Guide's Chris Nickson characterized as "very satisfying indeed." He added, "The frantic edge that characterized them for so long has vanished, although their joy in music-making very obviously remains." Songlines magazine named Iki as number 24 on its list of the essential 50 global albums of all time. In late 2003 Väarttinä was signed to collaborate with Indian composer A. R. Rahman on a stage musical version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The most successful musical group ever to come out of Finland has continued to strike out in new directions.
Musta Linda, Olarin, 1989.
Oi Dai, Northside, 1990.
Seleniko, Northside, 1992.
Aitara, Northside, 1994.
Kokko, Nonesuch, 1996.
Vihma, RCA, 1998.
Can We Have Christmas Now?, Northside, 1998.
Ilmatar, Northside, 2001.
Live in Helsinki, Northside, 2002.
For the Record …
Members include Susan Aho , vocals; Mari Kaasinen , vocals; Sari Kaasinen (group member, 1983-1996), vocals; Janne Lappalainen , bouzouki, saxophones; Markku Lepistö , accordion; Lassi Logren , fiddle; Jakko Lukkarainen , percussion; Hannu Rantanen , bass; Antto Varilo , guitars, cü, tambur; Johanna Virtanen , vocals.
Formed in 1983 in Rääkkylä, Finland; grew to include 20 members; released two albums; founding members Mari and Sari Kaasinen reduced size to 10 members and added pop instrumentalists, 1990; released OiDai, 1990; toured Europe and North America; released Kokko, 1995; released Iki, 2003; collaborated on stage version of The Lord of the Rings, 2004.
Awards: CD Review Award, Best World Music Album for Kokko, 1996.
Addresses: Agent—Hoedown/Phillip Page, Laivurinrinne 2, FIN-00120, Helsinki, Finland. Website—Värttinä Official Website: http://www.varttina.com.
Iki, Northside, 2003.
Austin American-Statesman, March 7, 1995, p. 1.
Australian, June 6, 1997, p. 11.
Billboard, January 15, 1994, p. 13; October 5, 1996, p. 1; December 20, 2003.
Boston Herald, February 23, 1995, p. 44.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 10, 1995, p. 3.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 5, 1996.
Washington Post, February 17, 1995, p. N17; April 18, 1997, p. N14.
"Värttinä," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 23, 2004).
Värttinä Official Website, http://www.varttina.com (April 23, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from a feature on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, November 7, 1998.
—James M. Manheim
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