An earlier column looked at Finland, where the song Finland  by the Redwoods seemed to me to capture the feeling of the country that I had experienced, the sense of dark forests and lakes and of space and melancholy. I am also aware, however, that this is a partial view. It is partly a town/country difference. In my first visit there, going from Karjaa, a largely Swedish-speaking settlement on the south coast, to Helsinki seemed like going to another country: Helsinki has its own character - as capitals always do – with its modernist architecture and a feel of a Russian city at times. Yet it is more than that. Out in the sticks you might fondly imagine coming across a group of villagers dancing the  Humppa to the sound of an accordion but are as likely to see a death metal group playing Inside the Labyrinth of Depression or something like that.

I recently spent  some days at a conference  in Suonenjoki, a  small town in eastern Finland most noted for a summer strawberry festival. The seasons were on the cusp between winter and spring, with lakes still frozen enough to walk –and in some cases drive – on but starting to thaw at the edges and there was a sense that  everything would suddenly burst into life. In many ways it was the Finland of the song mentioned above. Standing looking across the frozen lake a short walk from the accommodation, the forest circling round like a besieging army , there was  a silence and stillness rarely experienced in England.

This side of Finland  seemed present too at a formal dinner given by the Finnish hosts, at which the musical accompaniment was by two men playing an accordion and a musical saw. (The musical saw came up previously in the Wonderful Land column, which prompted a comment from the wonderfully named Saw Lady of New York.) I had never seen the musical saw used as a lead instrument before and it was pretty impressive, though it did get a bit difficult distinguishing the British, Czech, Irish, Polish and Finnish national anthems when played on a saw end to end. The Finns there had also come in national costume, which actually seemed quite natural but raised an interesting question –what would English national costume be? Morris dancing garb? Pearlie King and Queen? Bowler hat and pinstripes? Shorts, sandals and socks and a carrier bag of crisps and cheese sandwiches?  It seems the same problem as the issue of English  nationalism and song  discussed in the  Waverley Steps column.

Yet even out here the accordion/national costume stuff  is only one side of it. Travelling there the landscape often looked like what I imagine the Mid-West of America to look like – long straight roads lined by woods, giant billboards advertising Coca Cola and McDonalds, small settlements strung along the route with a pizza place and one bar where a couple of locals sat silent and morose with their beers. Karaoke seemed big, though taken seriously. In the nearest big town, Kuopio, there were concert ads for the outfit Before the Dawn, described as “Dark Metal with a bit of an early Gothenburg air”.

This odd dichotomy can also be seen in another institution that has  cropped up before, the Eurovision Song Contest. Finland have been a contest regular since 1961 but have seen more than their fair share of nul points, no doubt handicapped in those decades when contestants had to sing in their own language: Finnish seems to have particularly long words in it. Still, who can forget such entries as Tipi-tii (1962), Pump-Pump (1976) or, indeed, Reggae OK (1981): Reggae like it used to be, with a Rod Stewart haircut and – yahoo - an accordion solo. The point in this digression is that the sole time in 52 years that Finland won was not with some sort of country folk song but with Hard Rock Hallelujah by heavy metal group Lordi dressed as monsters.

The two songs here reflect in their ways these different aspects.  They are both called Helsinki (or HKI), though the first  - Helsinki by American duo Damon and Naomi from 2011 -  sounds more like the Finland of lakes and dark forests than Helsinki. There is a dreamlike quality to it, with a melancholic touch,  that conveys the stillness of the landscape and there is an instrument near the start that sounds rather like a musical saw, though I don’t think it is. The second one is HKI by Gracias from 2010 (thanks to Inkeri  for pointing me to this) : a reminder that Helsinki is a multi-cultural city with a  hip hop and rap scene .Gracias came to Finland from then Zaire at the age of 4 and still remembers the shock of seeing snow for the first time. Yet the track is a homage to the capital :”Helsinki doesn’t get much shouted out…wish you could see that, nice place to be at”. The Helsinki in the video  is a different side to the one usually seen in brochures but at 3.18  the leaves fall just as they do in the woods by the lakes.


La Costa Brava

An earlier column wrote of Andalucia in Southern Spain. It is an evocative name in many ways, of Moorish architecture and olive groves and white villages or of Lorca and the Spanish Civil War. Think of some other areas not so far away, however – the ‘Costas’. Costa Brava, Costa Blanca, Costa del Sol, Costa Dorada. At face value they are simply descriptive terms: the Wild Coast, the White Coast, the  Coast of the Sun, the Golden Coast. To British ears, at least, however, they have become over the last 40 years as shorthand for a particular type of  holiday, involving  sun and getting sunburned on crowded beaches, sangria, cheap hotels,  union jack shorts, British bars and cafes serving chips galore and  British food. The ‘Costa’ notion extends further than the Spanish coast actually, to Ibiza and Tenerife, for example –and even to bungalows overlooking Torbay with twee ‘Costa Packet’ signs on their gate.

