LIANE HANSEN, host:
J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is back in the spotlight. A musical version of the famous saga is now on stage in Toronto.
(Soundbite of Lord of the Rings)
HANSEN: The score was co-composed by Bollywood's A.R. Rahman and the Finnish musical group Varttina.
(Soundbite of The Lord of the Rings)
Varttina's three female singers and six male acoustic musicians have been together for more than 20 years. The group recently released their 10th recording, called Miero. Their lyrics are rooted in ancient poems from the Karelia region of Finland. Their vocals draw from the region's traditions of women's voices. And their music incorporates some exotic instruments, the bouzouki, the nyckelharpa and the guitalele. The result sounds like mysterious incantations from an ancient tribe.
(Soundbite of Varttina)
HANSEN: Last week, I spoke with vocalist Mari Kaasinen and musician Janne Lappalainen from the CBC Studios in Toronto. Mari explained the folk traditions associated with their music and why they emphasize female vocalists.
Ms. MARI KAASINEN (Vocalist, Varttina Musical Group): Our roots are based on Karelian tradition and we started 23 years ago and we have been doing that so long. And nowadays, you can hear in our music something more than Karelian. There's influences from everywhere in the world, and in singing we are using harmonies from Bulgaria and our own head.
HANSEN: Tell me more about the Karelian tradition.
Ms. KAASINEN: We know they're singing a lot, very much about their feelings and there are many lullabies and every kind of song. And men who are playing and they're drinking and hunting and playing. They're some kind of meter called (foreign spoken) and it's, Janne, how can I say this? Five to four or what's...
Mr. JANNE LAPPALAINEN (Musician, Varttina Musical Group): Yeah, five, four.
Ms. KAASINEN: And we are using that in those (unintelligible) songs like (foreign singing) that's one example.
HANSEN: And Janne, what instruments do you play?
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Bouzouki and different wind instruments.
HANSEN: So this idea of the men going out and hunting and drinking while the women stay home, you know, how does that fit with you as musicians?
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Well, I think Mari's little bit exaggerating about this thing because there has been really famous (unintelligible) singers, who were male. I think the most famous are male, actually.
Ms. KAASINEN: No. Maybe there, there is also men, the men were singing also, yes. And (unintelligible) our fiddle player, Lasse, who is a man, is also singing.
(Soundbite of Varttina)
HANSEN: I have to ask you about the lyrics, and Mari, since you mentioned lullabies, the first song on the CD, Riena or Anathema, you give English translations, boy, this sounds like a spell straight out of Shakespeare. I throw off sparks, I tear from my tongue, words as twisted as tree roots, I poke the fire of hatred with my words. By the end of the song, you're calling whoever you're speaking to a pathetic worm. What is this?
Ms. KAASINEN: Yeah, it's quite bad. It sounds bad and we are not witches. It sounds bad, but it is a spell.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. KAASINEN: I get influences from (unintelligible) when I sing that with Johanna, another singer, and (unintelligible) and we are quite angry.
HANSEN: Tell us more about that.
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: That's our national epic. It's a collection of basically all poems and stories. And there was one guy who collected all the material and then kind of bringing all those stories together.
HANSEN: So Mari, when you are writing, how much of the old poem saga do you keep? And how do you make it your own?
Ms. KAASINEN: Sometimes I just saw one word or one line, sometimes I have a big story like Mataleena and then I do my own version of that.
HANSEN: The story, Mataleena, pretty...
Ms. KAASINEN: It's quite bad...
HANSEN: It's very sad.
Ms. KAASINEN: I know. That and bad, yeah. There's Mataleena, a young woman called Mataleena, and she has three boy son, and one he...
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Casts into the fire.
Ms. KAASINEN: Yes, casts into fire and one he...
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Drowns.
Ms. KAASINEN: And the third one...
HANSEN: He's buried.
Ms. KAASINEN: Yeah.
HANSEN: So essentially this young woman kills her kids.
Ms. KAASINEN: Yes, she was...
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Yes, that's the story.
Ms. KAASINEN: That's the story.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. KAASINEN: There's many sad stories in (unintelligible) also. I don't know though why. Why, but...
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: But that's the great thing, you don't know why, so you start thinking yourself. It's affecting your imagination, and I think that's a good thing. If you explain everything, ready for you in story, it isn't that interesting anymore.
HANSEN: Listening to the recording, however, the music is, you know, very bright sometimes, and really unless you go and look at the translations, you're not, you wouldn't know that some of these lyrics are very dark and very disturbing.
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Well, maybe we've been working really hard for Lord of the Rings and stuff, so there might be some hidden emotions that we have to let out and sometimes it can sound really dark.
Ms. KAASINEN: Yeah, and the Lord of the Rings world was quite dark, so maybe that's why our Miero CD is also a little bit dark.
HANSEN: Well, this is the tenth one and you've been together for more than 20 years. Does it get any easier or is it very difficult to say okay, how do we get to the creative next step?
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Well, that's the funny thing because I think you would imagine that it's going to get harder because you have used all the ideas, but it isn't that, because, for example, working on Lord of the Rings, we have heard so much more new music and found different ways how to do it, so I think our musical world is just expanding all the time.
HANSEN: What are some of the unique instruments that you do use?
Ms. KAASINEN: We are using (unintelligible), which is a very old Finnish instrument with three strings.
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: And also we've been using nyckelharpa, which is a Swedish key fiddle.
Ms. KAASINEN: Also we are using (unintelligible) instrument, also string instrument.
HANSEN: Are you always trying to incorporate new instruments or new instrumentation into your music as well?
Mr. LAPPALAINEN: Well, if it happens naturally, we are not trying to force anything. We are not trying to buy an instrument, and, oh, I had to play this on the album no matter what. Because I think the idea of using different instruments, it's more that you have a song and then you think what the song needs in order to express what it has to express. Instruments are like different colors in music, and you have to find the right colors to paint the painting you want to paint.
HANSEN: Janne Lappalainen and Mari Kaasinen of the Finnish group Varttina joined us last week from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Their new CD is called Miero. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.