Helsinki's Dynamic Music Scene

Michael Shaver
January 5, 2008
Berklee faculty members Dave Hollender and Dave McGann and students Eric Robertson and Nate Leath perform bluegrass with Eero Tikkanen Pop & Jazz Conservatory faculty member.
Juan Ospina
Photo by michael shaver
Photo courtesy of Juan Ospina

Päivää! Mitä kuuluu? Greetings from Helsinki, Finland. Like many people, I equated Finland with snow, reindeer, Santa Claus, and Lapland. Little did I know how rich the culture could be, especially when it comes to music.  Much of this is due to the fact that it borders Sweden to the west, Russia to the east, and Norway to the north, while Estonia lies to its south across the Gulf of Finland. Not only can you see the influence of all these cultures in the architecture, cuisine, and friendliness of the people; but the traditional music of Finland has also been predisposed.

There are two types of music that play a major role in the lives of Finns. The traditional music of Finland is strongly influenced by Slavic and Germanic roots. Traditional Finnish folk music, known as pelimanni music, tends to be very tonal and traditional, played with fiddles and clarinets. Today, we can see a raise in accordions in pelimanni. Many Finns would describe pelimanni music very similar to Klezmer music. Sami music is the second most common style of traditional Finnish music. It was created in the northern region of Finland. Due to the location, much of this music is influenced by Norwegian and Swedish traditions. Similar to the Native American music of North America, Sami music has great spiritual importance and instrumental use a traditional flute and drums.

As in many countries around the globe, not only is a culture rich in its traditional music, but also innovative and worldly with its contemporary music. Berklee's International Network partner Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki, Finland has helped many young and talented Finnish musicians expand their contemporary music repertoire from the common heavy metal style, which is very popular now. From talking to many students at Pop & Jazz Conservatory, I found that bluegrass music is really making waves in Finland. Many believe this has to do with the fact that pelimanni and bluegrass have similar instrumentation and styling. This was made apparent by a performance Erin goes Westerly. Erin Anttila, a senior at the conservatory, performed pieces from Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, and several other bluegrass and country idols.

In order to help the progression of bluegrass music in Finland, the Office of International Programs and Admissions selected two students, Nathan Leath (fiddle) and Eric Roberson (mandolin and vocals); and two faculty members, David Hollender (banjo) and John McGann (guitar and mandolin) to participate in our annual visit to Pop & Jazz Conservatory. The Berklee bluegrass group performed to a packed audience in the concert hall at the conservatory. The playlist focused on traditional pieces by greats such as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. In additional to an amazing performance by the group, Leath, an eighth-semester fiddler, provided an introductory clinic to American bluegrass and old time music. Approximately 30 students attended this clinic with instruments from fiddle, guitar, and voice, to mandolin and accordion. Clinic attendees were able to learn the basics of this often forgotten genre, and by the end were performing standards as a 30-piece ensemble.

In addition to the concert and clinics conducted by the faculty members and students, Berklee also held auditions and interviews for musicians seeking to attend the college. Led by Greg Badolato, assistant vice president for international programs, the team auditioned musicians from various northern European countries, including; Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Russia and as far away as Pakistan.

There was a special added bonus for our visit to Helsinki this year. The trip as a whole was planned through the cooperation of Marta Schmidt, producer at Pop & Jazz Conservatory and Jason Camelio, Berklee's associate director of international programs-auditions. Schmidt went the extra mile and contacted the UMO Jazz Orchestra in Helsinki to create an opportunity for a Berklee jazz composition student to have an original composition performed. With the help of Ken Pullig, chair of jazz composition, and Scott Free, professor of jazz composition (and participant on the 2006 visit to Pop & Jazz), Juan Ospina was selected as the featured student composer. Ospina is a seventh-semester pianist and composer from Bogotá, Columbia. His composition "Tramontana" was performed and recorded by the orchestra. Be sure to visit the UMO website and Ospina's website for more details and music.

This visit to Pop & Jazz provided a unique convergence, which allowed for an excellent exchange of musical styles and talents from both institutions. Our partners at Pop & Jazz did a fine job of broadening the exposure of Berklee to the wider audience of Finns. The future is bright for Berklee in Finland.