Q & A with Värttinä's Kari Reiman

by Heather-Rose Ryan (formerly Henderson)
Published in Snowbound, 2002

Beneath the glamorous fire of Värttinä's female voices is the support of a solid band, including Kari Reiman, who has been with the group since 1989. He is one of their primary composers and arrangers, and his fiddle and his tunes are a crucial element in the Värttinä sound.

Tall, craggy, and quiet, he looks at first glance like a man of few words; but as I discovered in this interview, he is highly articulate, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Finnish folk music. We spoke at the Nordic Roots festival and then continued our conversation in e-mail.

Q: What kind of music did you like to listen to when you were growing up?

A: As a very small kid the only thing that I heard was radio, which was switched on most of the time when we were at home. On Sundays it was classical music and on weekdays mostly Finnish popular music, which at that time was tangos, humppa, and melancholy songs. My cousin's family had a record player and they had two or three 78 rpm records one of which was Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." I remember that I did not like it very much. I liked Tapio Rautavaara and other Finnish singers more. In all music I liked the sound of flute and trumpet and I asked my parents to buy me one, but that never happened. For a long time my musical interest took shape only in the school's music lessons. I liked singing a lot. At the age of 15, I woke up musically again when I heard some guys playing guitar and singing at a summer camp. It was mostly American folk music in Finnish, but maybe it was the social part of that experience that had an influence on me. I bought a cheap electric guitar (acoustic guitars were too expensive) for about $30 and started practicing.

My classmates in school were listening to pop music and blues, especially bands like Fleetwood Mac and Canned Heat. So they were my first things to practice. Later on I got interested in progressive music and heavy metal, Gentle Giant, Yes, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, etcetera. That was not a very long period, though. Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, etcetera, and the acoustic sounds were tightening their grip on me. I bought a 5-string banjo without any knowledge of how it should be played and which kind of music should be played on it. So, my interest in bluegrass was because of the instrument, not music at first. At that time I started to get interested in Finnish folk music, too. I guess that happened because of American old-time music -- I was playing in a bluegrass band (banjo) and an old-time band (mandolin) at the same time and our old-time band had a gig at the Kaustinen folk music festival in 1978. I experienced a totally different world there, not just musically different but also the 'spirit' of that world attracted me immediately.

The same year our bluegrass band, Mayflower, won the Finnish Championship of Country Music and the first prize was a trip and some gigs in the USA. We had gigs at Birchmere in Washington, D.C. with J. D. Crowe and the New South, and also in Chelsea Folklore Center in Vermont. That Chelsea gig was the first time I actually performed Finnish folk music -- in addition to the bluegrass set we had a short set of Finnish trad tunes arranged for a bluegrass line-up. Later on, we made two albums and already the second one had only a few bluegrass tracks left. There were Rumanian fiddle tunes, classical a capella songs, and swing and old-time songs. The band literally split musically in the beginning of the '80s. Everybody was interested in different kind of music styles. I got more and more interested in Finnish folk music and I kept on going to Kaustinen every year since then, until a Värttinä tour at the same time forced me to have a break.

Q: What other instruments have you played?

A: I started with that lousy electric guitar, then played mainly banjo for ten years but also mandolin and acoustic guitar. In 1982 I had a vacation in Bulgaria and got there some advice from folk musicians on where to find a tambura. I traveled a few hundred kilometers to the mountains and found Stefan Nentchev, a tambura maker, in a small village called Kotev. We could not understand each other but somehow I finally knew even which four different trees that the tambura that I bought was made of. That was a great experience.

We had just put together a new band called Shandrum, where I played mandolin at that time (French and Celtic music). Now I started to play the tambura in the band. We practiced tunes by Malicorne and Planxty, etcetera.

Q: From bluegrass, French and Celtic music, how did you find your way back to Finnish music?

