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root salad f20 Sommelo Festival

The home of the Finnish epic the Kalevala is now in a Russian republic. Andrew Cronshaw goes scouting.


ur driver slows to let a mother elk and her slightly less enormous, velvety calf amble across the road. Europe’s moose is a Nordic icon, starring as a silhouette on the signs that remind drivers of its lack of road sense, but a sighting is a special event.

The coach carries a bunch of Finnish folk musicians, ethnomusicologists and interested others on an excursion from Sommelo festival. This little folk festival, which after some precursor events has been running for five years under that name, is centred at the quiet lakeside town of Kuhmo in Kainuu, just to the north of North Karelia in eastern Finland. As its courses, seminars and concerts are coming to an end, a kind of field trip is organised over the nearby Russian border into Viena Karelia, the northern part of what is now the Russian Republic of Karelia. There in the early 19th century physician Elias Lön- nrot collected runo-songs that he wove together to make the wandering thread of a magical-heroic story that became his book Kalevala. Lauded as a national epic, it filled a void as a focus for Finnish nation- building and triggered the romantic Kare- lianism that imbued the work of artists and musicians including Sibelius.

The group of villages where Lönnrot did most of his collecting have not had a romantic time; they suffered destruction and the heavy-handed throwing up of the ugly concrete blocks of collectivisation in Soviet times. But some of the old ways, including the Karelian language (the east- ern Finnish dialect on which modern Finnish is largely based) and a few wooden build- ings survive, and they have become known as ‘the folklore villages’, with the district of Uhtua renamed Kalevala. (That word actu-

ally only appears once in the 34 fat volumes of some 100,000 runo-song verses collected, not just by Lönnrot but others before and since, on both sides of today’s border.)

Until late in the Soviet era they were inaccessible from the West, and even Rus- sians needed permits, but now, with a pricey Russian visa and after a series of bor- der checks, it’s possible to get there. Not exactly easy, though; driving to Uhtua from the border involves a pothole-vigilant crawl along 200 km of unsurfaced road. It’s hardly worth putting tarmac on these roads; there’s very little traffic to justify the expense of repairing them after the ravages of the winter’s minus 30 degree frosts. They pass through dark green taiga, the conifer and birch forest that stretches thousands of miles eastward, here punctuated by serene lakes and wooden-bridged rivers but with few signs of non-forestry agriculture and a disturbing near-absence of the wildflowers and birds that are still enlivening the Finnish side of the border at this time of year. It’s the beginning of July, just after midsummer, and the temperature is plus 30.

Once checked into Uhtua’s little hotel, the Kalevalaically-named Sampo, we walk to the arts centre’s theatre-hall for a chas- tushka competition. Chastushkas, popular across Russia but now largely among babushkas – mature ladies – are comic and satirical songs, each a single four-line verse with a rhyme scheme of either ABAB or ABCB and, usually with a four-footed trochaic meter akin to the old runo-songs but not telling stories and with a wider variety and compass of melodies. After songs by a costumed choir of local ladies, the contestants line up, wearing num- bered badges. The several phases of the competition cover originality and humor-

Uhtua ladies sing at Haikola; the chastushka champ is 3rd from right

ousness, quality of singing, and finally a speed round where they have to cram as many chastushkas into a minute as they can. Each is accompanied by an accordeon- ist. A jury, including a couple of singers from among the Finnish visitors, sits in the front row with numbered scoring paddles. Even without understanding the language – some still speak Karelian here and so understand Finnish, but this was in Russian – it’s well entertaining. Many of the killer lines came from a little old lady at the end of the row whose face in repose was blank but snapped into wicked characterfulness when it was her turn.


Such events are encouraged and sup- ported by Sommelo festival and Juminkeko, Kuhmo’s Kalevala centre, and between them and their contacts on the Russian side they organised our trip into Viena Karelia.

fter the show, in the Kalevala- mural-decorated foyer, audience, chastushka competitors and Finnish visitors united in dancing to fiddler Esko Järvelä and guitarist Tuomas Logrén, and the dance-partying continued that evening in a shed-bar on a jetty into the lake, with a golden moment when a sudden rainstorm thundered deafeningly onto the tin roof and Jouhiorkesteri’s Rauno Nieminen, Pekko Käppi and Salla Seppä struck up with lively three-jouhikko dance tunes and spontaneous chain-dancing broke out.

The next day brought a music-playing, swimming and smoke-sauna trip further east to Haikola, where Juminkeko is help- ing to rebuild old wooden houses to evoke some of the atmosphere of the days when Lönnrot was doing his runolaulu collecting.

The destructiveness of Soviet rule, and inevitable changes in society, mean there’s not much of the old way of story-singing tradition left now, on either side of the border. One elderly runo-singer still lives in Kuhmo, and he has taken part in earlier Sommelo festivals but is now pretty infirm. These days it’s mostly city-educated Finnish revival singers who carry on the art. Taito Hoffrén, Sommelo festival artistic director and owner of Ääniä records, is one of the best of these, his resonant baritone unit- ing the old narrative style with a present- day sensitivity and reflectiveness, and one of the most evocative Sommelo events was his performance in Kuhmo’s lakeside par- sonage with Arja Kastinen. Her playing of old-style small kanteles unites the present with the old ways of north European folk culture, in which a quiet wooden house was animated by the ringing, overlapping, endless improvisation of someone not per- forming tunes, just making music. F

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