Purists, Folk music, and video games

I may not be a purist, but I admit to having purist tendencies. Blame it on my mother. When I was growing up, the musical options in our family environment were either Classical or Classical. From drifting off to sleep at night to the sounds of my mom practicing piano, to Christmastime recordings of chorales from St. Martin in the Fields, to Classical music radio in the car—I was most often clueless to the latest pop music trends to which my friends were privy.

In my adult life, I have had the opportunity to explore many genres of music throughout the world. Regularly attending reggae-roots festivals for two years in New Zealand, teaching traditional Andean music to violin students in Cuzco, Peru, and now studying the folk fiddling tradition of Kaustinen; these are amongst the multi-genre experiences I have had. With 14 years of such endeavors, one would think that those purist tendencies would have subsided. But even for (or especially for, one might argue) musicians and artists, changing our ideas about what our preferred mediums “should” be like, or what they “should” represent, can be difficult. Why is that?

Change can be hard. But change can also be exciting. In less than two years, I have moved from the American Midwest to Saint-Étienne, France, then to rural Portugal, after that to Paris, and onto Naples, and finally here, to Kaustinen, Finland. Now that is a lot of change. And oh, boy have there been challenges—some of which seemed impossible at times. But among the seemingly infinite difficulties, I became fluent in French and Portuguese. And I spent 5 months attending classes at Le Musée de l’Homme in Paris, staring directly out my classroom window at an enormous Eiffel Tower 100 meters away. And I lived in a wooden cabin overlooking the Tagus River in the Portuguese woods, where I found myself welcomed into the home of strangers as if I had always belonged. So why are we purists, and often we humans, so afraid of change?

Well, imagine my surprise when I walked into the Kaustinen Folk Arts Centre gift shop my first day and saw the following postcards.

Postcards in Folk Arts Centre shop

Amongst the plethora of breathtakingly beautiful postcards that recalled a nostalgia for those “good-old-days”, complete with black-and-white photos of folk musicians holding acoustic instruments, I was blindsided by a postcard that stood in stark contrast to that romanticized past of a supposedly static society and culture. My first reaction to this was a perplexity as to what the intended meaning of this postcard could possibly be. All I could see was a pixelated image of a cartoon-like character playing the violin. Nearby I saw a flyer with a similar image and the phrase Pelimanni 8-bit. What’s going on here??

I said to myself…I thought I came here to study folk music…

When I eventually overheard Pelimanni 8-bit mentioned in conversation, I inquired further, and found out that: Kaustinen had turned the folk fiddling tradition into a video game!?!


And sure enough. Last year, published by the Folk Music Insititute[1], Pelimanni 8-bit became a free app available for download on your preferred medium of smart phone. “Pelimanni” is a word that is used an awful lot around these parts of Finland. In Finnish, Pelimanni means “Folk Musician” and it was and still often is associated with folk fiddlers. “8-bit” refers to the video game era that was launched in the early 80’s, bringing with it Super Mario Bros, for example. Combine that with the image on the front of the postcard and you might be able to come up with a couple ideas as to what this app is all about.

This is a video game about Finnish folk music traditions, specifically of the fiddling variety. There are various levels through which you can, if you are a savvier gamer than I, work your way, moving forward in the video game world as you advance ever-closer towards the title of Master Pelimanni (Master Folk Fiddler), a title actually granted to the best players each year at the Folk Music Festival here in Kaustinen. As Amanda Kauranne explains in her article about the game in Finnish Music Quarterly[2], in each new level you are introduced to a traditional tune. As the article also points out, these traditional tunes are arranged by Antti Janka-Murros in a style that Kauranne terms “Nintendo-influenced”. Nintendo-influenced, traditional tunes? Does that not lead the purists among us to the following question: doesn’t this kind of change mean that these tunes no longer get to be called “traditional”?

Last week I was discussing the game with a colleague here at the Folk Music Institute, and he told me that during the Folk Music Festival last year, the creators of the game, Jimmy Träskelin and Antti Janka-Murros put on a live performance of Pelimanni 8-bit for the public here at the Folk Arts Centre. While Träskelin worked through the levels of the game on a projection screen, simultaneously giving the audience tips about the trickier parts of each level, Janka-Murros played his Nintendo-influenced arrangements of the traditional tunes live on an electronic keyboard, attempting to maintain the pace of Träskelin and his fiddling character (whose name is Friiti).

There were about 50 attendees at the live performance of Pelimanni 8-bit, including adolescents, teens, and their respective parents, most of whom recalled the 8-bit style of video game from their own childhood. This project had reached one of the harder target populations in the folk music world: teenagers. As Träsklein himself asserts, the folk music here is approachable, all while serving and representing the folk music genre.

I downloaded the game myself a few days ago and played through a couple of levels. It is, seriously, too good. Finding myself humming the tunes from the game a while after I had put my iPhone away, I realized that I must I left my purist tendencies back in the gift shop with that postcard. I am reminded, retrospectively, that change can be great—and that maybe it is the only way to have a sense of continuity between past, present and future.

