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Finnish Tango: Who Knew?

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 stars.

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.

Although these 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.

Harmonically the 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 them.

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 Finnish people.

Tango festival 

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.

Selected bibliography 

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.
Åhlen, Carl-Gunnar 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: Proprius.

Jutta Jaakkola / Fimic | Translation © Susan Sinisalo

December 1, Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, Finnish Tango: A Journey to the Fairy Tale LandKaija Saariaho: The 2011—2012 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair
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