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Christmas - Ylaornamentti

Striking an a cappella Christmas chord

By Wif Stenger, November 2011

Photo: Rajaton
Boundless talent: Rajaton, a Finnish a cappella ensemble with a global following, delights its fans with another Christmas album.

How do you follow up the biggest-selling holiday album in decades? Very carefully.

That was the challenge facing Finland’s leading a cappella singing group, Rajaton, as it prepared to make it another seasonal disc after its 2003 double CD Joulu (Christmas).

While some of their other albums – like their Queen and ABBA tributes with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra – are over-the-top affairs full of scat, beatboxing and flamboyant acrobatics, Rajaton’s approach to Christmas carols is more sober and reverent.

This helped make Joulu the standard background music for many Finnish Christmases – and returned it to the top of the charts every year since its release, earning it double-platinum status. In a time of crisis in the music business, this seems to be the kind of album that people still prefer to buy in physical format rather than download.

While the new Jouluyö (Christmas Night) follows closely in its footsteps, there’s one key difference: songs in English, reflecting the group’s expanding global audience.

Global is no overstatement. With a dozen albums out, Rajaton has toured more than 20 countries in Europe and Asia – and so many times in Canada that they’ve lost count.

“It must be 20 or 30 times,” says the group’s bass vocalist, Jussi Chydenius. “Canada is by far the biggest market for us outside of Finland, but it’s just kind of a coincidence. In 2001, we were invited to sing at a big choral festival in Newfoundland. A lot of people saw us and invited us to perform around Canada.” They’ve also appeared in the US about ten times, including a Carnegie Hall show last year.

Enough pop covers

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasClick to enlarge the picture
When Rajaton’s two Christmas shows in Helsinki’s new Music Centre (left) sold out, Jussi Chydenius and the rest of the group booked another show at Finlandia Hall (right).

The ABBA-mad Australians gave Rajaton a rapturous welcome when they toured there in 2009 – and have invited them back in 2012 after Rajaton’s first African tour.

However, says Chydenius, there will be no more orchestral pop tours like the ABBA and Queen spectacles – though there is huge demand for them at classical concert halls. “We’ve turned down quite a lot of those things because it’s not new for us anymore,” he says. Along with songs by the Beatles, Sting and Elton John, the group often interprets Finnish folk songs.

“I sometimes tell audiences that we have two kinds of folk songs in Finland: sad ones and very sad ones,” quips Chydenius. “We always try to make a point that we come from Finland and try to make fun of ourselves about it, in a way.”

Established in Helsinki in 1997, the group includes three women and three men, many of them alumni of the prestigious Sibelius Academy. Its arsenal of bass, baritone, tenor, alto and two sopranos gives them impressive firepower and agility.

Rajaton’s name (the “j” is pronounced as a “y”) translates as “boundless,” referring to its wide forays into jazz, folk, rock, classical and spirituals. With frequent tours and TV appearances, they’ve helped revive interest in a cappella and choral music at home.

Politics and music apart

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasClick to enlarge the picture
Jussi Chydenius sings bass and also mimics cymbal crashes and a remarkable range of other sound effects for Rajaton.

Chydenius, 39, is the son of Kaj Chydenius, Finland’s foremost political songwriter since the 1960s. Like many other leftist cultural figures, he sent his kids to Helsinki’s Finnish-Russian School.

Jussi went on to join the Green Party and Helsinki City Council, but prefers to keep politics and music separate. He was also drummer for the popular rock band Don Huonot, carrying over that rhythmic job to his role as Rajaton’s one-man vocal rhythm section, producing cymbal crashes, funky thumps and double-bass groans.

In nearly a decade of Christmas tours, the group has built up a repertoire of nearly 50 Christmas songs – surely enough for another album.

“When we started this new disc, we decided that we needed some more upbeat songs and that it would be nice to have some in English,” explains Chydenius. “So about a third of the songs were done freshly for the album.” And about one third of the album is in English – roughly the same ratio as the group performs live.

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