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.