In celebration of International Women's Month, the BAMcafe in Brooklyn presented "Planet XX: Women in Music." As part of this on-going series, the New York-based Finnish-American musical group, Kaiku ("echo") performed March 12.
The three young Finnish women singing their hearts out under the orange glow of the lit ceiling had a strangely exotic look about them; they donned neither stage make-up nor high-heels, in fact, they were not wearing any shoes at all! Their voices, those "sweet soaring Finnish sounds" as the Daily News justly put it, were soul-penetrating.
Kaiku's performance on Saturday was a bewitching fusion of world music instrumentation and harmonious songs inspired by Finnish folklore and poetry such as the epic Kalevala. The lyrics were down-to-earth, as are most Finnish women, and spiced with a riotous sense of humor. Although the words were incomprehensible to many, Kaiku took its audience on a wild musical ride with a surprising range of different tones and moods. One moment, three forlorn waifs from a winter land far, far away were singing spirited melodies of a thousand lakes, the next, they transformed almost instantly into three mean old hags nagging about their husbands being ugly enough to frighten the horses. Mixing in universal themes such as marriage, money and cockroaches, Kaiku is definitely unlike anything New York has ever heard before.
Finnish singers Jaana Kantola and Paula Jaakkola first formed a musical partnership three years ago, having met through a mutual friend who wanted to start a female vocal group to perform Finnish folk songs in the United States. Last summer, as part of an ensemble called Akkapella, Kantola and Jaakkola participated in the Metropolitan Transit Authority's "Music Under New York" project auditions. Buoyed by the success of those auditions, the two decided to form a trans-cultural group together with local musicians. Finnish singer Erja Vettenranta introduced herself to them at the New York City College after an Akkapella performance, and through various connections they hooked up with cellist Christopher Hoffman, accordionist Rob Curto, and percussionist Scott Kettner. Kaiku made its first appearance on stage last November.
Although Kantola, Jaakkola and Vettenranta consider themselves "cultural ambassadors," it was very clear to them from the start that they did not want Kaiku to be another strictly all-Finnish band. "Although there are tons of Finnish folk music groups who know the tricks, in this market we have no competition. Our organic sound is a mixture of rhythmic world music and traditional Finnish songs. Sure we come from Finland, but our music is more like via Finland," says Kantola, referring to the Brazilian twist that flavors many of their songs.
Jaakkola commends the incredible plurality of culture in New York, "with so many people from so many different places with wonderful stories to tell." This is surely the kind of atmosphere in which a band like Kaiku will flourish, and indeed they are already regulars on the local music scene. The three women are hybrids of Finnish-American culture themselves - Kantola has lived in the U.S. for over a decade, Jaakkola for six years with a New Zealander musician and Vettenranta with her American husband. For each of them, however, music is something that keeps them rooted in the soil and traditions of Finland. Almost as a symbol of pride for their heritage, six bare feet stomped the floor at BAMcafe. "We are breaking the mold here," says Jaakkola.
Kaiku's signature sound clearly springs from the three dynamic female singers who have unbelievable chemistry on stage and as friends. All of Kaiku's songs are original arrangements by Jaakkola and Kantola, for which the lyrics have been dug up from the Internet and the library. Everything is done without the help of a secretary or even a manager, but as Finnish women they revel in their independence and take pride in being professionals in a male dominated industry. Kantola, who was raised by a single working mother, affirms that "Finnish women are known for being strong and charismatic."
Jaakkola describes Kaiku's melodies as "easy to listen to and catchy," and as they prepare to record their full-length debut album this year, the group hopes to play for a wider international audience of people who may be hearing Finnish music for the very first time. They also like performing for those who have not heard it for a long time; Finns who have been away from home and have lost touch with their mother tongue. In April, Kaiku will provide that opportunity for relocated Finns at the 100th Anniversary of the Finnish-American magazine, Raivaaja. "And it would be great to tour Finland someday," sighs Kantola, "where people could understand the full connotation of the lyrics." When asked if there is anything they miss about Finland, they scream in unison, "Sauna!" The list of good Finnish things trails on: "Nokia, Finlandia Vodka, magical summers, untouched nature, wooden churches and priceless cultural treasures like our classical composers." However, they all agree that their work in music has been cut out for them here in New York, "the city that never sleeps," where you can catch Kaiku's next show at Satalla (37 West 26th St.) on March 24 at 7:30 p.m.