(Sonet, 1992; Green
Linnet/Xenophile, 1993)

A few successes with Norwegian and Latvian musicians, plus a favorable review in Utne Reader, convinced me to pick up the album Seleniko by the Finnish band Varttina. (Don't tell me that doesn't make sense as a reason, 'cause it did to me at the time. Suffice it to say, I ordered the album. OK?)

Varttina boasts five excellent musicians in the band and three guest instrumentalists adding extra sound to album's 14 tracks, but it's the four female vocalists who make it special.

The band is fronted by singers Mari Kaasinen, Sari Kassinen, Kirsi Kahkonen and Sirpa Reiman, and they sing in lusty group harmonies that are a treat to hear. No complex vocal lines carefully woven together here; the four ladies sing most of the songs in enthusiastic unison, with the kind of gung-ho projection usually attributed to professional cheerleaders.

Sometimes one singer or another will step forward to take the spotlight, and each seems to have a strong solo presence. But it's the foursome as a foursome that draws me back.

As strong as the instrumentalists are, it's the voices which sell the band. If you have any doubts, check out the a cappella tunes "Sulhassii" and "Fanfaari." But it's not fair to sell the musicians short, either, as the instrumental tunes "Hoptsoi" and "Kiirama" nicely demonstrates. Besides the four singers, Varttina has five instrumental members: Reijo Heiskanen on guitar, bouziki and percussion, Janne Lappalainen on bouziki, soprano and tenor sax, kaval and tin whistle, Tom Nyman on string bass, keyboards and domra, Riitta Potinoja on accordion and keyboards, and Kari Reiman on fiddle, kantele and tenor banjo. Joining them for this album are percussionists Janne Haavisto and Tom Nekljudow, and trumpet player Anu Laakkonen.

Combined, the singers and musicians have put together a lively package of foot-tapping sing-alongs and dance tunes from their Finnish traditions. It's a unique style, unlike most of the traditional folk sounds making the worldbeat rounds these days, but it's certainly evocative and well worth the effort of finding a copy.

I have very little idea what these Finlanders are singing about, since the lyrics are all sung (and printed in the liner notes) in the incomprehensible (to me) Finnish tongue. The titles don't give me any clues, either, since I can't garner any meaning from words like "Paukkuvat Pasuunat," "Lemmennosto," "Kyla Vuotti Uutta Kuuta or "Hyva Tyttona Hypata."

Fortunately, there is a small English section in the insert providing a brief summary and history of the tunes. Several of the tunes are ritual or runo songs resurrected from ancient northern European traditions, like "Seelinnikoi" which warns foolish young maids against marrying without their mothers' approval. In fact, a common theme of the songs is the pros and cons of seeking or avoiding marriage.

Others are plain common sense, like "Leppiainen," which urges listeners: "Don't worry, don't carry stones in your knapsack. Now it is time to rejoice and have fun. When you get old you won't be able to do it anymore."

Words to live by. And a good way to have fun is with a copy of Seleniko in the stereo.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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