The best known pop song about the ‘Costas’, Y Viva Espana by Sylvia  - gracing karaoke machines for evermore - is a fitting accompaniment for the stereotype of the British holidaymaker in Spain: “I’m off to sunny Spain….I’m taking the Costa Brava plane”. It was a hit in 1974 at a time when cheap flights and mass tourism to Spain were well underway, enabling the song to be sung by plane passengers en route to Alicante . A time too when Franco, the fascist dictator of the 1930’s, was still in power and Jack Jones, the British trade union leader and veteran of the International Brigades, urged British tourists to ignore the song and boycott Spain.

 There are other songs in the same vein. There was the 1980 hit by Fantastique, Costa Blanca: “La, la, la, lalala lalala, Enjoy the sun, you forget your sorrow, La, la, la, lalala lalala, hear me say, hear me say, hear me sayayay, La, la, la, lalala lalala”. And there was a 1976 track, Costa Brava, by Peggy March. Her name is best known for the 1963 million seller, I Will Follow Him (itself a remake of Petula Clark’s Chariot) but here she is doing an oompah song in German! Now this is what I call a Costa song. It sounds not dissimilar to Chas 'n Dave’s Margate, which also has a reference to the Costa Brava- “You can keep the Costa Brava and all that palaver”. Maybe  oompah rhythms make everything sound similar though.

However, considering the popularity of the Spanish Costas for the British there are surprisingly few pop  songs about them. Perhaps the Costa Brava et al seem too ordinary and parochial for the reasons given above. The Kinks might have managed a non-mocking song about a holiday there and the Chas 'n Dave song above sees even the Costa Brava as too posh to entertain as a holiday jaunt. However, pop stars on the whole migrated like Tony Blair, as moths to a flame, to the rich and glamorous: it was to the Cote d’Azur that the Stones decamped during their tax exile . Mediterranean resorts meant, not the Costas but the sorts of resorts artfully scattered in the Peter Sarstedt hit, Where Do You Go To My Lovely, with its references to Juan-les-Pines and to the Aga Khan. (Like the film actor Kenneth More, Sarstedt signifies laughter in this song by actually saying ‘Ha Ha Ha.’ I also have a theory that some of his popularity at the time, 1969, came from  looking rather like Tariq Ali, the political activist then on the front page of newspapers leading anti-Vietnam War marches: it gave Sarstedt a bit of street credibility. It went wrong when both parties got confused themselves: Tariq Ali astounded  a committee meeting of the International Marxist Group by a burst of Frozen Orange Juice and Peter Sarstedt perplexed audiences by encoring with The Internationale)

Instead of writing songs about the place, however, pop acts were more likely to retire there when the hits stopped. Over the years you could find , for example, Mike Smith - voice of the Dave Clark 5 - living in southern Spain  or Beaky (of Dave Dee, Dozy etc) running a bar in Marbella or Roy Crewdson (of Freddie and the Dreamers) running a bar in Los Cristianos. You can also find those  who impersonate the names of yesteryear – outfits called The Drifters or Four Tops abound in the bars and clubs. A few years ago there was an act  in one of the Tenerife resorts pretending to be Crispian St Peters  ( 2 UK hits in 1966): there seems a certain lack of ambition here when the person in question was deciding who to impersonate.

The song here from 2007, however, La Costa Brava by American indie outfit Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, gives a whole new perspective and suggests that the ‘Costa Brava’ described above is a specifically British notion. Maybe the USA and other European countries- except Germany - hear the words ‘Costa Brava’ as something different, perhaps as the glamorous stretch of coast of Salvador Dali and Ava Gardner still. It sounds an inviting and interesting place here, a place to find yourself and rejuvenate: “And down by the beach there's a small cafe, where we'll meet Lolo and Pablo and drink Moritz all day. So come on over to St Feliu 'cause it's somewhere I've been and I want to take you there.”

 It doesn’t take too long, of course, to get away from the neon lights and   English breakfasts, for you can hire  a car or take a bus or even just walk a few streets and travel to what seems another place and time. Or you can decide that the Costa Brava you see is a state of mind and find the right eyes to view it