Finland’s Värttinä are distinguished by the fact that they have invented a unique roots-based vocal/instrumental style combining traditional Finno-Ugric vocal elements with original compositions and dynamic performance. Blending ancient Finnish runo poetry, distinctive vocal harmonies, traditional and modern acoustic instrumentation, complex rhythms and imaginative arrangements, the front line of three female singers with backline of six acoustic musicians are forging their own path in contemporary music.
On recordings and in concert, the singers voices and unique harmonies are the main attraction. Their style is their own, born of the Värttinä collective creative energy but with deep roots in the women’s singing traditions of Finno-Ugric tribes of the east, including Karelia, Setu, Mari Republic, Ingria, Mordva and others. One key feature of these styles is extremely close harmonies, so close that they often seem strange to untuned western ears
In 1983, a small group of pre-teen girls in Rääkkylä, in the Karelia region of Eastern Finland, started by sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen and their mother Pirkko, began to recite and sing old Karelian traditional poetry and songs, accompanying themselves on kantele, the Finnish national zither-like instrument. What began as a hobby quickly became a mission: to revive forgotten traditional Karelian songs and to present them in new ways. The group soon became 21-strong with fifteen singers and six young players on accordion, saxophone, guitar, double bass, fiddle and flute. Seeking new ways of presentation, the singers developed a more aggressive and powerful vocal style; loud, almost shouting. This vocal/instrumental concept was provocative and new to folk music and to Finland and Värttinä rapidly gained national recognition.
Interest in Finland grew quickly over the next five years resulting in concert performances nationwide and two albums. The first album, entitled Värttinä, recorded in Rääkkylä, Karelia in April 1987 and released on their own label, comprised traditional Karelian songs arranged mostly by Sari Kaasinen. The arrangements and presentation were exuberant and provocative and after their breakthrough appearances at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival the same year, where they were named “Band of the Year”, the album became a favourite in the domestic folk music scene with word of the band trickling up to mainstream audiences.
The second album, Musta Lindu “Black Bird” recorded in Nurmijärvi in early 1989 again featured traditional Karelian songs, this time arranged primarily by Sari with additional arrangement from some of the other band members. These pieces were even more adventurous than those on the first album, slightly darker with more unorthodox arrangements. While perhaps not as well received as the first album, Musta Lindu did clearly indicate the more uncompromising side of the band as developing artists who were not out to replicate the past but instead were seeking to reinvent folk music.
In late 1989, as the youngsters in Värttinä reached the late teens, several members left the group. Many of these left music for good while others went on to study at Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. Remaining members, the Kaasinen sisters, sax and bouzouki player Janne Lappalainen, singers Kirsi Kähkönen and Minna Rautiainen chose to keep the band going, with Kaasinen sisters and Lappalainen also entering Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. By this time, the band had begun to attract the attentions of some of the country’s best and most popular players in the fields of rock, bluegrass, Irish and other folk music. The decision was finally made to recruit some of these new players and re-launch Värttinä as a ten-piece, keeping five singers in the front line, including new member Sirpa Reiman, with five instrumentalists in the back line: Kari Reiman – fiddle, Tom Nyman – bass, Tommi Viksten – guitar, Riitta Potinoja – accordion.
The new band spent 1990 rehearsing a new sound and style. The emphasis shifted to a more pop/rock approach, albeit still 100% acoustic, a more compact vocal sound, more sophisticated and fully democratic band arrangements and the introduction of original compositions from band members. The group’s vocal sound diversified further into Finno-Ugric territory, borrowing tunes, poems, songs and ideas from women’s singing traditions of Setuland, Mariland, Ingria and other areas.
To further their knowledge and experience, the band embarked on a series of concerts in Mari Republic, Russia, meeting with the traditional women singers there and learning more about their singing history and unique sound, harmonies and stories. Incorporating this information into their expanding repertoire, the singers took the vocal department several steps further, writing and arranging lyrics that were very provocative, dealing directly and sharply with love, courtship, sex and marriage from a young female viewpoint. This confrontational yet fun-spirited female singing style and “naughty” lyrical content was perhaps the decisive factor in the instant massive success of the band which was, unbeknownst to the band, just around the corner.
The result was an overnight smash hit album, 1991’s Oi Dai, which became Finland’s biggest folk music phenomenon in twenty years, quickly propelling them to the status of household name and attaining gold record certification, today platinum. Word spread west to Ireland and the band made their first concerts there with six performances.
Line-up changes: guitarist Tommi Viksten departed for work with other bands, replaced by Reijo Heiskanen. Vocalist Minna Rautiainen left the band and music.
