The melancholy Finnish tango
by Ilpo Hakasalo :: 1998
No sooner had the tango travelled from its native Argentina and settled in Paris in the early 20th century than it continued its journey to Finland. By autumn 1913 the newspapers were publishing little news items about the fashionable new dance along with advertisements for lessons and demonstrations.
Once the initial enthusiasm had worn off, the tango nevertheless receded into the background as just one dance among many. The Finnish tango of the 1930s was closely related to the "ballroom tango" of Central Europe, but there are a few Finnish evergreens such as Pieni sydän dating from this period.
War add soul to the Finnish tango
The grim conditions of wartime Finland provided the substance for a genre of the tango with a Finnish flavour all of its own. It may even be said that the war gave the northern tango its soul. While the war was still raging, or not long afterwards, Toivo Kärki composed a number of sensitive, melancholy tangos some of which, like "Liljankukka" and "Siks oon mä suruinen", later became classics. The lyrics, telling of parting and longing, held special meaning for many who had lost their loved-ones for ever.
In the 1950s there were more dance halls in Finland than ever before or since. People all over the country wanted to hear and dance the tango, which gained more and more significance. What is more, at the beginning of the following decade it continued to grow in popularity, despite the advent of new rhythms and pop music.
It was in the fifties that the male vocalists specialising in the tango began to be known above all as tango singers, even though their repertoires consisted mainly of other types of song. Vocalists such as Olavi Virta, Henry Theel and Taisto Tammi thus became known first and foremost as tango singers; so did Eino Grön, Reijo Taipale, Esko Rahkonen and Markus Allan, all of whom still perform today. While women have been singing tangos for years, not one has yet become known specifically as a tango singer.
The great tango names: Kärki and Mononen
The last great tango by Toivo Kärki (1915-1992) is "Tango merellä", but the composer pointed out that many of his later pieces were in fact "tangos in disguise". Three quarters of the hundred or more recorded pieces by Unto Mononen (1930-1968) are tangos, most of them written in the early 1960s. "Satumaa" still ranks among the ten pieces of music most frequently performed in Finland, sometimes topping the list, and taking fourth place in the charts for 1997.
It takes some time for a Finnish tango to become firmly established. Although the tango may be called the most distinctive phenomenon of the Finnish popular music tradition, new tangos do not become hits overnight. Each year 300-400 new tangos are submitted for the competition held in conjunction with the Tango Festival in Seinäjoki, but with the exception of Rannalla by Vesa Tuomi and Tuula Heikkilä, few have survived for long.
The Tango Festival in Seinäjoki founded in 1985 has since the mid-1990s been the biggest summer event in Finland. Seinäjoki also has an international tango centre that has strengthened its ties with Argentina in particular.
The top ten Finnish tangos
There are numerous other candidates that could qualify for the top ten list of Finnish tangos, but the following have particularly strong claims. The list gives the title, composer, lyrics writer and year of composition.
Kotkan ruusu (Helvi Mäkinen - Leo Anttila 1948)
Liljankukka (Toivo Kärki - Kerttu Mustonen 1946)
Musta ruusu (Pentti Viherluoto - Aimo Viherluoto 1956)
Pieni sydän (Walter Rae - Tatu Pekkarinen 1939)
Satumaa (Unto Mononen 1955)
Siks oon mä suruinen (Toivo Kärki - Kerttu Mustonen 1944)
Syvä kuin meri (Unto Mononen 1965)
Syyspihjalan alla (Arvo Koskimaa - Veikko Virmajoki 1943)
Tango merellä (Toivo Kärki - Reino Helismaa 1963)
Täysikuu (Toivo Kärki - Reino Helismaa 1953)