Monday, February 4, 2013

Finnish Tunes

Two of my columns from Folkworks, but with more readable sheet music and updated. The originals are there:

A Traditional Finnish Polska As Played by Antti Järvelä              

Folk music from Finland may be an eclectic topic for this column, but every tradition offers some interesting new twists. It is still new to me, so I have asked one of Finland’s leading traditional fiddlers to present you some tunes and links to explore. Antti Järvelä is a fantastic teacher and charismatic performer and he comes to the US occasionally. If you have a chance to see him live or take a lesson from him, take that opportunity. And if you find yourself in Finland sometime in the summer, he also organizes one of the most exciting folk festivals:

Antti grew up in a small town of Kaustinen, Finland, in a family where the traditional fiddling has been carried through several generations. He started playing the fiddle at the age of four and quickly absorbed the local dance fiddling style directly from his grandfather. Eventually, he started taking formal lessons at Kaustinen Music College, where he focused on double bass, and later at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Antti now works as a full-time freelance musician and teacher all around the world, carrying on the energy and fun that is inherent in this folk music. He is the founder of the Finnish-Norwegian powerfolk string band Frigg ( <>)
and a member to such bands as Baltic Crossing, JPP, Troka, Kings of Polka. 

Antti was kind enough to record and transcribe a traditional Finnish tune for this column. I recorded Antti playing solo and the video is here:

In addition to the melody, Anti also transcribed a second fiddle harmony line that you are seeing here (it is obviously not on his solo video). By itself, the transcription looks challenging, partly because of unusual melodic and rhythmic twists. Presumably somebody growing up in that style might feel similarly about Irish/Scottish or Appalachian fiddling. But eventually, it is about the music, which isn’t that difficult, and a transcription is just a crutch to remember things (or help with learning if you just can’t figure out some notes in a particular phrase). 

More Finnish Tunes for Gloomy Days

Rainy winter days seem to call for more subdued tunes and since we don’t have that many cold wintry days in Southern California, better to take advantage of them when they happen. Here is a Finnish tune that manages to even make the otherwise cheerful key of D major sound gloomy. I’m sure there are many cheerful tunes in Finland as well, but almost all the ones I know definitely lean towards the darker side at least when compared to old-time fiddle tunes.

Our family learned the tune in this month’s column from the traditional Finnish fiddler Antti Järvelä (, who was featured in my column from last September.  The September column had a video and a transcription of Antti playing a Polska. Polskas are very common in the traditional music of Nordic countries and are in ¾ time, but with a very different feel than waltzes. Polskas are very intriguing tunes, fun to play, and it is unfortunate that they never crossed over into US fiddle style – although maybe this is changing: Old-time master Bruce Molsky has added Polskas to his live set.  

Polskas should not be confused with the much better known (in the US) Polkas in 2/4 time. These two tune types have no similarity other than an implied references to Poland. Bruce Molsky learned the Polska in his video from Arto Järvelä (who may be Antti’s uncle) and the group JPP, which originally meant Järvelän Pikkupelimannit (the small folk musicians of Järvelä). That name proved to be too difficult outside Finland and the group only uses the abbreviation JPP. Pelimanni music is an instrumental style and one of the two major traditions of folk music in Finland (the other is a singing style).

But on to today’s tune, which is much slower, maybe more like a Polonaise (a slow type of dance in ¾)? A transcription of the tune is posted on a Finnish website called, but Antti Järvelä e-mailed me his transcription. If you visit the website, you probably have to rely on Google translator, but most of the time you get a somewhat understandable version of the text. While I have heard this tune played, I could not find a performance of it on the internet, so here is our family version recorded on a rainy day in California, although we play twin mandolin and guitar. It may not exactly match the sheet music of course because we did not learn it that way and when you play a tune from memory, it will start changing a bit over time, but that is how traditional tunes develop.

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