by DANIEL HEILA
The Finnish heritage of Sara Pajunen’s immigrant ancestors has deeply influenced her life and career. The Minneapolis-based violinist and composer’s early experience playing fiddle in the regional Finnish folk ensemble Singing Strings was an outgrowth of growing up in a Finnish-American family in the Iron Range of Minnesota. That interest in violin led to training as a classical violinist at the University of Minnesota and the Helsinki Conservatory in Finland.
Living a split life between Finland and the U.S. provoked questions about the lives of immigrants: how long does change take, does it take generations? Or, what does a person do, how do they live after having left the familiar and before finding it again? Pajunen found answers to these questions and a world of documentation and artifacts of immigrant life at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center.
Pajunen’s new project Laatikko/Box, which she performs April 30 at Portland’s Nordia House, is the fruit of her inquiry. A pivotal experience in her artistic development, it represents a transition from being a student responding to expectations and impulses to being a focused artist in control of her efforts — the director of her output. “That choice feels akin to someone making the decision to emigrate,” she told ArtsWatch in an interview. “Laatikko/Box is [a] project searching for similarities between journeys of change. So, although there may be tangible differences between immigrant groups, the piece focuses on the less tangible emotion that runs through all processes of change.”
Finnish Folk Revival
Pajunen’s music emerged in the context of a near 30-year, slow-boil Finnish folk music revival led prominently by musicians from Kaustinen in Ostrobothnia: early 20th century masters such as Antti Jarvella and Friiti Oyala paved the way for a resurgence in interest in traditional Pelimanni music. The Kaustinen Folk Festival, started in 1968 and still going strong, was a proving ground for many of today’s most successful Finnish folk acts: JPP, Frig, Troka, Varttina, accordionist Maria Kalaniemi, and multi-instrumentalists Artto and Antti Jarvela.
On this side of the pond, Finnish folk music has survived in regions where Finns resettled in the early twentieth century. Small bands still play Finnish dance music in communities in the upper Midwest and areas of central and south-central New York State. Toivo is a fine example from Trumansburg, New York. One of my earliest and most luminous memories (from sometime between 1969-1971) is of a Finnish association dance at the Covert Grange just north of Trumansburg. The image of stern, weather-worn Finnish farmers and farmwives dancing in black woolen formal wear and heavy shoes to Schottisches, hambos, and polkas will delight me forever.
Though Pajunen does not consider herself a folk musician, she has considerable experience and chops in that genre. In this video clip of the Polka Chicks with Kaivama performing a rockin’ Ellin Polkka, she pulls off that classic pulsing multi-fiddle sound that is quintessential Finnish music minus the churning harmonium (check out JPP for a taste). You may find a hint of the tune Ellin Polkka in this little internet gem.
Pajunen has dedicated herself to sharing the Finnish folk music of her heritage in “progressive yet reverent ways.” Her work with Finnish accordionist Teija Niku in their duo Allotar reveals her movement toward more personal, contemporary responses to folk music. In Allotar’s performance of Väliaikainen (a sample on her website), Pajunen’s vocal delivery foreshadows her tone in Lattikko/Box: gentle, smooth, slightly mournful, vaguely Nora Jones-ish. The mournful wins out in her quiet, almost subjugated, deadpan voiceover in a video sample of Laatikko/Box:
The value and enduring influence of a childhood immersed in Finnish immigrant folk music is obvious at live presentations of Laatikko/Box, where Pajunen performs “traditional music from my childhood and career. It is a way to take a look back on my process of change and acts as a meditative segue between readings.” Through voiceovers and projected images, Laatikko/Box delves into archival material and reveals similarities across regions, race, and generations. She will be recording a CD of Laatikko/Box this year, to be released in December. It’s a culmination of her recent work, which Pajunen calls an “investigation into family, culture, ancestry—and, essentially, self.”
I am a fervent believer in Merriam-Webster’s ninth definition of authentic: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. Sara Pajunen comes across as an authentic musician. “What is authenticity,” she asks, “but owning the place we are in at the moment?”
Sara Pajunen performs Saturday, April 30 at Nordia House, 8800 SW Oleson Road, Portland.
Tickets are available online or at (503) 977-0275.
Daniel Tapio Heilä is a composer, video artist and flutist in Eugene. He is also a second gen Finn who built a sauna in his backyard last winter.