So, what do I think about Pelimanni 8-bit? I think you should try it yourself. You might just find yourself whistling Finnish folk tunes throughout the day tomorrow. And what’s wrong with that?

 

Suzanne Wedeking

[1] http://www.kansanmusiikki-instituutti.fi/183-2/

[2] https://fmq.fi/articles/pelimanni-meets-pixels

 

A week in Kaustinen

“So, why are you here?” I’ve been asked a time or three over this past week. I suppose it is a reasonable question to pose to a recently arrived 31-year old American woman who doesn’t speak a word of Finnish. After all, Kaustinen is a village where, well, there aren’t too many foreigners. And it’s not exactly on the well-beaten track either. Only after a 7-hour bus ride from Helsinki did I arrive to this village in Central Ostrobothnia, where, as far as I can tell, the city center consists of little more than a roundabout.

Let me be clear—I’ve had the warmest welcome. My awkward supermarket encounters are proof to that. Exhibiting an impressive lack of knowledge of the Finnish language, I have been forced, many a times already, to admit that “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Finnish” when the cashier is simply telling me “The total is €12.65”. I don’t actually need to say anything other than the sole word I know in Finnish: “Kiitos”. However, as far as I am concerned, she might as well be reciting a line out of the Kalevala, or at least telling me that that I, once again, forgot to weigh my bananas in the fruit aisle. But here in Kaustinen, the response to my Finnish ignorance has most often been welcomed with a smile and a shy yet dutiful attempt to communicate whatever I might need to know in a rusty but fluent English.

So, why AM I here? If I had any doubts the first few days, during which I reveled in the stunning silence and tranquility of Kaustinen in comparison to that of Naples, from where I had just arrived, those doubts were quickly abated over the past week. I admit, I had initially wondered to myself if loneliness might soon set in, the weekends and the evenings spent alone in a town where anyone and everyone close to my age seems to be married with at least two children. But, today being Sunday, I can officially say that any concern regarding boredom or isolation has in no way had time to find itself into my Kaustinen experience so far—and the snow is just beginning to melt. They say it only gets better.

This first week in Kaustinen has kept me busy. Starting my research internship at the Folk Music Institute Monday morning had me exploring the abundant resources both the Institute and the building itself, known as the Folk Arts Center, have to offer. And they really are endless. Add to those resources the people behind them, and you are in for a real treat. Regardless of what aspect of Finnish culture you might be interested in, there is an expert, whether it be in the birthright or the academic sense (or both), that will be more than happy to share their knowledge with you. And whatever they might decide to share is earnest and it is humble. In fact, both culturally and climatically, I don’t feel too far from my good, old Midwestern girl roots. Iowa? It’s just a few thousand miles away, directly south of the Finnish-American state of Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes. But the dirty, melting snow and the blue skies of Kaustinen in early April along with local hospitality, ironic humor, and genuine conversation have helped me to settle right in. Now about learning this language…

So, I’m little more than one week in here in Kaustinen and in that time I have: 1) seen a Golden Globe Best Picture film in a visually and acoustically pristine theater (in the Folk Arts Center), 2) attended a musical evening at the local Pelimanni bar that featured both a classical Baroque string duo and local Kaustinen folk music groups (perhaps here commences the debate as to which tradition, classical Baroque or Kaustinen fiddle, has a longer history?), 3) observed and participated in Näppärit, the “pluckers” children’s folk music ensemble open to children ages 3-18 at the music high school, and 4) traveled to Lapua, 45 miles south of Kaustinen where I was honored to play with the young Näppärit musicians for a regional Youth Association event. If my Thursday evening plans had panned out to attend the adult Kantele group rehearsal, I would have been so imbued in cultural activities that I wouldn’t have spent a single evening at home. Come to find out, belatedly, that there was a musical event Friday night that I didn’t even know about! Luckily for me, I’m quite sure there’ll be more. In fact, Wednesday this week I’m already double-booked.

So, what is this little roundabout of a town all about? I’d say that so far it’s the quietest, most lively place I’ve ever been. Does that mean Kaustinen has the best of both worlds, so to speak? I suppose this oxymoron might be altered in July, when the population surges from 4,000 to 50,000+ for one week during the 50-year old Kaustinen Folk Music Festival. But for now, I’ll enjoy the many cultural happenings spread nicely amongst the quiet moments of the melting snow. And in the meantime, I might try to learn the numbers in Finnish.

Suzanne Wedeking

 

Suzanne Wedeking is currently an Erasmus Mundus research
intern at the Folk Music Institute in Kaustinen, Finland,
under the generous support of the European Union. With this
research project in Kaustinen, Suzanne will complete a
European Joint Master’s Degree entitled DYCLAM: Dynamics of
Cultural Landscapes and Heritage Management. Originally from
the United States (Iowa), Suzanne is a violinist by training,
both teacher and performer. Her wide range of musical
interests speaks to her travels across the globe and have led
her here to Kaustinen, an ideal place for her sub-field of
interest within Heritage Studies: Intangible Cultural
Heritage. She is interested in the tradition of Kaustinen
Fiddle Playing, its related musical practices, and how this is
intertwined with current conceptions of what Intangible
Cultural Heritage means for our world today.