Previous page

The Finnish tango in the context of Finnish culture

Pirjo Kukkonen


A great mythical story as the hit or popular music is shaped by its lyrics, not least the tango. To sing this mythical story needs repetition in a schematic or ritual form. Art music puts new questions, and is progressive in its demand for new perspectives. The Argentinean tango has developed itself musically in the tango nuevo (e.g. Astor Piazzolla). The hit on the other hand feeds on repetitive, permanent and familiar structures and, like the folk tradition, one of its functions is to provide security, to give therapeutic consolation. The hit and the tango repeat the old stories of paradise lost. The Hungarian folklorist Elemér Hankiss has noticed that hit lyrics can be roughly categorised as: be mine, you are mine, and why aren’t you mine any more/now/ yet. The hit songwriter has to use small solutions in a very limited space. Often a new style is developed from a fusion as Toivo Kärki (1915–1992), the great Finnish tango composer did, using Slavic romances, jazz influence and the remote form of the Argentinean tango to create the Finnish tango genre.

The tradition of Finnish popular music

The tradition of Finnish popular music is built on three traditions: Finnish folk music, the European classic and romantic art music in popular versions, and Afro-American music. The mythical instrument, kantele, acquired competitors in the violin, clarinet, and horns. In the middle of the 19th century, the Finnish popular culture assimilated the new dances, the polka and the waltz. The old Kalevala song tradition was compensated with new songs. In Finland during the period of autonomy, new ides from European culture were transformed to create a new national culture. Finland got new musical traditions; new dances, comic songs and revues, couplets, (in Finnish kupletti), varieties and revues were performed, and many hotels had saloons where new dances such as the tango could be done. The first performance of the tango as a dance took place in the Hotel Börs in 1913. The two predominant musical directions before the jazz era in Finland were the Central European and the Eastern from St. Petersburg. The accordion, imported from Italy, was the functional element of both these influences. The Eastern influence provided the gypsy romances, while the Russian romances with its roots in central European music and the German lied, developed its own typically pathetic melancholy from its folk tradition and language in minor keys. The Russian romance appeared in various types of Finnish music; in the 1920s in foxtrots and waltzes, in the 1940s in Toivo Kärki’s tangos, and during recent times in Juice Leskinen and Edu Kettunen’s compositions. Finnish popular music is, as Jalkanen states, a fusion of disparate elements from Central and Easter Europe. This is the background to the Finnish tango music and its texts. Is there anything Finnish left however? The Finnish language gives its special Finnish character, for instance, with nature metaphors, alliteration and repetition as stylistic figures already characteristic of folk poetry.

The Kalevala character in Finnish popular music

In the 19th century the Kalevala music disap-peared quickly, but Jalkanen claims some features remained, as in the tango Satumaa (1955), ‘The Happy Land’, by Unto Mononen. A typical feature is the melancholy expressed in psalms maintained the Kalevala character in folk songs and in Finnish popular music. Toivo Kärki is the developer of both the Finnish tango, the melancholic song, and the so-called rillumarei, the joyful carnivalistic and comic song genre containing social and cultural criticism. According to Jalkanen Kärki’s tangos On elon retki näin (1940) ‘Such is the Journey of Life’, Liljankukka (1945), ‘The Lily Flower’, Siks oon mä suruinen (1944), ‘Therefore I am sad’, composed during the war, have the same status as Oskar Merikanto’s and Georg Mamstén’s songs, having become modern folk songs.

Kärki’s tangos are a synthesis of two traditions, one being the Russian waltz and romance tradition, the other the tetrachord harmony of jazz, combining to form the Finnish musical tradition in the structure of the Argentinean tango with its forms and rhythms. Good examples are Täysikuu (1953), ‘The Full Moon’, and On elon retki näin (1940), in which the appoggiatura, the typically expressive device of romantic music is apparent. According to Kärki, this means that tetrachord in jazz forms the melody, the appoggiatura occurring when a sound which does not belong to it is added. The result is a musical sound consisting of features from the Russian romance. These melancholic sounds have affected folk song in the 19th century as well as the Finnish hit in the 1920s and 1930s. Kärki has put these into the Finnish tango with new functions and meanings. The Finnish feature in Kärki’s tangos is the “lazy triol” (as in Hiljainen kylätie (1955), ‘The Quiet Country Road’.

In the tango Liljankukka Kärki has used sequence repetitions as did baroque composers; Jalkanen compares this tango with the theme in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ baroque-nuanced Bacianas brasileiras no 5. This makes Kärki’s style different from the tango composer Unto Mononen (1930-1968) whose tangos resemble Finnish psalms. As Jalkanen states, the difference between these two great Finnish tango composers that Kärki represents the romance during Finland’s tzarist era, but Mononen the Protestant chorale, along with the sin of man, the dream of heaven, and the fear of hell.

Minor and major keys in the Finnish music

Finnish music combines minor and major keys – minor with joy and major with sorrow, as Lars Huldén (1981), a Finland-Swedish professor and author, has pointed out in his translation of Finnish songs into Swedish. This feature is apparent in the folk songs, and the Finnish people develop own dances like the Finnish tango and the so-called humppa, a foxtrot like dance developed from the onomatopoeic sound um-pap-paa towards the end of the 1950s.

The major key is used in the carnivalistic rillumarei music culture (e.g. humppa, foxtrot, waltz, polka, jenkka, in revues and comic songs), while the minor key is used for the nostalgic Finnish tango, with its melancholic Slavic features, German march sounds, and distant Argentinean influences, an original phenomenon typical of Finland with no resemblance to other tangos and with lyrics of its own. It is thus a unique genre, a rare national representation of the tango on the world and in the international tango semiosis.

Pirjo Kukkonen, Professor at the University of Helsinki