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Written in Folk Roots issue 184, 1998

Kalevala - Dream Of The Salmon Maiden

Omnium OMM2021 (1998)

You can’t help where you’re born.
      For singer Ruth Mackenzie it was in North America. An orphan, she never knew the origins of her natural parents, but when she first visited Finland as a member of Eric Peltoniemi’s band Trova she found, whether it was genetic or not, a sense of belonging, and plunged energetically into exploring Finnish and Swedish music. The public result has been this album, and very successful theatrical performances of it in her hometown of Minneapolis, North American Finn-central.
      Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put together from just some of the many thousands of folk runo-song sources by Elias Lönnrot in the last century has, since its revised second edition grabbed the attention of Finnish nationalist intellectuals in 1849, attracted foreigners. Longfellow used its four-footed trochaic metre and paired lines in Hiawatha, and over the years there have been a number of non-Finnish works of varying effectiveness which name-drop Kalevala. Many show little understanding of the Finno-Ugrian culture that is its root and context; we only await the Disney version.
      Kalevala isn’t a simple story one can tell in the length of a CD; it’s long and hard to read, in original or translation, and isn’t simple narrative but a general tendency of a story like stepping stones from one ballad to another. Ruth Mackenzie has, like Tellu Virkkala in her Suden Aika project, selected and rewritten a series of songs, from Kalevala and elsewhere, to tell her chosen story strand of the girl Aino who, unwilling to do as her mother wishes and marry the 900-year-old Väinämöinen, becomes a fish. The tale isn’t immediately apparent from the songs themselves - the booklet adds narration between them.
      The music that comes smacking in, after a rather unoriginal opening Swedish herding-call, makes it clear that this is no wifty-wafty piece. A hefty American band with electric and acoustic guitars, Swedish and Scottish bagpipes, fiddles and drumkit surrounds and links vocals from Mackenzie and others. She has learnt directly and indirectly from singers such as Finns Liisa Matveinen, Tellu Virkkala and Värttinä, Swedes Lena Willemark, Anna Sjöberg and Britta and Maria Röjås, and some Sámi joik; particularly in the items in Finnish it’s possible to hear clearly their individual vocal styles and pronunciation. It’s a problem - if one’s working with a tradition one wasn’t brought up with, how much is going to be natural expression and how much imitation? There’s no slavish attempt to be entirely Nordic - the instrumentalists are freely drawing on non-Nordic traditions, and the songs are largely in English. It’s quite a challenge to make English sound as evocative as a foreign language in this largely runo-song material; how would Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares do if they sang in English, or an English-speaker made music in the Bulgarian vocal style?
      Whatever, the album is impressive. If Ruth Mackenzie were Finnish it would be seen as a significant step in Finnish roots music - the stork just took a wrong turn.

© 1998 Andrew Cronshaw

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