Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honors and celebrates the PIONEERS of Finnish music export. These are the bands, artists and musicians who went out to the world with little help and knowledge of how the international music business works – and still managed to find audiences for their magnificent art. On the 4th chapter of the series, we focus on Värttinä, by far the most successful and internationally acclaimed Finnish world music ensemble, turning forty next year.
Known for their powerful female voices, Värttinä has had its share of insane touring, personnel changes and inner turmoil, but after all these decades the band feels as energetic and inspired as ever. “You ain’t seen nothing yet”, the lead vocal trio of Mari Kaasinen, Susan Venhovaara and Karoliina Kantelinen assure.
Mari Kaasinen was twelve when she and her sister Sari founded Värttinä in Rääkkylä, a small municipality in Northern Karelia with a few thousand inhabitants. The year was 1983. Twelve studio albums and a handful of line-up changes later, she has spent almost four fifths of her life with the band and remained as the sole constant founding member. "It has been one heck of a marriage," she laughs. "Of course I could have never imagined that my path with Värttinä would have been this long. It started as a hobby among local young folks back in the day."
That “hobby” has more or less determined Kaasinen’s whole life. It has given her a domestic platinum record, years and years of relentless touring around the world, a show for an audience of 100 000 people on the Rock in Rio festival, an extremely dedicated global fan base and an opportunity to compose a musical together with A. R. Rahman, the Oscar-winning (from the movie Slumdog Millionaire) soundtrack composer. Among other things. "To be frank, I’ve never really thought about the fact that it has really been forty years! We’ve just gone with the flow. Already in our teens we did some mad gigging and suddenly it got serious. Around our debut album in 1987 we already felt like professionals."
Then one thing led to another, she recalls. The real breakthrough was their third album, "Oi Dai", which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. The album turned the band into an domestic household name: suddenly a folk music group outsold rock venues, played a handful of rock festivals and were praised by every other media representative. Oi Dai ended up selling over 55 thousand copies, making it a platinum selling record and one of the best selling Finnish folk music albums of all time.
From National Heroes to World Music Heavyweights
So the big question is, how did all this happen? "The time must have been favorable to us," Kaasinen says. "In the turn of the 90s we had moved to Helsinki to study at the Sibelius Academy. We got some “rock dudes” to play with us, and maybe that was something new and different. Nobody had ever seen a band where five young ladies were singing folk songs in such a way with such a band. The girls were in the front, the boys were in the back!" As a matter of fact, Värttinä’s sudden grace wasn’t a complete anomaly. During the Finnish folk music revival in the late 1960’s a group called Kaustisen Purppuripelimannit (naturally hailing from Kaustinen, the folk music capital of Finland) led by the master “pelimanni” (ie. traditional musician) Konsta Jylhä did the same trick: a group of traditional fiddlers became a national phenomenon and performed on rock stages around the country, such as the Ruisrock festival in 1970. Still Värttinä was different. Even though they were inspired by traditional tunes, the band had a clear pop sensibility. "Oi Dai" was partly crafted by people who had got their accolades in the world of rock: it was produced by the respected guitarist-composer-engineer Riku Mattila and the band was joined by members of Laika and the Cosmonauts and Kauko Röyhkä & Narttu – both very popular and contemporary domestic rock groups at the time.
Taking just Finland surely wasn’t enough for the band. "The success of "Oi Dai" opened our gates abroad as well," Kaasinen continues. "I’m quite sure that we wouldn’t have been together this long if we hadn’t gone international. As fun as it is to tour Finland, I can assure you, that we’ve had our share of the absolute fringes of our home country." Playing at the WOMAD festival (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in London in 1992 was a game changer for Värttinä. "It turned into a snowball effect: some booking agents saw our gigs and went “wow, what’s this”." After WOMAD the road was cleared. The band went on working as any big international act. For nearly sixteen years straight they released an album nearly every other year for some international label (such as Nonesuch and Peter Gabriel’s Real World) and celebrated it by doing long and intense tours stretching from southeast Asia to the US and to every corner of Europe.
Crafting the Sound
What makes Värttinä so exceptional is their unique sound. Quite quickly it grew further from its Karelian roots into a more sophisticated and varied “world music” sound that crafts different international influences into powerful tunes. At times the songs might be technically challenging and applying insane time signatures, but despite this they manage to sound as catchy as ever. The melodies and the groove matter. Their most striking feature are the vocals, having their roots in Karelian folk singing but dragging influences from Bulgarian choirs as well. "The vocals are for sure the core element of the Värttinä sound," Mari Kaasinen states. "But naturally it has also changed during the years. We’ve had a lot of different singers and different ensembles, but to be honest with you, I think our vocal sound right now is the best we’ve ever had!"
