Born in the 19th
century in the cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo at the mouth of the river
Rio de Plata in South America, the tango found its way to Europe at the
beginning of the 20th century. Its popularity soon spread as musicians and
dancers from South America performed it in the European metropolises in the
1910s and 1920s. Little by little composers in Europe began writing tangos,
too. Each country in fact acquired a distinctive flavor of its own as, in the
absence of a strong Argentinean model, the tango incorporated rhythmic and
melodic elements of the local culture.
The fashionable new
dance was introduced to the Finns in 1913, at a demonstration by a Danish
couple at the Börs Hotel in Helsinki. Most of the tangos performed in Finland
in the 1920s and 1930s were of foreign origin. In addition to tangos from
Argentina the repertoires of the Finnish dance bands featured numbers borrowed
in particular from Germany. These were already far removed from the original
Argentinean dance. Instead of abounding in rhythmic agility and variety, the
tango now had an even, heavier tread almost akin to that of a march. This
thudding march rhythm was to remain as one of the dominant stylistic traits of
the Finnish tango.
In the early 1930s the
tango was clearly an urban vogue, country folk continuing to prefer the older
dances such as waltzes, schottisches and polkas. This was also reflected in the
records and sheet music published.
Tango got its soul during the war
During the Second
World War the Finnish tango underwent a number of major changes. The ties with
Germany were severed. This affected both the recording industry and the music
itself, with the result that the tango became increasingly Finnish. Dating from
this period are such landmarks in the musical history of the Finnish tango as
"Syyspihlajan alla" (comp. Arvo Koskimaa) and "Liljankukka"
(comp. Toivo Kärki).
After the war, the
tango grew steadily in popularity in Finland. By the end of the 1940s,
virtually every other popular hit was a tango, and by the turn of the decade it
was fast gaining ground in the country, too, as the craze for summer dance
pavilions gained momentum. Never before or since have these dance pavilions and
halls been so numerous as in the 1950s. Every village sports club or society
had a place of its own, and people flocked to hear the latest tango and pop
Between The Beatles and the Tango
The history of Finnish
popular music witnessed one of its most significant turning points in the early
1960s. In 1961, for the first time ever, sales of foreign records exceeded
those of domestic ones, and the nation (or rather the older section of it) went
into action on behalf of the native strain. This fighting spirit was fired by a
recording by Reijo Taipale of a tango called "Satumaa" by Unto
Mononen (1930-1968) that had by November risen to the top of the sales charts.
From then onwards Finland was caught up in a tango fever that lasted until the
end of the decade. More tangos were composed and recorded in the space of those
ten years than ever before or since.
Meanwhile British pop
music was, however, making a bid for the Finnish charts. In 1964, for example,
the two best-selling records in Finland were the Beatles' "All My Loving"
and Reijo Taipale's rendering of a tango called "Tähdet meren yllä".
Not only was the tango having to defend its territory against the Beatles: it
was also having to compete with the Nordic equivalent of the American and
British instrumental guitar combos.
New wave during the 90s
Since its days of
glory in the 1960s, the Finnish tango has been most at home in restaurants and
open-air dance pavilions. As the tango boom fell off, so did composers' passion
for the genre, with the result that many of the most popular tangos today are
the evergreens of decades past. Possibly the only tango composed in the 1970s
and still in the tango charts, as it were, is Kaj Chydenius's
"Nuoruustango" (1974). One trend in the 1980s appealed straight to
Argentina for new ideas. Argentinean bands have performed in Finland and
artists such as Eino Grön have been over there to record with local musicians.
The Finnish tango
enjoyed a revival in the 1990s, when public interest in the recent past and the
accompanying wave of nostalgia yielded a number of feature films, TV programs
and articles in which the tango played a major role. The town of Seinäjoki is
now the home of a tango festival attracting tango-lovers in their hordes, and
tango discs continue to sell well from one year to the next. Culture and music
researchers have eagerly taken up the theme, delving into the fascinating
history of Finnish popular music, and all this has helped to strengthen the
tango's position on the Finnish musical scene.
Musical elements and composers
The tango finally
became completely naturalized in Finland in the 1940s, when Toivo Kärki
(1915-1992), sometimes hailed as the king of the Finnish hit, composed his
tango classics "Siks' oon mä suruinen and "Liljankukka". Kärki
was by far the most prolific of all the Finnish tango composers, and in his
hands it gradually developed into a genre of its own distinct from its
Argentinean model. Many of the features now considered typical of the Finnish
tango were in fact invented and introduced by Toivo Kärki.
Finnish tangos are,
unlike their Argentinean relatives, almost always in a minor key. For their
tunes they draw on Finnish folk songs and waltz romances in Slavonic vein, and
they have a descending melodic line. These elements, along with the tempo,
which is slower than in the Argentinean tango, tend to create an impression of
somewhat dragging music. This is further enhanced by the slow "lazy
triplets" cultivated by Kärki in particular.
features are particularly characteristic of the tango, they are also to be
found in other types of Finnish popular music. The main factor distinguishing
the tango from other genres of popular music is its rhythm. The most common
rhythmic motif in the Finnish tango is that of a march pure and simple, again a
clear reflection of the German influence during its formative years. The most
Argentinean aspect of the Finnish tango is often the instrumental interlude.