The successor to Oi Dai was 1992’s Seleniko, produced by Hijaz Mustapha of the band 3 Mustaphas 3, which immediately entered the European World Music radio charts at the Number One position and remained there for three straight months. The chart success of Seleniko, which featured an increased number of original band compositions, attracted global attention and the album was released in North America and Benelux countries. The band did numerous European performances including shows in England at the Barbican Center and WOMAD Festival. The major turning point was the performance at Dranouter Festival Belgium which was a phenomenal success, instantly creating waves of interest across Europe.
1993 was another important year that began with a showcase headline slot at the SXSW Music & Media Convention in Austin, Texas followed by more European concerts with major appearances at Rudolstadt Festival in Germany and Glastonbury Festival in England. Phillip Page became manager of the band during this year and immediately set up North American activity. Also entering at this point was guitarist Antto Varilo replacing Reijo Heiskanen, while bassist Pekka Lehti replaced Tom Nyman, both departing players continuing on with other bands. At the end of 1993, Värttinä embarked on their first US tour, supporting the US release of Seleniko on the Green Linnet label, selling out eight concerts and gathering piles of rave reviews. Värttinä released their first video, the Seleniko song “Pihi Neito”. The Finnish single “Kylä Vuotti Uutta Kuuta”, (“The Village Awaits the New Moon”) became a hit among fans and has remained a stage favourite worldwide.
In ’94, Värttinä recorded their fifth album, Aitara, produced by Janne Haavisto and featuring drummer Anssi Nykänen. The Aitara album was a clear progression from Seleniko with more original songs and a harder rhythmic edge. Instantly upon release, Aitara entered the World Music Charts Europe at Number Five and was picked “Album of the Week” at Multi Kulti radio, Berlin. 1994 highlights included a live spot on European television with Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo in MTV’s anti-racism video competition Prize of Europe. A major concert appearance for 1994 was Molde Jazz Festival in Norway.
Värttinä’s first international collaboration took place in 1994 when the singers contributed to French conceptualist Hector Zazou’s Sony album “Songs from the Cold Seas”.
In 1995, Aitara was released in Japan, Benelux countries and North America where the album spent five weeks in the Number One position on the CMJ College radio World Music charts. Aitara was also voted “Best Contemporary World Music Album” at the NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) convention in USA. Värttinä returned to USA, with new drummer Marko Timonen replacing Anssi Nykänan, for their second tour selling out concerts in major markets This was followed by more European touring including Vienna Festival’s “Out of the Cool” Nordic music event and a full house at WOMAD, Helsinki. Värttinä then made their second video, “Yötulet” (Night Fires).
Kokko / Nonesuch:
In late 1996, Värttinä’s sixth album Kokko, produced by Janne Haavisto was released worldwide on the Nonesuch Records label. Critical acclaim for Kokko included: European World Music Radio Charts at Number two, “CD of the Month” in Lift Music Magazine, Germany. “Album of the Month” in Stereo Review magazine USA, Number Two position on CMJ World Music radio charts in USA.
Concert highlights for 1996 included a showcase slot at MIDEM music convention in Cannes, a thousand seat sell-out at Festival Interceltico in Oporto, more tours of Belgium and The Netherlands, two sold out shows with Leningrad Cowboys at the Meltdown Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, an opening slot with Björk at Pori Jazz Festival in Finland, another tour of North America including a support position for Joan Armatrading at the Edmonton Folk Festival with an audience of ten thousand. Värttinä performed in the WDR Folk Festival in Bonn, with a live television broadcast on WDR, then to the Lowlands Festival in The Netherlands. Värttinä also were featured guests in the 30th year anniversary concert of Finnish rock music legend Hector at Tavastia club where they performed his piece “Suurenmoinen Tyttö”, a recording which was later issued by EMI on the Hector tribute CD.
Värttinä singers collaborated this year with English singer Maggie Reilly for her EMI album “Elena”. Personnel change in 1996: Värttinä co-founder Sari Kaasinen left the group to work on other projects and the vocal section became, temporarily, a trio. Accordionist Riitta Kossi (Potinoja) also left the band for family and other music. Susan Aho joined Värttinä on accordion. 1997 was a busy year of performances: European and American tours, Australian tour, Club Quattro in Tokyo, Water Festival in Stockholm, WOMAD Canarias Festival and Barbican Center in London.
Vihma / Wicklow
Värttinä’s seventh album, Vihma, was released in 1998 on Wicklow Records, the new label co-owned by the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney and BMG. Vihma featured, alongside Finnish producer Janne Haavisto, the co-production talents of New York musician Richard Horowitz, known for his work with singer Susan Deyhim and as a filmscore composer. Special Vihma guests include Finnish fiddling stars JPP and throat singers from the electric Tuvan group Yat-Kha.
