Finland has still not been overtaken by the rock revolution - at least not in terms of public performance
Music for dancing cheek-to-cheek still alive and well in Helsinki
Note: This is one of those once-in-a-while articles that come up to present the translator with a conundrum wrapped in a riddle. In this case the problem is one of how to render the quintessentially Finnish term iskelmä, which translates only into the German word “Schlager”, which in turn has no really acceptable equivalent in English unless you spend several lines on explaining it. Though the German - and Finnish - etymology might lead one in the direction of “hit” music, it is rather different from that, and it is not even "Eurovision music" any longer, since the Eurovision Song Contest has changed out of all recognition in recent years. It might pay the reader to take a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for “Schlager” (linked below) before reading the article itself.
By Pirkko Kotirinta
Ollaan lähekkäin (Let’s Get Close), sings Markku Aro, launching into his hit tune from the 1970s, and the atmosphere among the foxtrot, tango, waltz, and jive crowd on the dance-floor at Hotel President becomes a tad more intimate.
The band Diesel accompanies him, as it has done hundreds of times before, over an 18-year collaboration with Aro.
It is a Wednesday evening and there are around a hundred dancers out tripping the light fantastic.
This is pretty good for a midweek night in Helsinki, and even better when you look at the blizzard raging outside.
When Vanha Maestro, one of the capital’s dance meccas, closed down a few years ago to make way for a nightclub, everyone was saying that an old-school dancing restaurant could no longer pay its way in downtown Helsinki.
Since then the flag has been held aloft single-handedly by Wanhan Tanssikellari, in the Old Student House close to the junction of Mannerheimintie and Aleksanterinkatu.
Now the venue at Hotel President has joined the fray, and both places seem to have enough fidgety feet to fill the floor.
“They’ve been forecasting the death of Schlagers more than once or twice in my time in this business”, says 58-year-old Aro in the backstage area before he goes on for his gig.
“But just as long as people want to dance close to one another, then the old Schlagers and dance-tunes will stay alive and kicking.”
Aro is also sceptical about the magical watershed powers of the Outer Ring Road, seen by many urbanites as the demarcation line between “Boondocks-Suomi” (where old-time dance is still king) and “City-Finland” where it has been usurped. He says the dance-floor crowd is the same both sides of the fence.
Some things have changed since Aro's big success years of the 1970s.
The audience at gigs for a start: “People today know how to dance better than they did. In the old days there was always a crowd out front just stooging around and staring."
Markku Aro has been crooning a good while. In November of this year he will mark up 40 years since the release of his first recording.
The CD he released in February to mark the event is his 20th studio album. Nevertheless the singer has just the one gold album in his cabinet, from 1977.
“That’s true. The albums don’t sell heavily, however much we put into them”, notes Aro.
His previous release from a couple of years back contained one hit number with the dancehall fraternity, but sales of the CD were only modest.
“It may be that the dance crowd don’t buy records”, he ponders. “Except perhaps for Kari Tapio records.”
Then again, on the list of best-selling albums for 2007, Kari Tapio only squeaks in at No.19.
Artists like Nightwish, folkrocker Lauri Tähkä, and the stars of the latest Pop Idols series on TV rule the roost, alongside the arrangements of hymns by actor-singer Samuli Edelmann and the latest collection of tunes by Eppu Normaali, a long-running band that had its roots in punk but has long since morphed into a kind of Finnish version of Dire Straits.
And yet the best-selling albums do not tell anything like the whole truth about what Finland listens to - or more particularly, what it dances to.
A glance at the list of the most-played tunes for 2006, as collected by Teosto (the performance rights organization acting on behalf of Finnish songwriters and composers), and based on nationwide radio and TV airplay and concert and dancehall use, will demonstrate without a shred of doubt that it is the dancing crowd who still boss things, and not the heavy metallers or hip-hoppers.
The oldest tune in the list dates from 1934, a good many more predate the arrival of rock, or even of rock’n’roll, and the only piece dating from the current decade is Lordi’s anthemic Hard Rock Hallelujah, which was played to death after the Eurovision Song Contest win. Most of the songs on the list are definitely not what you'd hear in the disco or a rock club.
And the same pattern is reflected in Markku Aro’s set-list for the evening, with one number composed by Georg Malmsten from 1940, some of his own old hits, and a couple of evergreens in the mix.
The more recent Schlagers don’t really last the course. Entertainment floods out from every orifice these days; there is a surfeit of bland wallpaper music, and at least in Aro’s view there are no composers writing today that are a match for the likes of Toivo Kärki (1915-1992).
But right now Aro is into Keskiyön aikaan, his cover of the Smokie hit from 1976, "I’ll Meet You at Midnight”.
Aro thows himself into his old warhorse with gusto.
And also with a certain satisfaction that at midnight, his show in Hotel President is coming to an end.
In his business, he might just as easily be starting off his set at this hour.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.3.2008
Finnish schlager: fear of hell and hope of heaven (Finnish Music Information Centre)
PIRKKO KOTIRINTA / Helsingin Sanomat