A: The same year, 1982, we had a gig in Kaustinen with Shandrum and there was a big EBU happening (organized by European Broadcasting Companies) at the festival. That meant having all the best folk music bands in Europe in Kaustinen. People from Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Scotland, Germany, etcetera. That's when I finally got hooked on Finnish folk music and after seeing all these great bands performing, I realized that it was the style, not the melodies in folk music, that was the most important thing. Many of these great bands played melodies that were very similar to Finnish music, but sounded much more interesting, because of the style. I decided to start practicing the fiddle and create a style of my own for Finnish fiddle music and then organize a band to perform that 'different style'. Remember, at that time we did not have many different fiddle bands, stylewise -- not even JPP.

I began to make the plan come true. I practiced all European fiddle styles that I found interesting and which I felt close to 'my own'. I kind of collected tools for my own style which, I believed, would emerge automatically from all these influences after a while. The fiddler in Shandrum was my closest contact to any fiddle player and I started to copy and learn from him. In 1984 there was a play in a theatre in Helsinki called Richard's Corkleg, by Brendan Behan. Shandrum made and performed the music and songs for that play. A record company wanted to release an album of that music but they wanted the band to have a Finnish name instead of Shandrum. So we picked Korkkijalka (corkleg).

A while after that, the band got new members and we met with Harry Bent, a Dubliner who was studying architecture in Helsinki. The band suddenly had a huge number of gigs. I think we were the only active Irish band in Finland at that time and there seemed to be a big need for Irish music around. My idea for founding the Finnish instrumental band was postponed for many years -- I was playing Irish music all the time. We made three albums and even had some radio hits. At first we did traditional Irish songs and instrumentals and copied bands like De Danann, the Bothy Band and all other famous Irish bands. We also started to write songs of our own -- on the third album more than half of the tracks were original. In 1986, the band decided to organize an Irish Festival in Finland. The first festival consisted only of a few club concert nights in Helsinki and we called De Danann to be the main act. The festival was a huge success and The Finnish-Irish Association has organized it every fall since then. Now it has grown to be one of the biggest Irish festivals in Continental Europe, more than a week long, with concerts all over Finland. This was a good way for me to meet all the great Irish fiddlers that I had admired and to play with them. For example, Kevin Burke began to come to Finland quite often and Korkkijalka made several gigs with two fiddlers together with him. I learned very much from him -- not just Irish fiddling, but music and musicianship in general.

Q: Tell us about Ottopasuuna, the band you were in with Kimmo Pohjonen and Petri Hakala, among others.

A: Korkkijalka was taking most of my time for a long while, but I did not mind, because that was a great time, since I was learning so much. But at the same time I was planning the line-up for the Finnish band and I certainly wanted to have a 2-row accordion in the band. I loved the sound of a clean accordion sound and fiddle together. However, all the accordion players in Finland were playing old Hohners with a maximum tremolo which would kill all the nuances in the music. When I met Kimmo Pohjonen, who had started at Sibelius Academy a while before, I liked his style a lot and persuaded him to buy a different kind of 2-row accordion with no tremolo. He got interested in the idea and we started to practice together all the tunes that I had in mind. I had been browsing a huge number of archives and field recordings and piled up all that I found interesting. The idea was not just to play old Finnish fiddle tunes, but to include all other traditional Finnish material and to play that material with these instruments -- like jouhikko tunes, runo songs, shepherd tunes, kantele tunes, etcetera. Many of those sound very different from polskas and other traditional Finnish fiddle tunes. They are much closer to the ancient "all-around in the world feeling" of music. When listening to shepherd music from anywhere in the world, it sounds much the same. Also there is some Celtic feeling in those traditions. Both derive from a very old time period.

I also asked Kimmo to play a bit differently from the normal Finnish 2-row style, which is normally very staccatoish. I guess that kind of style was the only possibility for the kind of instruments that had been used in Finland for a long time. When we finally could do the songs well enough together, I asked Pertsa (Petri Hakala) from Korkkijalka to play string instruments and Kurt Lindblad, also from Korkkijalka, to play the wind instruments. All these persons are very creative and when we started to practice, new ideas came forth all the time. Kimmo and Kurt started to bring their tunes in the same style to the band. The project was suddenly not just a project. Instead, we started to work like a band.