Vihma entered the European World Music Radio Charts at Number One in November. In USA, the album reached Number One in the CMJ New World radio charts. Vihma was voted “Best Album of 1998″ in the Rock/Pop category of Adlib magazine in Japan and “Best World Music Album of 1998″ from Music Magazine of Japan. Vihma and producers Richard Horowitz and Janne Haavisto, with Finnvox studios and long-time Värttinä studio sound engineer Risto Hemmi, received Master Award from BASF.
1998 concerts in support of Vihma included Celtic Connections festival Glasgow followed by a headline performance at Europa Sziget festival in Budapest and the Värttinä 15 Year Anniversary concert at Kihaus Festival in Rääkkylä, Finland. Additional concerts in Spain, then back to Japan for a one week tour. Värttinä appeared in San Remo, Italy for the nationally televised Tenco Festival and finished the year with more European concerts.
The 1998 album from British singer Tanita Tikaram, Cappuccino Songs, was released including a looped sample of the piece “Seelinnikoi” from Värttinä’s Seleniko album. The popular American animated children’s TV series Arthur licensed Värttinä’s song “Matalii ja Mustii” from the Seleniko album, for use in an Arthur episode and later appearing on the Arthur CD and video.
Personnel changes this year: Markku Lepistö joined Värttinä on accordion allowing Susan Aho to move to the front line of singers. Singer/lyricist Sirpa Reiman left Värttinä to be a full-time mother, replaced by Riikka Väyrynen who was also working with the Adiemus project.
1999 performances: Tours of North America and Europe including Winnipeg Festival, Festival d’ete International de Quebec, Central Park Summer Stage, ET Jam festival in Prague (with Suzanne Vega, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morrisette and Crash Test Dummies) and Sopot festival Poland where they collaborated with the Bulgarian Choir Angelite.
Wicklow Records released the various artists compilation “Deep Roots and Future Grooves Remix” CD including Värttinä’s “Vihma” remixed by Japan’s Fantastic Plastic Machine.
Ilmatar / Independence:
In December 1999, Värttinä returned to Finnvox studios, Helsinki, to record their eighth album. Producer was Frenchman Hughes de Courson, known for his work with Malicorne, Kolinda, Spondo, El Lebrijano and conceptual works Lambarena, Palestrina, Mozart in Egypt and Songs of Innocence.
In early 2000, Wicklow Records released European and Japanese editions of Värttinä’s eighth album, Ilmatar (“Goddess of Air”), which explored even further the Karelian runo tradition. Ilmatar was Värttinä’s most extreme and adventurous album to date, a dramatic leap forward, featuring more complex and dynamic vocals, more adventurous compositions, extensive and effective use of percussion and a spacious production that allowed the music to breathe in ways not yet achieved on previous albums. One special highlight was the guest howl on the piece ”Äijö” by popular Finnish singer Ismo Alanko.
Critics hailed Ilmatar as “the album Värttinä was always meant to make ”Touring schedule for 2000 took Värttinä to Tokyo for eight performances at the Tokyo venue Tribute to the Love Generation, followed by European concerts including Babel Festival in Strasbourg, a return to Sziget Festival in Budapest for seven thousand people and Glatt & Verkehrt festival in Austria. Year’s end saw Värttinä at WOMEX Berlin, Archa Theatre in Prague and the Finnish Independence Day concert at Savoy Theatre in Helsinki.
Wicklow Records expired in 2001 and Värttinä recovered the rights to Ilmatar, with Värttinä management licensing the album to partners worldwide. The American edition of Ilmatar reached the Number 1 position in the CMJ World Music Charts.
Ilmatar was also licensed to MCD Brazil and supported by concerts at Rock in Rio festival with over 200,000 people and a date at Mika’s Bar (owned by filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki). Concerts continued with Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Nordic Nights and London’s Blackheath Halls. Värttinä finished the year with tours of USA and Europe, three concerts in Moscow and a return to Brazil for Todos os Cantos do Mundo festival in Sao Paolo and back again to Budapest for Sziget Festival.
Värttinä released their first live album, entitled 6.12, recorded December 6, 2000 at Savoy Theatre, Helsinki. The album, produced by Värttinä bassist Pekka Lehti, was issued by BMG Finland and licensed to various other partners worldwide and featured a video clip of the piece “Äijö” as a bonus track.
