Har du visor min vän? The Finnish-Swedish songs
by Åke Grandell :: 2002
The words chanson, lied, visa all mean the same thing in their respective language, i.e. song, and yet each of them has a meaning that distinguishes them from songs in general.
In Scandinavia, the word "visa" usually refers to a text of literary quality joined by stanzas and matched with a melody repeated with the stanzas. The typical visa is of “small size”. In recent years, yet another criterion has come along, namely that it should be “interpretable”.
The history of this literary genre dates far back to courts and courtly habits, to Minne singers, trouvères and vagabond troubadours, and on the way up to our time we meet Villon and Lucidor, Bellman and Taube, Cornelis Vreeswijk and Mikael Wiehe and the whole motley crowd that goes under the name "Visans Vänner", i.e. Friends of Song.
Is there such a thing as a Finland-Swedish visa? Oh yes, definitely! It is true, of course, that the Finland-Swedish language area is part of a larger common cultural community – the mythical lindorm snake wriggles through the ballads in much the same way, sailors sail away after cheating the girls the same way – the tragic events in folk songs are of the same kind, and so is the news in the chapbooks. Folk songs display the same longings and fates, and spiritual songs dwell on a common emotional level, too.
But all forms of popular art show variation, and local variants are a direct consequence of geographical location, linguistic development and cultural contacts. Obviously, our location in a distant corner of Europe causes a certain kind of isolation. Today, this is perhaps most clearly manifested in the Finland-Swedish vocabulary, which tends to be “older” than that of Sweden-Swedish. The location of the area in which our variant of Swedish is spoken – a narrow and interrupted zone along the western and southern coast of Finland – has implied, above all, overseas contacts of dissimilar kinds causing dissimilarities within the Finland-Swedish cultural community.
For someone living at the eastern extreme of "Svensk-Finland", i.e. Swedish Finland (the Swedish-language strip along the southern and western coasts), words such as "papyross" (a cigarette) stemming from Russian culture will be familiar, while words such as "mina" (a mine, i.e. coal mine, for example) used in the western parts and stemming from American culture will be hard for him to understand. Finland-Swedish has developed a large number of terms that are not used in Swedish, provincial terms influenced by Finnish and, to an increasing extent today, by English.
The Hymn Book and Runeberg
If we want to talk about the Finland-Swedish visa, we may very well start with its language. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that its linguistic foundations are found in the Bible and the Hymn Book – and in the poets Runeberg and Topelius.
This may be for better of for worse. Because while thanks to these great forerunners, the language of the Finland-Swedish visa is rich in words, effective images and well-balanced formulations it is, at the same time, somewhat old-fashioned in syntax, and invites subsequent songwriters to clichés that often feel too heavy. Here, we might expect that the modernist revolution, which to such a great extent was a Finland-Swedish phenomenon, would have influenced the language. But no, it would rather seem that contact between words and song were not that important to Edith Södergran or Elmer Diktonius – although the latter was a composer.
The Finland-Swedish visa has three cornerstones
The Folkkultursarkivet (Finland-Swedish Folklore Archives) collect and store material. It contains a few totally unique collections – Svea Jansson's enormous repertoire of old songs and recordings of folk songs in two voices. This material has been discovered by artists from Sweden, such as the group Rotvälta, and by our own internationally famous ethnic music group Gjallarhorn, both of which draw on the material.
Visans Vänner (Friends of Song) was founded in 1945 on the initiative of “Limpan” Lindholm after a Swedish model. Today, there are 9 separate clubs, not all of which, however, are active. Concerts and song workshops are their normal forms of activity.
Tondiktarna is an association that seeks to bring poets and melody makers together. The goal is to create Finland-Swedish songs in all fields. This happens in the form of seminars, professional tutoring, competitions and producing/publishing.
No song without love
If we analyse the concept Finland-Swedish visa (song) we notice that quite obviously it has the same richness in kinds and classes as songs have in Scandinavia, or the whole world. The three large sectors are love, nature and religion. Here, we move in domains that are greater than life, where everything is experienced with extreme emotional intensity and where sheer exaggeration makes expressions too pompous, fuzzy and cliché-like.
Love is the origin and motor of everything – in the Finland-Swedish visa, too. Professor and poet Lars Huldén has said that you cannot write a visa without love – a song yes, but never a visa. This can be interpreted in many ways – e.g. that your love is a generally positive feeling towards the entire human existence or, similarly, that you more specifically have a positive attitude towards the elements of your visa.
Yet, if we talk about love visas, it is primarily about love between man and woman. This love song is, first of all, a product of the infatuation, the first delirium – “the fire that plagues and delights when he kindles his first glow in young hearts”! The first lucid moment turns into “yours for evermore” and “you are the only one”, according to the cliché of tradition.
If we compare these banalities with, for example, Runeberg's 'Den enda stunden' (The Only Moment), the problem will become apparent to anyone. In this sector, the Finland-Swedish visa can display a few of its finest items, written “in modern times”. Barbara Helsingius interprets this “meeting, this shimmering first glance” in 'Jag visste så väl' (I Knew so Well) with incisive insight and female strength. The opposite extreme, the nearing end of a lifespan, has received its ultimate description in Tove Jansson's 'Höstvisa' (Autumn Song), with a melody by Erna Tauro. Between these, we find many pearls – why not Bebbe Ahlfors' 'Ska vi göra en mänska ikväll?' (Shall We Make a Human Tonight?).
Gospel and rock
Spiritual songs “lie next door” to love songs. It is, of course, a different angle to love, but the sensations can come very close to each other in both kind and amplitude. The risk of exaggeration and clichés is equally as great in spiritual as in love lyrics.
