Folk music is an indefinable concept - Young musician Johanna Juhola in portrait
by Anu Karlson :: 2003
Johanna Juhola and many other young Finnish musicians make fusion music based on folk music. She recounts that she ended up playing folk music as a young adult because this gave her the chance to really make music and to play in real ensembles as a student already.
In his article 'Finnish folk music today – and tomorrow?' Paavo Helistö summed up the attitude towards folklore of young people today as “I’ll try everything except folk dancing”. In Johanna Juhola's family, however, folk dancing was one of the first stimuli that were successfully offered to her and her older sister at the ages of three and five respectively.
Lessons were always accompanied by someone on the accordion, and she felt that this was a wonderful instrument. Like many her age, she also started studying piano at the local music school, but she soon switched to accordion. And before long, the “classical” accordion repertoire gave way to folk music.
Real playing right from the beginning
“At the age of 14, I went to a folk music camp, and I really liked it there; although I was a beginner, I immediately got to play in ensembles.” Juhola was also inspired by the way the camp encouraged children to be creative themselves. “You started making your own pieces already when very young. We played them to each other in a really natural and relaxed way because that's what everybody was doing.”
In comparison, she experienced the music school's atmosphere as tense and formal. “You got the feeling that if you manage to practise a lot now, you might some day be able to make real music as a grownup. And many gave up, thinking that they weren't good enough, that music was not for them.”
Juhola received her secondary education at the Sibelius High School in Helsinki, and while still there, she was admitted to the Sibelius Academy's youth department. Due to her childhood experiences, the folk music department seemed like the right place; interest in tradition itself played less of a role in her choice. “I don't know if I've ever actually been a big friend of real traditional folk music. For me, folk music is a very broad concept; it's almost impossible to define.”
She adds: “Modern folk music makes use of tradition by composing and arranging in the style of traditional Scandinavian dance music, for example.”
Piazzolla and Finland
Johanna Juhola's name became known to the general public last spring when she, together with Milla Viljamaa, won the Astor Piazzolla Competition in the Italian accordion city of Castelfidardo. But what is Piazzolla doing in a Finnish folk musician's repertoire?
Juhola got her first chance to play Piazzolla during accordion lessons. She was able to deepen her understanding of his music together with a classmate at the Sibelius High School who shared her interest and played the piano. Before long, the Novjaro Quintett had formed around them, and they began to collect material together and broaden their repertoire. “After all, tango is authentic Argentinian folk music, and Piazzolla's tango nuevo is fusion that is based on this tradition”, Juhola points out.
She feels that the T. Vänkä Ensemble was her first real band, and this is where she also met her present duo partner Milla Viljamaa. They started performing tango and as a duo almost half by accident due to the gigs they happened to receive. In the Vänkä Ensemble, Milla sang and played accordion and sometimes piano too. As a duo, they performed Finnish tango in a somewhat Argentinian style as well as Gypsy songs and self-composed hambos and polskas. “But we felt the combination accordion/piano was best, and tango felt most like our own kind of music.”
First recording as a duo
Although Juhola is in some way or other involved in a total of eight ensembles, she currently dedicates most of her time to the duo with Viljamaa. Their first long-playing record will appear soon and will contain Piazzolla and several pieces composed by Juhola. She feels that the next CD could be a collection of only her own titles.
Does she find composing easy? “You can’t really say that either”, she answers. “Sure, an idea can come as if by itself, but then you have to just sit down and begin to slog away to get it ready. That can definitely demand a lot of patient work.”
Of her other ensembles, Juhola would like to at least mention Las chicas del tango and the already 20-year-old Troka, of which the former consists of the duo Viljamaa & Juhola and the singer Kukka-Maaria Ahonen, tango princess of the year 2002.
Understandably, Johanna Juhola will not be receiving her diploma from the Sibelius Academy anywhere in the near future. She admits that during the last academic year she managed to study only barely more than an eighth of the yearly expected amount. “This is the beginning of my seventh year, and I've completed only about one half of my studies. So it's not really going according to the rules”, she admits.
She has taught at both adult education centres and music schools. The former was rewarding but very exhausting. The latter was often purely exhausting because the students had often been forced to play an instrument by their parents. On the other hand, she had wonderful experiences at the folk music courses organised in connection with the Haapavesi Folk Festival. “Students there are truly motivated; they pay for the camp themselves and come to learn as much as possible.”
Concerto for folk musicians
Haapavesi Folk is a small folk music festival in northwestern Finland, east of the town of Kaustinen. A year and a half ago, Timo Alakotila's accordion concerto was premiered there with Juhola as the soloist. The composer wanted to make an unaffected concerto that is technically easy enough so that it might become an accordion repertoire standard.
However, Alakotila himself stresses that the concerto is by no means simple in terms of rhythm, for it consists of changing time signatures. The premiere was performed without a conductor, which required that the musicians listen to each other even more than usual. “In that sense, it's a truly challenging work. Already during the composing, Johanna was involved, immediately carrying out my ideas, and she was also a sustaining force during the premiere.”
“In this work, it's very important that all players know how to phrase in folk music style”, Juhola points out. “Therefore folk musicians were chosen to be the section leaders and as many as possible of the tutti players in the premiere.”
For a long time already, Timo Alakotila had thought about writing an accordion concerto that would combine classical chamber music and folk music. The plan came true when the artistic director of Haapavesi Folk, Timo Hannula, commissioned such a work for the 2002 festival. “I decided on Johanna Juhola as the soloist pretty quickly”, Alakotila recounts. “Bellow use, which Johanna controls nicely, is of prime importance in my concerto; in addition to finger work, this has an important influence on phrasing.”
To a large extent, the pastoral-sounding concerto was tailor-made for the line-up of musicians that premiered it. Since this also included Janne Lappalainen, who plays both bouzouki and soprano saxophone, the composer wrote parts for both in such a way that they can be played by the same musician. Another special feature is the Peruvian quena flute, which Silvo Vatanen took turns playing with the transverse flute. “If musicians with a traditional classical training played this concerto, it would probably sound very different”, Juhola surmises.
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 4/2003.
Translation © Ekhart Georgi
© Sami Perttilä