Coinciding with 6.12 was the Finnish publication of Kimmo Nevalainen’s book ”Värttinä – Korkeelta ja Kovvoo” (”High and Loud”) comprising 175 pages of history, music, photos and notes.
More personnel transitions as singer Johanna Virtanen replaced Riikka Timonen (Väyrynen) and later drummer Jaakko Lukkarinen replacing Marko Timonen, both exiting members moving to new projects.
Värttinä toured in 2002 with European concerts plus their first appearances in Latvia and Slovenia. Trees Music and Arts company of Taiwan released the double compilation album, Double Life, which includes the entire 6.12 album plus selections from the albums Seleniko, Aitara and Ilmatar.
Spring of that year saw the departure of three Värttinä members: fiddler Kari Reiman, bassist Pekka Lehti and singer Kirsi Kähkönen left for family responsibilities and other career goals. The replacement on fiddle was original Värttinä fiddler Lassi Logrén, who had been in very early incarnations of the band and had substituted for Kari Reiman on several tours. Bassist Hannu Rantanen, one of Finland’s best players had also previously toured with Värttinä numerous times as a substitute. The vocal section remained as a trio: Kaasinen, Aho, Virtanen. The result of this change was a second major rebirth for Värttinä as a new creative energy surged within the band.
Evidence of this creative energy was the release of their tenth album – iki – released in 2003, Värttinä’s 20th anniversary. Produced by Janne Haavisto, iki was a new pinnacle for the group in terms of strength of compositions, versatility and new dynamic levels. The writing skills of all the band members emerged profoundly, with a new tighter group chemistry, producing a previously unrealized wide variety in songs and arrangements. Many fans and critics proclaim iki as Värttinä’s best album to date. iki was released in Europe, North America and Japan.
The Helsinki release of iki coincided with their sold out 20th Anniversary concert on February 28, 2003 at Helsinki’s Aleksanterin Teatteri, the former opera house. Comprising songs from their entire career, the concert also featured a collaboration with the thirty piece women’s choir Philomela. Fans came from USA, Canada, UK, Switzerland, France, Hungary and beyond to see the show which was recorded on video by DeCo Media and broadcast New Years Day 2004 on YLE Teema, Finnish digital TV.
The album iki was picked “Top of the World” chart position 9 and one of the “Top 50 World Music Albums You Should Own” by Songlines Magazine, UK. Värttinä was named one of ”The 40 Most Exciting, Soulful Artists of 2003, 40 Artists Who Will Shake the World” by Utne Magazine USA, alongside singer Tom Waits and director Julie Taymor. Värttinä’s returned to USA and toured Europe in 2003 including dates in Sardinia and Turkey plus a triumphant return to Budapest for the third appearance, (their second appearance as headliners), at Sziget festival, playing for twelve thousand people.
Lord of The Rings:
In late 2003 Värttinä began collaborating with Indian composer A.R. Rahman on writing the score for the stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The project is directed by Matthew Warchus and produced by Kevin Wallace and Saul Zaentz. Designer is Rob Howell, music supervisor Chris Nightingale. Work began in October in Helsinki and London and continued throughout year’s end between Värttinä’s live engagements.
2004 began with more Lord of the Rings work in Helsinki and London continuing through the spring.
In March, Värttinä undertook a lengthy European tour with seventeen shows over eighteen days. One major highlight of the tour included a special collaboration with Dutch conceptualist, composer, performer Merlijn Twaalfhoven in Amsterdam, including Värttinä vocal and instrumental improvisations, collaborations with children’s choir and an evening of magic and improvisation from many diverse players and performers. Sold out concerts in Ljubljana, Bratislava and Utrecht with packed houses in Prague and Zurich.
In April, Värttinä returned to Budapest for their sixth concert there, performing in Heroe’s Square for the country’s EU entry celebration. Thousands of people saw the event which also featured Shane MacGowan and the Popes and Khaled. Värttinä later returned to Czech Republic and Slovakia during the summer for major festivals, Music for People and Pohoda respectively, then to Estonia for the Leigo Festival.
Lord of the Rings work continued through the end of 2004 and into 2005 with the musical’s World Premiere confirmed for Toronto in early 2006 and the London West End premiere set for spring 2007.
A Czech compilation album entitled Snow Angel was released by Indies Records in April 2005 to coincide with Värttinä’s Czech and Slovak concerts in May. Material was taken from the albums Seleniko, Aitara, Ilmatar, iki and 6.12.
