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Four men with harmonicas on the world music market

By Marko Latvanen, October 2007

Photo: Juha Reunanen
Harmonica quartet Sväng

In the shadow of Nordic metal mania, a possibly even more intriguing evolution has been taking place. From the world of Finnish traditional music completely new sounds have emerged, marking Finland's rise as a serious world music maker.

Before the mid-1990s, Finland was largely invisible in the global arena of non-classical music. Cultural and generational transition changed this quickly: HIM, Nightwish, The Rasmus and Lordi are now established among the rock elite in Europe and tour in the US as well. 

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Finnish musicians working from a traditional music background were also experimenting and developing their genre into an entirely new shape. This opened the gates for others to follow. Now, the new generation of Finnish folk-based music is both a part and consequence of what is generally known as the world music movement.

World music and how the ancient became brand new again

World music as a concept was born in the mid-1980's when rock musician Peter Gabriel created the WOMAD organization and the RealWorld record label to facilitate distribution of non-Western music in the Western market and enhance the possibilities for musicians to cross cultural borders, perform together and learn from each other. This resulted both in a novel mixing of musical styles from around the world and a renewed curiosity about traditional music in general.

"WOMAD happened around the time of the fall of communism in Europe, when old concepts and structures were being replaced by new ways of looking at things. This affected culture just as much as politics, and the idea of world music was a part of that transition," analyses Pekka Lehti, head of Aito Records, a folk and world music specialist label in Helsinki.

According to Lehti, world music also awakened new interest in domestic musical roots in a number of countries and made it easier for young musicians to go for their own traditional music instead of classical or rock. As world music also implies a cross-cultural approach, there was suddenly more freedom to mix new elements with the old.

Sväng: reinventing the harmonica

Photo: Eero Grundström
Click to enlarge the picture
Sväng in Tokyo in 2005

The case of Sväng, a harmonica quartet with a brand new take on the often overlooked instrument, is a perfect example of contemporary Finnish folk music striving for international renown in the world music arena. The group, rooted deeply in Finland's traditional music but also generously spiced with world music influences, was formed a few years ago almost coincidentally, during a student project at the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Since its inception, the department has been a veritable breeding ground for folk and traditional music talent in Finland.

From the very beginning, Sväng have focused on writing and performing their own material and pushing the boundaries of the harmonica. Not long after their formation they were a hot item in the domestic folk music field and got chosen as the Folk Music Ensemble of the Year at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, Finland's leading folk music fest. Since then, Sväng's concert schedule has been filling up with engagements mostly abroad, including the USA and Japan.

The secrets behind the unlikely ensemble's success are twofold. "First, the fact that they are unlikely and nothing like you would expect, is in itself a strong factor. They do innovative stuff you've never heard before, and that makes them interesting outright if you're a music fan," Lehti says. "Second, they are just plain brilliant as musicians, they communicate wonderfully live. That's top priority because when you have a previously unknown group to market, you have to win live audiences over first. Record sales grow from that."

© Sväng
Click to enlarge the picture
Jouko Kyhälä

Jouko Kyhälä, Sväng's driving force and Finland's only harmonica professional with a doctorate in music from the Sibelius Academy, explains his group's agenda: "We go against the traditions of the genre. Harmonica quartets used to be mostly novelty acts, playing light classical music with an unlikely instrument. We, on the other hand, compose our own material and make just the kind of music we like. The influences from different cultures and periods in our music become integrated into the whole because we have our own sound and approach," Kyhälä says.

Both audiences and critics have noted and responded to Sväng's unique character and infectious enthusiasm. Jouko Kyhälä emphasises the group's natural and spontaneous mode of working. "Sväng is what you might call 'a natural concept'. No one designed or branded us. We simply got together, got excited about what we could do and decided to go on from there."

Music fans, networks and a lot of hard work

But mere brilliance is not enough to carry a fairly new act into world music celebrity, even if the market is smaller and perhaps more intimate than that of the pop/rock production machinery. Old contacts have to be actively maintained, new ones created, and you have to stay in touch with the changing times.

Both Lehti and Kyhälä describe Sväng's core audience simply as "music fans", a heterogeneous group of people connected by active interest in music and other cultures. There are no specific target audiences, although Kyhälä jokingly adds, "If we were after big money, we should concentrate on financially well-off middle-aged women. They are the most active consumers of culture - and have the money to buy our CD after the concert."

Photo: Eero Grundström
Click to enlarge the picture
On stage in Rudolstadt, Germany, in July 2006

The lack of target segmentation, combined with the fact that world and traditional music companies are usually small, leads to heavy reliance on personal contacts, B2B networking and live performances. Individual, committed agents or agencies abroad are absolutely essential in introducing a foreign artist into new markets.

But small size can also have definite benefits. "New communication technologies and the social web present a tough challenge to the big media corporations", Lehti points out. "The trend cycle is more hectic and less manageable than ever before, and it's hard for the big ones to keep up. Small companies that are used to cooperating and using the web as a sales and information channel can react faster."

International conventions and expositions are essential arenas for making contacts and opening doors to new frontiers. A huge event such as WOMEX, where Sväng will play live to an audience of key people in the business, can mean a world of difference if things click.

Finnish music for a global market

A quick glance at the websites of Finnish artists working the world music circuit reveals that something is being done right in Finland. Sväng, Maria Kalaniemi, Kimmo Pohjonen, Värttinä, Markku Lepistö and others are busy, performing seemingly everywhere.

But what does being from Finland mean to foreign record labels, agencies and concert promoters? Not that much, according to Lehti, who adds, "Any traditional music carries all kinds of meanings in its domestic context, but they're somewhat irrelevant when you're abroad, negotiating concert or distribution deals. Traditional music of any given country becomes something essentially world music when heard by an outsider with no personal contact to that culture. When selling our artists abroad, it's often easier to use the term 'Nordic music'. It has a pretty established meaning in the world music community, whereas 'Finnish music' rings few bells."

Sväng's Jouko Kyhälä, on the other hand, is adamant that Sväng retain and openly display their connection to Finnish traditional music. "We want everyone in the audience to know we're Finnish. If they don't know it before they come to our show, afterwards they surely will. Our musical roots are, and will remain, in Finland. The Balkan and other influences will continue to be a part of our music, and maybe we'll branch out a bit to the classical concert scene some day. But whatever happens, we'll remain an essentially Finnish group."

Links

The Sväng web site
The World Music Expo home page
Aito Records
Kaustinen Folk Music Festival
Sibelius Academy

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