We did not have very many gigs and I guess the highlight of OP's history is attending the Champlain Valley Festival in Vermont 1992. On that trip we also agreed with Green Linnet that they would release the album in US. That was the first time a Finnish traditional band had released something there and we were happy. Värttinä signed the deal very fast after that. Kimmo, Kurt, Pertsa, and me had a lot to do with other bands and since Ottopasuuna's gigs were rare, the OP-candle's flame was burning quite small. However, we managed to make another album a bit later. This time it was Kimmo who was the main contributor on the album.

At the moment we are not doing anything with the band, but it never broke up officially. Kimmo is busy working with his solo project. Pertsa released a solo album and just released a duo album with Markku Lepistö. I have been busy with Värttinä. I would be surprised if Ottopasuuna would ever make a third album.

Q: How did you get involved with Värttinä?

A: Summer 1989 was a turning point for Värttinä. The kids had grown up and many of them had to move away from Rääkkylä to study. That summer me, Tom Nyman, and Tommi Viksten were having a gig in Kaustinen with our western swing band called Fast Buck Roberts and the Townsquares. Tom and Tommi were also playing rock music and they were already quite famous in Finland. In Kaustinen they immediately fell in love with the Värttinä sound and talked a lot with the girls during the festival. When Värttinä split up the next fall and Sari moved to Helsinki, she started to collect new people to do Värttinä's kind of music. She also asked Sirpa, my wife, and me to join, as well as Tommi and Tom, who had shown their interest in the band. I had been teaching Sari at Sibelius Academy, and she and Sirpa and were good friends. In fact, I was not so keen on Värttinä's music at first, because most of the songs they did at the time were closer to reki songs, not runo songs. On the first album, Oi Dai, there were some tunes that I did not like very much, but when Värttinä's style got closer to runos, I got suddenly very interested.

Q: Could you explain the difference between runo and reki songs?

A: In Finland we have basically two main types of vocal tradition, reki songs and runo songs. Of course there are many others, too, like laments (which represent the oldest vocal tradition), joikus (yoiks), gypsy songs, and so on. Reki songs and runo songs differ from each other in many ways. Runo tradition is much older -- with them the time unit is thousands of years, and with reki songs it's hundreds. Runos are part of our Finno-Ugric cultural history, whereas reki songs came from the West. Runo melodies seldom have more than five different notes, but reki song melodies may use the whole scale and the melody can have big jumps in it. Reki songs usually have an AA-BB structure and the lyrics rhyme in the end of the lines. Runos only have one part which may vary a bit from verse to verse when the singer is improvising the melody. Runo style also has certain rules for the lyrics. The most obvious of these rules is that the lyrics rhyme in the beginning of many words on a line. Even the rhythm is different: reki songs are almost always in 3/4 or 4/4 or some other conventional time signature. Runos are most often in the usual 4/4 and the not-so-usual 5/4, but they can be in any other time signature too. Sometimes they don't have a regular rhythm at all, but the amount of beats per measure changes all the time. A typical reki song by Värttinä is "Miinan laulu" on Oi Dai. The arrangement is not so typical, however, we have added some spices from South Eastern Europe to it. On the same album, "Viikon vaivane" is an example of a runo song.

To me, runo songs are the Forest and reki songs are the Park. Runos give much more room to your imagination, both in the musical and spiritual way. Reki songs represent the known history, like the Park, and their melodies dictate rules for arranging them, like "don't step on the grass." Runo songs are often mystic and wild in rhythm and they contain something that we don't know anything about. The difference in feeling is like the difference in feeling when you tap an old tree in a park or when you tap an ancient, huge tree in a forest. The forest tree has more secrets. In a musical way, because runos have such a few notes, they give much more freedom for arranging them than reki songs, where the melody is often based on western-type chords already. It is much easier to find new ways to arrange runo songs.

Dealing with Finno-Ugric vocal styles was fascinating and I put most of my energy to studying and learning new ways to handle that. Until then, I had basically put my energy into figuring out how to make an instrumental of a runo song. Without Värttinä, I would probably still be working mostly with instrumental music.

