BY Greg Goldenzwaig
Concert promoter, journalist and music export researcher Dr Greg Goldenzwaig takes a look at the import-export of rock and pop music between Finland and Russia. Some things have changed for sure in the past ten years.
“Hyvää yötä” [good night], actor Markku Peltola greets the camera: “Hyvää yötä!”
The year is 2005. The hall is packed and his Moscow festival appearance was a success. Peltola is happy. He is smiling ear to ear and slightly swaying in the wind: no one is too sober in the travel party of 50 Finnish musicians. The camera is swinging together with Peltola. The ultramodern Nokia model catches the signboard of the trendiest club in Moscow, the blue and white flag over the door, the decisive grimace of Petri Sirviö counting his shouting choristers, the hipsterish checked jacket of Iisa Pykäri (electro pop band Regina’s premiere abroad) – and the fluffy ears of a clockwork hare, sticking out of Merja Kokkonen aka Islaja’s suitcase. The hare plays drums in Islaja: Mos-cow fans will discussing these crazy Finnish ideas for another week.
Cut. Browse through the camera memory.
Eight hours earlier it captured a middle-aged suited gentleman on stage with a mike. Rising over a sea of sweaty T-shirts and hoodies. Holding a festival flyer in his hand. “The Finns are not what they seem,” he reads off the flyer and adds ironically: “The Finns are actually much better. Let me welcome you to the Finnish music festival in Moscow.”
The crowd explodes and greets the Finnish ambassador with a yell. Tough guy, got a sense of humour, not your boring suit.
Everyone in the crowd got the same flyer. Under the festival slogan (“The Finns are not what they seem” – Hello Twin Peaks!), there stands a figure of a tiny, bent Sami Sanpäkkilä, the founder of Fonal, a label hyped by The Wire and virally popular among the Moscow music critics.
It’s the mid-2000s, and Finland is viral.
Russian legislators of good taste rush to discover Finnish talent and share it with their fellow countrymen. Legendary promoter Alexander Cheparukhin opens Pandora’s box and brings the accordionist-on-fire Kimmo Pohjonen. Media guru Artem Troitsky books Cleaning Women, a weird young gang of fake cross-dressers from the planet Cleanus. Kaurismäki’s muse Kirsi Tykkyläinen steps in as a cultural attaché for the Finnish Embassy; an unsurpassed bohemian figure, she becomes the synonym of a trendy Western diplomat in the Russian capital. Eccentric pensioners’ humppa band Eläkeläiset once entered the country for a club tour – and ended up returning for remunerative Russian corporate parties. No wonder: Finland is fun and cool.
Things are developing quickly. A young band called Poets of the Fall come to play the Finnish festival in Moscow- and are astonished to be greeted by hundreds of fans. They will return to play at venues ten times bigger, and Russia will forever become their main touring destination.
Magyar Posse, a humble post-rock formation from Pori, start with a chamber-size show, return to Moscow’s biggest open-air venue within the year – and in another year, by the time the band mutates into Eleanoora Rosenholm, they already are on the radar of the main music media. Russian trendsetters learn to pronounce “ambulanssikuskitar” – and shit over the language barrier.
These times are in the past. It’s 2016, and I have no idea where the memory card of the supertrendy Nokia phone is now.
And no regrets: the years of Finnish music hype are well remembered by the generation of the 2000s. It somehow ran through our fingers. Finnish music is now business as usual for the Russians – and business it definitely is.
Search for Finnish music on the Russian national social network VKontakte – and the search results will tell you that the heavy genres are standing strong. That constellations of Finnish hard rock fans are alive and kicking. That Russian travel guides to Finland still mention places related to Ville Valo and Lauri Ylönen. That Tarja Turunen’s Christmas concert easily sells out the Moscow Conservatory, while Amorphis and Lordi can tour Russia whenever they’d like and as much as they’d like.
Equally unsinkable is actor Ville Haapasalo – an all-embracing encapsulation of Finland for your average Ivan. Here he is, singing on Channel Russia One on a New Year’s Eve national holiday, shortly after the President’s greetings to the nation. Haapasalo is dressed as Santa Claus and reveals that he was raised with the reindeers. Of course.
You may wonder if the cultural stereotypes make Finland a good or a bad service in Russia – but, due to them, Finland is clearly on the map.
Several years ago at a showcase in Tampere Jori Hulkkonen asked: “Will someone understand that this country is actually more than a bunch of rockers?” I do not think most of the Russian audience would understand it today. The stereotype of Finnish music is clearly lopsided – positively lopsided: a new band bearing the name of a Russian town and excelling in heavy riffs would be bound for success.
Has the national cultural marker been helpful for, say, one-man synthetic funk orchestra Eero Johannes or electro-pop band LCMDF? ls there any other music from Finland that would cause the same sort of engagement? I’m afraid not. This is where Finland fell out of the limelight. So, is the nuanced, diverse, non-con-formist image that Finnish music once enjoyed in Russia a lost conquest?
lt is naturally not only about the audience. One may also question the stereotypes of the Finnish music industry and cultural diplomacy regarding Russia: Finland’s own strategies and policies are a subject for a separate study. There are still brilliant cases, such as the Flow festival, which against all odds managed to become the #1 music event for St Petersburg audiences and significantly raised attendance from Russia. This does inspire hope.
What feels even more promising is that music export between Finland and Russia is no longer a one-way street. DDT, Aquarium, Andrey Makarevich, Zemfira – the créme de la créme of the Russian music scene – gather packed crowds at Finland’s top venues. This has nothing to do with the Russian cultural authorities: they are exactly as hopeless at music export as before. lnstead, there is a growing audience for music from across the Eastern border, and – touch wood! – not only due to the Russian-Inkerinmaan diaspora.
Rock icon Andrey Makarevich studies his own interview in Helsingin Sanomat sitting in his lodge before the show. For the first time in his 55-year career the father of Russian rock is playing in Helsinki – in spite of the diplomatic turbulence, the economic crisis and growing political concerns.
At the same moment they ring from the main gate and I rush to the entrance. A group of well-dressed gentlemen needs an escort; the expensive seated area sold out weeks ago. They do not speak a word of Russian: we communicate in Finnish. A Russian concert is no longer a concert for the diaspora.
Year by year, I meet more Finnish audiences at the Russian shows in Helsinki. In a street by the club’s backstage entrance, I turn on the iPhone 6 camera and take a picture of Andrey Makarevich with his Finnish fans.
I’ll save the pic. I cherish the hope they come to stay.
See also Rikka Hiltunen’s article on the Tusovka association here.