Finnish tradition brought to life as part of the ‘Nordic Matters’ series at Southbank
Epic Tales from Finland is, perhaps, not the title you would expect to come across in the London Literature Festival at Southbank Centre. Even so, as I tuck myself into this room after a couple of wrong turns (finding the show is like being on a treasure hunt here), I find it is already full of expectant faces.
It is a quaint setting tinged with the nostalgia of school days on plastic chairs, and is animated by a crowd of elderly guests, as well as small children and even a young couple on a date. I expect to see many Finns, like myself, but a commendable number of English folk seem interested in this small window of Finnish tradition.
Upon entering, not knowing what to expect, I gladly accept a shot of Salmiakki – a strong and emblematic liqueur abhorred by most of those not from the Nordic countries. Perhaps this opens up my senses for the wondrous hour to come…
The stage is entered by the narrator, Nick Hennessy, and three musicians: Anna-Kaisa Liede (vocals), Kristiina Ilmonen (flutes, percussion, vocals), and Timo Väänänen (kantele, pyngyr, vocals). Our storyteller is a lively English fellow. Hennessy is so engrossed in just about every sentence he utters, and so colourfully animated, that I felt like I was watching a Hollywood blockbuster. I was slightly surprised that he wasn’t Finnish (evident in his pronunciation), but happy to see that the three musicians who joined him on stage a few minutes later sang their lines in my native tongue.
How they sang! This was Epic Song (runolaulu); singing like I’ve never heard before. A mystical, seemingly never-ending song I did not recognise, and yet, it moved me to a home-sickness that made me immediately picture the thousand lakes and trees of quiet Finland, that of my childhood. I gradually began to recognise that I was hearing the Finnish National Epic Tale, Kalevala, being told in a way I hadn’t encountered before. This is a tale I have read and studied multiple times in school, and one that is quite routine for any Finnish person. The Kalevala was first compiled by Elias Lönnrot around the 1850s. The story goes that he went all across the country knocking door to door, asking the locals to sing their folk tales to him. They each do so in a special style of singing known as kalevalamitta – an archaic tetrameter to be technical – a tradition said to date back as far as 2000 years. The result is a cohesive epic connected by certain characters and their mystical adventures.
After studying the Kalevala as a child, this performance at Southbank Centre was one of the only times I have fully engaged with the story. The tale being related in a strong English accent meant that I was given the opportunity to hear it, in some respect, for the first time, and become newly engrossed in the fantastic adventures of Väinämöinen and his encounters with death and magic. I am aware that this might give the impression to outsiders of Finns as forest-folk, still dressing in rags and frolicking with the animals, but rest assured, this impression is only the result of artistic expression. The music of the Finnish traditional instrument, the kantele, is hauntingly beautiful, but we hardly ever hear it being casually played.
And then I had the feeling of hearing the Kalevala for the first time again. The song of Liede was a whole new epic tale in itself. Two performers tell the tale at once, weaving two languages and mediums together into one. In between speech and song, they find a line of communication, and in turn, connect the two people with the entire crowd present.
The group will continue touring their talent in Lithuania this December and Helsinki in February 2018. Their nifty little brochure brilliantly explains their own work as well as Finland’s culture. Follow the Advers Camber website for more details.
‘Nordic Matters’ continues with a series of events at the Southbank Centre.
Photo Credit: David Tiernan
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