Sattuma: Music genuinely reflecting the spirit of Karelia

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 folk styles.

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 orchestrated precision.

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 didgeridoo.

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, modestly.

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

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