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Sanna and the band

Sanna Kurki-Suonion Kuolematon Erikoissysteemi
The Immortal Special System of Sanna Kurki-Suonio
Rockadillo / Westpark

Listen "Hyvästi (Goodbye)" (full song)

When applying the epithet ethnic to a singer's style, one should be careful, because one doesn't always know what it meant back when it was coined. But then again, sometimes you are so sure of its meaning that you don't care. This is it. This is really ethnic. Sanna Kurki-Suonio sounds like the earth mother, the voice of the people.

This is how she struck listeners in the nineties, based on just a few of the comments left on a YouTube video of the 1994 track "Tuuli (Wind)" from the album Trä (Tree), the third release from the Swedish-Finnish group Hedningarna:

  • I wept. I tried not to, but the energy and old spirit of this song is overwhelming.
  • We often say "cold Scandinaves," but I've never before heard so much fire.
  • The wild voices are the point. This is meant to be ancient Karelia, the land of the wizard women of the far north.
  • Oh the screams at 3:45 just hit me to the spine, sending shivers up and down everywhere. If I'd be a tree, that would be the part when I would just splinter.
  • Just amazing!

You could follow up with Kurki-Suonio's four solo, duet or trio albums. Her other main project these days is SANS, an ensemble with British multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw on kantele and its many relatives, Australian Ian Blake on bass clarinet and soprano sax, and Armenian Tigran Aleksanyan on duduk. Their SANS Live (2014, Cloud Valley) is music for deep meditation, not recommended so much for the dark of night as for that contemplative "apres sauna" moment when you are relaxing on the porch by the lake in the dimming evening sun, your skin steaming, your droopy eyes looking at the calm surface of the lake and your tired ears listening to a distant cuckoo bird. It is a masterpiece of musical time/space travel; you can feel the gravitational deflection of cosmic light waves on the crevices of your mind. The instrumental combinations alone are otherworldly. Kurki-Suoni's voice floats above it all with majestic grace. Please do dive in, swimming ability not required, only an open soul ready to float in eternal tranquility.

And now we have The Immortal Special System of Sanna Kurki-Suonio.
(Titled The Unparalleled System in the Westpark edition.)

The title is obviously meant as a joke, reflecting on the reticent and unassuming nature of the Finnish psyche, but I tend to take it very seriously indeed. Because this is special and nothing like I expected, even if I did witness the very first gig of the sextet more than a year ago. On that occasion, I was worried. Worried about keyboard player Risto Ylihärsilä possibly ruining the whole thing, because I'd seen him once in a solo capacity (he also performs under the band name Risto), making an unholy neurotic racket in a very "noise" style. How was I to know that he would prove to be a consummate painter of thick and thin swathes of aural delight, often in a "retro space" manner. I also was not sure about the wisdom of choosing Jarkka Rissanen as guitarist, because he is very well known as a blues player with harmonica ace Pepe Ahlqvist and others, and I'd never heard Kurki-Suonio singing the blues. Yet, Rissanen is perfect, even if there's not one screaming blues solo in sight. And speaking of blues harmonica, I could not imagine this guy Otto Staubenbiel fitting in, until I heard his unobtrusive chording (very much in the style of a big favorite of mine, Norton Buffalo).

This stylish prog rock group is completed by bassist Roope Laasonen and drummer Dimitri Tolonen (son of prog guitar legend Jukka Tolonen). Prog rock? Yes, for lack of a better word, but ethnic fusion would also fit nicely. Psychedelic was a word chosen by a young critic from Soundi magazine (my former editorial playground).

Listen "Häävalssi" (excerpt)

Tradition also creeps in occasionally, especially if you consider a rather modern wedding waltz to be traditional, as Finns most certainly would. "Häävalssi" alias "The Wedding Waltz" is one of the key tracks here and not only because it definitely does not sound like a waltz for a wedding, but more like a SANS track with a rhythm section, that slowly grows into a psychedelic, shimmering pulse. All this is in stark contrast to its former life under another title. It is in fact a poem written and originally composed by Aulikki Oksanen, a well known author and singer from the left-wing Song Movement of the late sixties and early seventies, and recorded in "traditional pompous" style by the mighty Loiri, Finland's No. 1 comedian, actor and singer, when it was still called "Vilukukka." Kurki-Suonio re-composed it radically. She says she did not know it had been previously composed and performed, that she found it in one of Oksanen's books of poetry.

Listen "Herätys (Awakening)" (excerpt)

A similar case can be made for the opening number and one of my favorites, "Hyvästi (Goodbye)", which had been set to music by the veritable icon of the Song Movement, Kaj Chydenius, but Kurki-Suonio didn't know that one, either. She just loved Oksanen's beautiful poem and asked for permission to turn it into a steadily chugging rhythm number, with great harp from Staubenbiel and sixties-style moog curlicues from Ylihärsilä (who also produced the whole album).

Listen "Hei Babe" (full song)

But the second track "Hei Babe" was the one, on the first listen. This is the ultimate temptress; a brash, insinuating and overwhelmingly irresistible kitttycat of the Eartha Kitt type. It should be a hit and a dancefloor smash. I can just see all the ladies swinging their hips seductively at all the stiff-jointed gentlemen at the local disco.

Listen "Manan Matti (Matti of the Underground)" (excerpt)

Much of the rest of album hits a more somber note, mood pieces fit for our summer evening vigils. Some are traditional, most are Kurki-Suonio's own compositions. They will take some getting used to, but I swear it's worth your while. That voice will get you.

As for me, I should quit now, before I start reminiscing about a night in a jazz club in the late 90's, when a certain ethnic songbird asked me to dance to the music of another Doctor of Music from the Sibelius Academy. I'll leave you with a 12-minute live rendition of the wedding waltz-thingy. That's me woo-hooing at the end. - Waldemar Wallenius


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