Newfound depth and nuances
Värttinä’s figurehead has been a powerhouse of three vocalists for about two decades. Today it consists of Kaasinen, Susan Venhovaara (formerly Aho) and Karoliina Kantelinen. Venhovaara joined the band in 1997, first as an accordionist and then as full-time vocalist. Kantelinen did her first shows as a fill-in vocalist in 2002–2004 and became a constant member in 2012. "The classic phrase applied to our vocal sound is “korkeelta ja kovvoo”," Venhovaara describes, using the Karelian dialect concept that translates into “high and loud”. "But I think that is just one side of our palette. The real power comes from our dynamic range, that we can also be just as captivating while singing in a softer tone." This more quiet tone was featured especially on the latest Värttinä album "Viena" from 2015. It was built around traditional songs the band had been collecting in Viena or White Sea Karelia a year before. At the same time the album was a homage to the band’s roots. Karoliina Kantelinen elaborates: "Viena" brought a certain depth to our sound. You get speed blindness if you only do it as loud as you can all the time. "Viena" gave us an opportunity to apply a more serene approach to our musical roots. At the same time you can most certainly recognize that distinct Värttinä sound, but with more tones and shades."
A Tricky Situation
In a way the mellow tones of "Viena" also work as a symbol for Värttinä’s contemporary situation. The album was released seven years ago, which is a long gap for a band that was extremely prolific in their heyday. "When I joined the band in 1997, I was immediately taken for a three week European tour! So the most intensive pace has slowed down, that’s for sure," Venhovaara admits. The reasons are arguably human. People have gotten older, people have families, people have other work projects that keep them busy. Värttinä is not the prime source of income for its members. "But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t take care of Värttinä," Kantelinen remarks. The covid-19 pandemic has for sure taken its toll on Värttinä as well. Recurring restrictions and lockdowns have crippled the domestic cultural sector, and many artists have been dissatisfied on how the Finnish government has dealt with the situation for cultural workers. Different cultural funds and trusts have lent their helping hand and provided specific covid grants for suffering artists. Sadly and surprisingly, Värttinä has been on the losing end. "We’ve been applying for all of these corona grants for two years now and gained absolutely nothing," Kantelinen laments. "I guess the grant dealers are thinking that because we are “the great Värttinä”, we wouldn’t need any money. But Värttinä is a profession among others: bluntly put, it doesn’t work without money. And where do you get that money if you don’t have any chances to perform when all the places are closed? When we go to the studio, we want to make it professionally, and making things professionally is costly. "It’s a strange, tricky situation," Kaasinen sums.
Through Difficulties to Victory
Saying that Värttinä would have “mellowed down” in recent years is perhaps a misconception. For instance, the band was involved in Kalevalanmaa, a massive spectacle at the National Opera in the autumn of 2017. "And before covid we made the majority of our yearly shows abroad. Apart from playing as a complete six-piece band we also have our vocal trio we can perform with", Kantelinen says. The band’s current fiscal problems haven’t been the only crisis it has dealt with during the years. They have gone through a myriad of personnel changes which has forced the band to comply with constant change. "For sure we’ve had our share of crises," Venhovaara says. But at the same time those knocks might have even deepened the mutual friendship between the band members and their love for the band. The change has also been a source of energy for them. "There is a strange force in Värttinä," Kaasinen marvels. "The band has shaped our personalities so much that it feels extremely difficult to imagine a life without it. The troubles haven’t made me lose my belief, and I think that is the force that keeps us running no matter what. I can’t even describe how proud I am of this band!" "And the fans, they are so lovely and dedicated," Kantelinen adds.
Celebrating the good times
The band is all up to performing – if just there would appear possibilities to do that. The "Oi Dai" 30th anniversary was rescheduled already once. Now they have shows booked for late February, but just like everyone else, also Värttinä has to wait and see what the pandemic brings. The "Oi Dai" tour will however differ from the band’s basic live set, Kantelinen promises. One distinctive addition is that Sari Kaasinen, who left Värttinä in 1996, will be joining the group for the anniversary shows. Last year Värttinä released a single called Louhi on the Kalevala day, 28th of February, that also features her as a fourth vocalist. "The bottom line is that we are constantly in touch with each other, working fiercely on new music and projects," Kantelinen promises. "And next year Värttinä will turn forty. We have already great plans on how we will celebrate that anniversary," Kaasinen exclaims. "To infinity and beyond – you ain’t seen nothing yet," Kantelinen cheers.
The article has originally been published @ MusicFinland.com, January 2022, a showcase in English for Finnish musical culture since 1985.
Photo Credits / Värttinä: (1),(3)-(5) unknown/website, (2) by The Mollis; Finnish Music Quarterly / Music Finland (unknown/website).