This sector has been under strong influence from modern gospel music. The synthesis seems to rest on old formulae, the tempo and phrasing of gospel music and much of the leading lines of rock music in the backing. There are, of course, exceptions such as Nanna Rosengård's 'Before You', but then again, there is only one song in Swedish on the CD.
The great exponent is the choir His Master's Noise, which combines the best elements of choir singing with the best elements of “modern” pop music. In 'Aftonens sång' (the Song of Evening) with lyrics by Ole Jacobsson and music by Roger Wingren, the choir has made a definite hit. It is interesting to note that the text is not explicitly spiritual – but it may invite thoughts and feelings of that kind. In Finnish, we have a similar example in Kari Rydman's 'Niin kaunis on maa' (So Beautiful is the Earth), and we might, of course, place Bebbe Ahlfors' 'Har du visor, min vän?' in the same category. Both songs have grown much greater than they really are. As I said earlier, visas should be interpretable, and this applies to their content, too.
Nature is important to us all. There again, the subject invites clichés and repetition. The lot of divinely inspired local songs in 17 couplets boasting the beauty and superiority of people's home districts serves as a warning example. Luckily, we have an antidote in Bebbe Ahlfors' 'Hem till Främre Tölö' and its ingenious refrain 'Tölö – Tölö – Töö'.
There are other brilliant exceptions, too, including primarily perhaps Tom Gardberg's songs. Summer, to him, means his yacht, his family and the Åboland Archipelago, and winter to him means reminiscing and transforming these memories into songs. Like no-one else, he has described the first spring walk along the quays of Åbo (Swedish name for Turku), the hustle and bustle on the wharf, the Ersta large outside Åbo as the gate to freedom and adventure – and how, on the last sailing trip of the summer, the “Autumn Hymn” over the radio forces the skipper to “clear his throat and swallow his tears” when he has to return to civilisation again. Tom is an outstanding representative of the purely literary visa, and the fact that he has produced recordings in both Swedish and Finnish just proves the strength of his poetic vein. His production is collected in a book of songs with scores and on a double CD named 'Natthamn – Yösatama'.
The schnapps song is often seen as a Finland-Swedish characteristic, and my own observations rather seem to back such an idea. Whereas Finns readily sing the entire 'Isotalon Antti ja Rannanjärvi' and Swedes don't mind delivering longer stories, Finland-Swedes have refined a "snapsvisa" of their own: some well-known tune is given a short new text ending with a joke. Finland-Swedes have even won the Swedish national snapsvisa championship – from which it is only a short step to the All-Scandinavian championship.
The attention that these events draw is shown by the hundreds of entries received each time, by the fact that almost every local pub with self respect in the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland arranges some kind of snapsvisa contest, and that Folkkulturarkivet keep records of this popular form of art. For those who are interested, there is relevant material available such as the CD 'Snapsvisor för alla tillfällen' (Schnapps songs for all Occasions) containing 75 good examples and the book 'Stora snapsviseboken' published by Vin- och Sprithistoriska museet in Stockholm. The latter is about to publish a history of the Swedish snapsvisa in two volumes, i.e. 'Helan går' and 'Från Helan till Lilla Manasse'. Two diligent contributors are Lasse von Hertzen and Bosse Österberg.
Besides being a City Architect and a "dryckesråd" (Counsellor of Drinking) of Visans Vänner, Bosse Österberg is famous for his burlesque, sometimes even macabre songs. On his latest CD 'Sjöjungfrun' (the Mermaid) a tail on the wrong carrier, a cut-off plait, a difficult situation in class, an ordinary fishing trip all result in tumult and fatalities.
Dialect: the Nyland and Ostrobotnia provinces
Local linguistic variants are called dialects – and we certainly have dialects in Svensk-Finland. Sibbo with its broad, rolling r, the double articulation of Bromarf dialect, the unique Närpes “language”, the “false” genders of Karleby Swedish all contribute to the fascinating palette of local linguistic variants.
Three names should, above all, be mentioned: Max Portin, who has dedicated himself to making the language of the Jakobstad region live on in poetry – as interpreted in Erik Sundholm's songs. The girl trio Argbiggorna from the Borgå (Swedish for Porvoo) area sing in the archaic Pellinge dialect and sometimes translate themselves into "Helsingfors-svenska", or more exactly, the Swedish spoken at Svenska Teatern in Helsinki. The most prominent dialect singer is, perhaps, Håkan Streng, whose two records 'Heimlaga' (Home-Made) and 'Meir Heimlaga' (More Home-Made) must have beaten the Finland-Swedish record for number of records sold.
And before I sum up, I would like to point out that the Finland-Swedish community has only about 300,000 members – so competition is not great, and opportunities for making a livelihood on visa singing are very small. The Moomin songs have been most successful financially – and there are a number of successful children's songs and Christmas songs, too. At the other extreme, non-commercial artistic songs as represented by Olle Söderholm's unique visas, would be more characteristic of the genre in a financial sense.
But neither radio nor TV has a special broadcast for visas. The association Visans Vänner has “ups and downs” and lack a newsletter of their own or coverage in the press. Their primary activities seem to revolve around a few great names such as Barbara Helsingius – who, at the moment, is busy translating and exporting our visas to emigrants in Canada and the USA – or combinations like Ingrid Saaristo & Kaj Chydenius who, today, have produced almost 200 new visas.
What, then, is a visa? A cultural detail, a creative ingredient in our language and a bit of cement in the dispersion of a minority! And lots of fun!
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 2/2002.
Translation © Magnus Gräsbeck