2005 saw Värttinä on the road again performing at the first annual Wychwood Festival in Cheltenham, England featuring a special collaboration with British singer/fiddler Eliza Carthy. Also on that trip was a sold out concert at Salisbury Festival and an appearance at the Sage Gateshead. Spring and summer concerts included St Petersburg, Prague, Brno, Bratislava, Linz, Lörrach, Utrecht, Den Bosch, Tenerife, Finnish dates, Budapest Palace of Arts, St Olav Festival in Norway and finally Tatihou Festival in France. They also joined Leningrad Cowboys, Nightwish, Apocalyptica and Vicente Amigo as the featured performers at the IAAF sports event in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium.
Värttinä entered Finnvox studios on August 8th to record their tenth studio album with producer Aija Puurtinen.
Lord of the Rings rehearsals in Toronto began in October and continued through January 2006.
In December 2005, Värttinä won the Suomi-Palkinto “Finland Prize” for exceptional artistic and career achievements. The awards, give by the Ministry of Education have been given since 1993 and are presented to artists in fields of music, film, theatre, dance, sculpture, writing and others.
Värttinä’s tenth studio album Miero is released by Peter Gabriel’s Real World company worldwide January 30, 2006 to coincide with their appearance on January 22 at MIDEM music convention in Cannes, performing on the main stage for the Finnish Opening Night.
The first preview of Lord of the Rings, featuring music composed by Värttinä and A.R. Rahman with Christopher Nightingale takes place on February 2 in Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. Previews continue for seven weeks followed by the World Premiere Gala on March 23.
The Lord of the Rings stage production, featuring music co-composed by Värttinä, opened in London in May at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Värttinä was active touring USA and Europe, including another headlining slot at Sziget world music stage in Budapest. In September, Värttinä singers and Janne Lappalainen were headline performers in the Ursus & Nadeschkin Variety Show tour of Switzerland, entitled “Pearls, Freaks and Special Guests”.
Drummer Jaakko Lukkarinen left the band for other pastures, to be replaced by long time friend and back-up drummer Toni Porthen.
Sony BMG Finland released Värttinä’s 25 Year Anniversary compilation album, entitled simply, 25. The album features one unreleased song from the Miero sessions, “Vipinäveet” as well as songs from every Värttinä album throughout their career.
The Lord of the Rings Original London Cast Album was released on February 4th.
Värttinä performed more orchestral concerts this year featuring local orchestras together with the band performing Värttinä songs arranged by Tapio Tuomela, conducted by Hannu Koivula. For these 2008 concerts, some songs from The Lord of the Rings stage production were included.
Värttinä toured Finland in support of their 25th anniversary CD. The concert in Tampere was filmed by Filmiteollisuus Oy and was broadcast on YLE Finnish national TV.
Värttinä also performed internationally in Sweden, Norway, Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.
The London Lord of the Rings stage production closed in July after more than a one year run and is planned to re-open in Germany in late 2009.
The updated Värttinä biography entitled “Värttinä – Mierontiella ja punaisella matolla”, was published by LIKE Publishing company on October 25. Kimmo Nevalainen, the original author of the first biography, has written the new edition, bringing the account of the Värttinä story to the present day.An English language version by Jim Thompson is also being planned for 2009 publication.
Värttinä’s song “Kylä Vuotti Uutta Kuuta” (the live version from their 6.12 album) is used in the closing credits in the Finnish feature film Korkein Oikeus, directed by Olli Ylinen. The film’s premiere was September 2008.
In late 2008, Janne Lappalainen and Markku Lepistö and Antto Varilo departed the band.
The new 2009 Värttinä six-piece is:
- Susan Aho
- Mari Kaasinen
- Johanna Virtanen
- Lassi Logren
- Hannu Rantanen
- Toni Porthen
In February 2009, the Värttinä 25th Anniversary compilation album entitled 25 was released in Europe via Westpark Music of Germany. The song “Marilaulu” replaces “Miinan laulu”
Värttinä played venues in Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Germany and Finland.
Multi-instrumentalist musician Matti Kallio joined the band. Fiddler Lassi Logrén departed.
The band started writing material for a new studio album, and played only a couple of shows, in Finland.
Singers Susan Aho & Johanna Virtanen took part in the Eurovision Song Contest as Duo Kuunkuiskaajat.
Concerts in Japan, Poland, Belgium and Finland.
Drummer Toni Porthen departed the band.
Recording of the long awaited new studio album, Utu, took place in Helsinki in August-September, and the album – produced by band member Matti Kallio – was mixed in Reykjavik, Iceland.
New album Utu was released on Feb 1st, gathering positive reviews both in Finland and abroad. The album rose to nr. 2 on the European World Music Chart, having previously made it to nr. 12 on the Finnish pop chart.