Finnish tango is fairly simple. Slight color is added in the form of four-note
chords, especially in the pieces by Toivo Kärki, who was in this respect
influenced by his great interest in jazz.
Although Toivo Kärki
has, from the musical point of view, possibly been the greatest Finnish tango
composer to date, the icon for the genre as a whole is nevertheless Unto Mononen
(1930-1968): more than half the pieces by him on disc are tangos. By far the
best known is "Satumaa", for which he wrote both the music and the
lyrics. It was first recorded by Henry Theel in 1955, but not until it was
recorded by Reijo Taipale in 1962 did it become a national hit. Since then it
has been recorded dozens, if not hundreds of times and invariably ranks among
the most frequently performed Finnish pieces each year.
Kärki and Mononen were
not the only composers of dance and popular music to find a lasting place in
the hearts of the Finns, for there are many others of the older generation like
Lyrics and singers - Love and the lack of it
The inherent quality
and identity of the Finnish tango is manifest first and foremost in the lyrics,
since the musical ingredients are a mixture of Russian, Afro-American and
Central European influences.
The most common
subject of the Finnish tango is love, or rather the lack of it. The lyrical
"I", almost invariably a man, has lost his beloved (woman), is
suffering from loneliness and is overcome by melancholy. He is desolate and
longs to be back in the time when all was well. Herein lies the key word of the
Finnish tango: nostalgia.
The longing for love
and the beloved is, however, expressed without any trace of the sentimentality
or escapism typical of other European tangos. Whereas the Argentinean tango is
clearly an element of urban culture and the setting for the events is a shady
waterside drinking house, the Finnish tango is often set in the countryside, in
the bosom of nature.
Longing for paradise
A longing for paradise
is, like love, another dominant motif of Finnish tango lyrics. The longing may
be for some concrete place, such as another country that promises riches,
adventure and a happier life. The paradise may also be more abstract, such as a
land of love, or heaven, a haven of peace.
Extension of the folk poetry
Finnish tango lyrics
can be analysed as an extension of the folk poetry in the national epic, the
"Kalevala", and the companion collection of lyric poetry the
"Kanteletar". All share similar themes and metaphors. Heading the
list of metaphors are the expressions for nature, since the seasons, fauna
(especially birds) and flora carry the same meaning in tangos as in folk poetry.
The Finnish ethos and mythology are further manifest in verbal expressions that
carry meaning only for the Finns.
Tango - men's art
The Finnish tango has
always been a vocal genre, traditionally sung by a man. Some of the artists
have gone down in the history of Finnish light music specifically as tango
singers, even though their repertoires may have consisted mainly of other kinds
of popular music. The greatest of them is Olavi Virta (1915-1972), at the peak
of his career during the golden era of the outdoor dance pavilion in the 1950s.
Coming a close second is Henry Theel (1917-1989), who was the most popular
singer of light music in the 1940s and the first to record many of the great
tangos. Of their successors, Eino Grön (b. 1939) and Reijo Taipale (b. 1940)
both reached the height of their popularity on the Finnish pop firmament with
the tango boom of the 1960s but still occupy a firm place in the hearts of the
One proof of the
tangomania that still prevails in Finland is the annual Tango Festival in
Seinäjoki. First held in 1985, it is now one of the biggest festivals in
Finland. Whereas the first festival attracted crowds of 18,000, the figure had
risen to 130,000 by 1999, when a prize was awarded to the millionth visitor.
The highlight of the
Tango Festival has, right from the outset, been a tango singing competition.
From the third year onwards there have been prizes for both male and female
singers. The competition is televised nationwide and the winners, who carry the
titles of Tango King and Tango Queen, become stars overnight. The titles also
ensure the winners a packed schedule for at least a year to come, a recording
contract and fans the length and breadth of Finland. For many of the ‘royals’
the title has meant the start of a lasting vocal career, though not necessarily
of tango music.
The Festival also
holds a tango composition and lyrics competition that yields a vast annual
addition to the repertoire. Seinäjoki also has an exhibition and events centre
named after Olavi Virta that is open all year round. This is devoted to tangos
and tango singers, records, sheet music, videos, photos and instruments from
the 1920s to the present day.
Gronow, Pekka 1987: “The
Last Refuge of the Tango,” Finnish Music
Quarterly 3-4/1987, p. 26-31.
Kukkonen, Pirjo 1996: Tango Nostalgia. The Language of Love and Longing.
Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.
Numminen, M. A. 1990:
“The Genuine Finnish Tango. Is There Such an Animal?,” Look at Finland 1/1990, p. 32-35.
Porkka, Reijo: Satumaa
- Finnish Tango. A Photographic Journey,
Helsinki: Tosikuva Oy.
Saarnio, Merja 1994:
“Tango magic”. In: Finnair Blue Wings,
August - September 1994, p. 56-61.
1987: Tangon i Europa - en pyrrusseger?
Studier kring mottagandet av tangon i Europa och genrens musikaliska
omställningsprocess. (The Tango
in Europe - A Pyrrhic Victory? Diss. - Abstract in English) Helsingborg:
Jutta Jaakkola / Fimic | Translation © Susan Sinisalo
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