Q: How do the members of Värttinä create music collaboratively? Which comes first, the melody or the lyrics?

A: So far, we have always first found or composed the melody for a song. Then the girls rehearse the melody and then the whole band rehearses the song together with the girls. At this stage, we often use any nonsense words that suit the melody. Making the arrangement is a long process, and when the arrangement is ready, someone usually has already finished the lyrics for the song. When making the arrangement, everybody's improvising and trying his/her own way to do the song. We tape-record every different version we get this way and then choose the best one. Then, when the basic approach is ready, we start to work with that and decide on the structure, harmonies and instrumental breaks. It takes months to do it this way but the results are more interesting than just having somebody do the whole arrangement. Usually working in such a 'democratic' way might result in a compromise which nobody is really happy with, but in our case, I don't feel that that has happened very much. To achieve this, everybody must be really open and honest in the rehearsals.

Q: I know that the focus of Värttinä is the vocals, but the all-instrumental set you did during the Nordic Roots festival was really brilliant. People were talking about it long afterwards. Does the band have any plans to do more instrumental tunes on the albums?

A: So far we have had one or two instrumentals on each album, except Vihma which was all vocals. To me, Värttinä is a vocal band and having more than two instrumentals on an album might be too much.

Q: What is the future path for Värttinä? When I talked to them at the festival, Kirsi and Mari said that there might be more solo singing in the future.

A: I guess many band members are a bit bored of the 'chipmunks sound', where everybody is singing all the time, fast and with that high and loud sound. In the beginning the band was performing a lot acoustically and we had no drums. That caused us to play and sing loud and fill all the silent moments in the music (like on Seleniko). Since then our music has changed slowly towards the 'Ilmatar-style', where silence and silent sounds can be elements of the music. That includes solo vocals, among others. In this sense I like the concept of Ilmatar and I don't know if we would like to go further in 'minimalism', but who knows. We usually have some ideas of what the next record should be like, but they have always come out different than we thought. When so many people are involved, many things happen during the process.

Q: Have you considered doing a solo album?

A: Yes, many times. But there always seems to be something more interesting going on. It would be nice to do something just by yourself and see what comes out. But I don't see making a solo album, as such, [as] very important. Making music with other people is more fun, usually. I just started a duo project with Pertsa, but in the end it might be a trio project or a band project, who knows. Like the first Ottopasuuna album might have been my solo project, but it changed to a band project and it was fun. What is a solo album, anyway? Is it an album where you alone play everything, or is it an album where you arrange or compose everything and other people play it? Or just an album you have produced? I've seen all kinds of 'solo albums' between these extremes and one thing I'm sure is that I don't want to make a solo album where I play the fiddle alone. That's not interesting enough. At the moment I'm composing music for a play, Romeo and Juliet, for the Finnish National Theatre. The premiere will be in March 2002. It's a really interesting project and another learning process for me. This project, Värttinä, and the duo project together will again postpone all my plans for making any solo albums, because I see these things as more important and more fun to do.

Q: Värttinä has brought Finnish folk music to the rest of the world -- has the band changed the way that Finnish people view their own music?

A: I guess Finns are now prouder than ever of their music. But Värttinä, JPP, Maria Kalaniemi, etcetera are only a very small part of this. Finnish classical musicians have been rated very highly for a few decades now (Esa-Pekka Salonen and other conductors, many opera singers, etcetera). Last year Darude, Bomfunk MCs, and HIM had a breakthrough in the pop music scene. All achievements in folk music scene are marginal, of course, compared to these, because folk music is such a marginal part of all music. Värttinä's success has not changed folk music's popularity in Finland significantly, I think. Maybe the sales of records in folk music have doubled but when the starting point is almost zero it does not mean very much after all. But a lot has happened in Finnish folk music during the last ten years. Now there are a huge number of very good young bands and skillful musicians. I think the general attitude among folk musicians -- not just in Finland but other countries as well -- has changed. Now their audience is the whole world, not just their own country, like it was ten years ago. That is very encouraging for any folk music band starting out, and gives folk music a much better chance to survive among other musical styles.