Sound Waves

By Starita, Angela | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Sound Waves


Starita, Angela, The World and I


In Aki Kaurismaki's 1989 film Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a hapless group of stone-faced Finnish musicians tours the United States, looking for fame. Wearing complicated pompadours and enormous, ski-shaped boots, the ten member band finds itself entangled with a scheming manager and rejected by audiences. Its music, a cross between rock and polka, leaves audiences cold. But the stalwart Cowboys persevere and, in a new twist on the search for the American dream, head to Mexico, where they play as a wedding band for an appreciative audience.

The Leningrad Cowboys, the band featured in the film, was well known in Finland long before the film; it called itself the Sleepy Sleepers when it formed in 1974. But by the time of Kaurismaki's Film, the group had started to play with the boundaries defining pop culture in Finland. In a country that has always defined itself away from superpowers, the Cowboys' obscure mixture of musical and aesthetic stylus parodies Finland's ambivalent relations with Russia and the United States. Even its name is a wonderful amalgam of Cold War symbolism.

The band is as well known for creating its own mythical country and history as it is for its music. The Cowboys come from a weird land that combines Finland, the former Soviet Union, and an idealized United States. The official language is bad English, the country's motto: make tractors, not war. The band's founders, they say, were Siberians who walked to Alaska in the fourteenth century, traveled to California, but headed back home, deciding that "America was doomed to be poor (at least in relation to Siberia)."

As absurd as their private fiction may seem, it does reflect something of a tradition in Finland's long musical history, where a bit of mythmaking was often required. For example, Finland's most famous musical figure, Jean Sibelius, found inspiration in a distinctly homegrown mythology; witness, for example, his tone poems, Finlandia, Karelia, and "The Swan of Tuonela," all of which are based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Yet many recent Finnish pop bands seem more interested in drawing from far more contemporary and international myths--from the dreams of Southern California surf culture and the eccentric tales of London's Carnaby Street.

Finland identifies itself by its music, above any other art form. This has long been a way for the country to distinguish itself from its various colonizers. But increasingly, popular musicians are reaching beyond their culture's traditional emphasis on isolation. They are looking for ways to reach audiences outside Finland and not only through folk music.

Outside influences

For hundreds of years, Finland was the eastern province of the kingdom of Sweden. But in 1809 the territory that is now Finland was annexed by Russia, and residents began to absorb the musical influences available in the southern part of the country, where many upper-class Russians summered. Soon after, Elias Lonnrot, a folklorist, compiled folktales into the Kalevala.

Midway through the century, the country's music began to be Europeanized. Until then, it had been primarily folk music, sometimes composed to accompany the reading of the Kalevala. Although Finland was ruled by Russia, western and central European influences were incorporated into Finnish music to help the country develop its own modern musical identity. Light music from western Europe (particularly Paris and Vienna) influenced salon orchestras to play polkas, schotissches, and waltzes.

At the same time, Russian military bands began to grow in popularity. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Finns, particularly those in the south, regularly heard balalaika orchestras, mandolin quartets, and Viennese women's orchestras. They also became familiar with Russian romantic music, a baleful genre that is still expressed in some Finnish popular music today.

After Finland became independent in 1917, considerable musical exchange remained with both Sweden and the Soviet Union. …

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