Finland has taken the potato from Peru - potato in Finnish is peruna, by the way - and the tango from Argentina. Both these South American imports are cultivated in these northern latitudes perhaps even more devotedly than in their countries of origin. Pekka Gronow reports on the way in which the tango has taken root in Finland and stubbornly survived even the arrival of Elvis and The Beatles.
The most frequently performed song in Finland in 1992 was the tango Satumaa (Fairytale Land), composed by Unto Mononen in 1955.
The Unto Mononen Society holds its meetings at the "Satumaa" restaurant in Somero, a quiet agricultural town in Southwestern Finland. In the fifties Mononen lived one block away from the restaurant, which was then known by another name, and was once thrown out of the establishment for firing a pistol into the ceiling. And it was just a few hundred meters from here that the composer finally ended his life in 1968, after a long fight with alcoholism.
Satumaa will certainly played at the Seinäjoki Tango Festival, where thousands of mostly middle-aged Finns meet every summer to dance to their favourite tangos and to elect the new Tango King and Queen.
It is not easy to explain why the tango has become so popular in Finland and continues to flourish here, while the rest of the world has more or less abandoned it. It is well known that the tango was born around the turn of the century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. It was brought to Europe in the early 1910s by visiting Argentinian musicians and dancers. It first became fashionable in Paris, and spread rapidly all over Europe during the twenties and thirties. In many countries there were even specialized tango bands which attempted to emulate the style and dress of Argentinian tango bands. In London, nightclubbers danced to the music of "Geraldo and his Gauchos".
The original Argentine tango was an angular, syncopated form of music with many traits in common with early jazz and blues. Tango texts were dramatic episodes of life in the suburbs and cafés of Buenos Aires. When European composers started writing tangos, the lyrics lost their point of reference. The tango was understood as something exotic, and European tangos usually dealt with romantic love in distant lands. The mileu was just as likely to be Mediterranean as Argentinian.
The first Finnish tangos from the thirties showed similar traits. By the end of the decade local colour began to appear. Lumihiutaleita (Snow flakes, 1936, by M. Maja) was one of the first to introduce typical Nordic imagery into the tango. When composers wrote new tangos, they found that they could use lyric and melodic formulas borrowed from older Finnish and Russian waltzes, which frequently dealt with longing and nostalgia in a minor key. The human characters in the lyrics were usually stereotypic lovers, but they were placed in a Northern scenery which was painted with feeling and skill.
Malmsten toured Finland widely in the 1930s, but he was the first Finnish entertainer to benefit from the modern media. He could be heard on records and on the radio, seen on the screen, and in the 1960s, he became one of the pioneers of Finnish television. Malmsten's mother tongue was Swedish, and the lyrics to his songs were usually written by R.R. Ryynänen. By the forties, Malmsten had mastered the finer points of the Finnish language so well that he could also contribute the words to his own music.
As singer and songwriter, Malmsten was familiar with all the genres of popular music of the thirties. He could write waltzes and polkas just as well as foxtrots or tangos, but we can note certain relationships between the subject of the song and the idiom chosen. A march would naturally call for a patriotic text. Polkas and schottishes would be usually be comic songs, such as "Totisen pojan jenkka" (A serious guy). A foxtrot or a waltz was likely to be an optimistic celebration of a love affair, as in "Lemmen liekki leimahtaa" (A flaming love affair) or "Heili Karjalasta" (A girl friend from Karjala), but a tango would convey feelings of jealousy or longing.
"Suo sana vain" (Give me just one word, lyrics by R.R. Ryynänen), is a typical example of the evolution of the Finnish tango by the late thirties. The arrangement reminds us of Central European dance bands of the decade, but the descending minor-keyed melody shows the direction into which the Finnish tango was to move during the coming years, and the lyrics portray a desperate lover pleading his girl for just one word: "your word alone can give my soul rest".
Listen to Georg Malmsten:
Suo sana vain