June 1998


Iskelmä wins every time

A quiet night,suviyö.jpg (8873 bytes)
the stars above
shine brightly in the sky
The moon is casting shadows on the mountain.
Around me is a wilderness
that draws me near tonight
My heart has opened up to charms enticing.
This poor and barren land
has given me its hand
My heart has opened up to charms enticing.

This is what the lyricist Reino Helismaa wrote in one of the evergreen Finnish songs of the 1950s. And the Finns continue to have a soft spot for home-grown music with more than half of all the records sold in Finland being performed by Finnish artists. And it's always easy listening Finnish music that makes up the list of the most performed pieces of any year. There's seldom a song of foreign origin in this top ten and not a classical piece in sight. The Finnish iskelmä (translated as a hit melody) is clearly doing well. But why?

Broadcaster and writer Ilpo Hakasalo has the answer: "It's not that we don't know what's going on in the music scene outside Finland. Of course you'll see the same international names cropping up in the music charts lists in Finland as in most other places. And of course we have a robust pop music industry of our own. Also, I'd be mad to even suggest that everybody in Finland likes this particular kind of Finnish easy listening music. It's just that iskelmä is so much part of the Finnish mainstream and has such unique staying power that it simply defines a certain kind of Finnishness."

Hakasalo, knows what he's talking about. He makes 800,000 Finns tune in on Sunday mornings for Iskelmäradio (Hit Melody Radio), the most popular radio programme in Finland. (In Britain, this would amount to an audience of 9.6 million. According to BBC Information, their most popular radio programme, Steve Wright's Saturday Show on BBC2), currently draws an audience of "several million listeners".)

"Iskelmä is at the core of Finnish popular culture", says Hakasalo. "From the moody and melancholy tangos to the nostalgic waltzes, this music tugs at your heartstrings. Sung in Finnish, it touches you where – for many – no other kind of music can reach. It expresses feelings and emotions that could otherwise be left unsaid."

One only has to take the last big recession in Finland in the 1990s and look at the lyrics of some of the most popular Finnish songs: they read almost like prayers for help. In fact, not too long ago there were half-serious proposals that one particular Finnish tango (Satumaa, Land of Dreams) be included in the new Finnish hymn book. It's not so surprising, considering that the lyrics are about "a land of happiness somewhere beyond the open sea where the worries of tomorrow can be forgotten". The proposal didn't find enough grace and favour to be carried, but the very fact that it was put forward shows that times have indeed changed since tango, for example, was seen as appealing to base motives (a vertical expression of horizontal desires and all that).

For many, iskelmä has become part of the common national memory. This Finnish construction shows many different influences, though. Some of the evergreen melodies are Russian tunes (such as Lokki, The Seagull, which was also the second most performed song in Finland in 1997) while some trace their origins to such an unlikely source as Jewish klezmer music (as in the case of Odessa, an old dance favourite). German influences were most clearly audible in the 1920s and 30s, when most of the Finnish songs were in fact recorded in Berlin. This was also the time when the foundations were laid for the popularity of the somewhat march-like Finnish tango and humppa, a peculiarly marching foxtrot.

"In the 50s, 60s and 70s, then, you had a Finnish cover version made of every imaginable hit from abroad, whether it was Italian or German or American. And yet, some of these are pure classics in their own right. It didn't matter if they were about lost love or lost youth or the beauty of nature – and I don't wish to sound too nationalistic here – they had a Finnish voice with a Finnish perspective", says Hakasalo.

This probably also explains why the world-conquering efforts of some Finnish performers have come to nothing. Perhaps they've tried to be something that they're not and have therefore remained world-famous in Finland only?

But iskelmä lives on. It's no coincidence that Radio Finland of the Finnish Broadcasting Company is the most popular radio station in Finland (as is BBC2 in Britain). Radio Finland and many of the fifty or so local radio stations play Finnish popular music to the extent where they may sorely test the easy listening skills of some of the listeners. Iskelmä is alive and well, too, on the Finnish TV, in the tabloids and weekly family magazines, filled with the most popular singers and their personal lives.

And as Ilpo Hakasalo says, "As long as we have hundreds of dance restaurants and dance halls that play live music and as long as Finns remain keen on ballroom dancing, I can't see any change to this tradition. Finns can be very conservative, you know. Fads come and go, but in many quarters a heart-rending iskelmä wins every time, hands down. "

Ilpo Hakasalo spoke at the Finnish Institute Study Day in April on Popular Culture in Finland.

See also:

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The Finnish Institutein London