What do we want from folk music, and what do we expect of it?
If we are speaking not of "folk songs" - the poetry and social
commentary of contemporary artists - but of traditional musical genres, we
probably want music that reflects the spirit of those cultures and the
nature of people's lives. But folk music isn't stagnant. Musicians are
driven to express themselves, and most of them, here in the 21st century,
have broader experiences than their forebears who handed the music in a
purer form down to them.
Folk music, then, is as interpretive as any other kind of music. It
lies within the artist or group to determine, or discard, its boundaries.
So you get a David Grisman, who gradually moves away from his bluegrass
roots but uses the same basic acoustic format (mandolin, guitar, fiddle
and bass) to create, as he calls it, "dawg" music. Or you get Lunasa, the
Celtic supergroup from Ireland whose music does not really stray so far
from its sphere, but which imbues its presentation with such drive and
dynamism that it seems to be something new.
These musings are inspired by Sattuma, called "the Karelian folk music
family quartet," which plays traditional music from Karelia, Finland and
Russia. They are neither a Grisman nor a Lunasa, nor any other
"derivative" type of group that would use Karelian ethnic music as a
springboard into today's (or tomorrow's) world. To the contrary, their
music, as presented on their recent self-titled CD, evokes crystal-clear
images of northern-European village folk, celebrating the cyclical rites
of rural, subsistence living. This effect is enhanced by the sounds of
barnyard animals on the album's opening title, "Lalo-Matin Polkka," and
bird songs on the final number, "Loppurallatus." There is a verve and
gaiety to Sattuma's music that is as refreshing as a cool, clean Karelian
brook. It still sounds like dance music, which is the root of most ethnic
This is so even though the two adult members of the "family quartet"
are both former members of Myllärit, the Russian folk band that has
visited Vermont several times since the mid-1990s. Myllärit gave its
audiences several "looks" - at times raucous and traditional, at times
raucous and ready to rock, and at times almost classical in its
But there was one thing Myllärit never was - not with the force of
those personalities! - and that was, quaint. Sattuma can be quaint. And
quaint can be good.
The quartet has been touring elementary schools in Maine and Vermont,
providing a learning experience for the children on both sides of the
microphones. There have also been a few public performances along the way.
On Sunday, Sattuma will perform at the Thetford Hill Congregational
Church. The concert starts at 7 p.m.
Karelia, the northwestern-most province of Russia, spent its history
reverting back and forth between Russian and Finnish control, falling
rather brutally into the Soviet sphere in the 1920s. Karelia's culture is
as much Finnish as Russian, and the dichotomy is reflected on Sattuma's
CD: Some song titles are rendered in the Roman alphabet, and some in the
Cyrillic. Vermonters may recall former Gov. Madeleine Kunin establishing a
"sister state" relationship with Karelia in the 1980s.
The two families represented in Sattuma are from Petrozavodsk, a city
that has had a thriving folk-music culture, thanks largely to the
dedication of a professor at the local university who organized a
traditional dance and music troupe for students, called Toive, in the
1970s. The city is home to a number of artists, both young and graying,
who were influenced by Toive.
Among these are Arto Rinne and Dmitry Demin, formerly of Myllärit, now
of Sattuma. Arto plays accordion and several stringed instruments
(bouzuki, guitar and mandolin), while Dmitry Demin specializes on wind
instruments, mostly clarinet and various flutes (which he makes himself in
a small workshop in Petrozavodsk), as well as Estonian bagpipes and even
The youngsters, 13-year-old Eila Rinne and 10-year-old Vladik Demin,
both primarily play violin and sing. Among them, the four musicians also
play traditional instruments of Karelia such as the kantele and jouhikko.
Returning to the original question: It's interesting to speculate that
the presence of the youngsters, Eila and Vladik, might account for the
more-traditional approach of Sattuma. "Children seem to know better what
and how to play, and often teach their fathers," says Arto Rinne,
Perhaps as musicians they aren't at the point yet of branching out. But
also, as children, they contribute an exuberant freshness that recreates
the family and village connectedness at the heart of the music.
Which is not to say that all Sattuma's songs are of the same ilk. Two
slower songs are perhaps the best performances on their album.
"Kruunu-Marjaanan" is a polka - a lilting, three-quarter-time dance rhythm
found in Scandinavian countries, quite distinct from the polka - and the
penultimate selection on their CD (the title of which contains letters not
found on this keyboard), a haunting ballad that translates, "You I Love
with All My Heart."
"Sattuma" means happenstance, but also means "to hit the mark."
"That explains everything," says Arto Rinne. "We started playing by
chance and we discovered that we enjoy playing together."
Their pleasure is apparent, and infectious.
Sattuma in concert
Sattuma, a family quartet performing traditional Karelian, Finnish and
Russian music, will perform at the Thetford Hill Congregational Church,
Sunday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. Admission is by suggested donation of $10, $5
for 16 and younger; call 333-9598, or go online to: www.projectharmony.org.
By Will Lindner, Music Correspondent
The Times Argus Online
November 7, 2003