Pekko Kappi plays the jouhikko, the ancient Finnish-Karelian bowed lyre. His music has been described as ‘swaying between the foul and lovely – dirty and pure…The old songs of unwritten tradition, timeless and dark stories mediate in his mouth.’ He started playing the jouhikko in 1997 in the Ala-Könni-institute of Kaustinen, and has been studying the tradition ever since with the master players of Finland, Estonia and Sweden. Kappi has performed with different jouhikkos in diverse ensembles and theatre productions. His debut recording, Kalastajia ja kaivostyöläisiä, was released in 2001. He also co-produced the album Hiien Hivuksista: Jouhikko Music from Finland (2003). His first fulllength album Jos ken pahoin uneksii was released in 2007, and followed by Vuonna ’86 in 2010.
SJF: Could you share with me with your impression of the importance of folk ballads in Finland? Are they, or were they, vital in the maintenance of the idiosyncrasies of Finnish language? Are they a vital medium of communication?
PK: Finnish runo-songs, folk ballads and other folk songs were certainly a means of communication in the “olden days”, but I am not sure what their level of importance was in the societies of different eras. I mean if I am looking at the ballads from the point of view of a person of the 21st century it’s quite hard to generalize. If the timeline we are looking at when talking about the ballads for instance is roughly from the medieval period to the early twentieth century, things get complicated. The importance or the role of a ballad must have been quite different in the medieval times than in the modern industrialized world. Anyway if we look at the songs themselves there are a few elements that have been around for a while. There’s the aspect of entertainment, secondly an aspect of some kind of a moral lesson and then there’s the news-like element: telling a story of a historical event, usually some kind of horrible tragedy in the form of a ballad. But I can’t even generalize what the importance of each of these elements is. I like to think that the singer of the songs decided everytime the order of importance. However, for example runo-songs had really distinct metric features and a specific way of playing with the language so it must have been an important thing as such.
The ballads had also some kind of role in the maintenance of the Finnish language, but I am not the right person to say what, how and why. However the ballads that drifted surprisingly fast from the more central European areas like Germany, England or Sweden to the remote northern parts were also translated into a language that didn’t have or barely had a written form. This is significant.
SJF: Are folk ballads still seen as important and viewed with austerity?
PK: Well, in a way they are. Runo-songs have been sort of set to the Finnish culture since the national Romantic times. But it is quite curious that the runo-songs that were the basis of Kalevala are living their lives mostly as texts these days. But for me they are first songs, then poems or texts. Ballads are also kind of forgotten, which is a shame. At least I think they have been forgotten or the form of the ballad has. This is quite curious because the ballad-like tragic situations still seem to be happening. I guess 24-hour news coverage has taken over that function. Still in 1929 there was a terrible accident in Tampere, when the steamship Kuru sunk in the Näsijärvi-lake. Someone made a really heavy ballad about that. But nowadays, there seems to be so much information about every tragedy in the world so maybe it is useless to sing about them.
SJF: How important is poetry to your work, to the context of your music?
PK: This is probably a very mundane answer but I dare to say that the poetry is or at least it should be, as important as the music, from my point of view. Although I do find myself in the situation that some poems are better left to live their strange lives as poems than to be forced into music. At least if we are talking about the poems that have been written in the first place, not sung. That might apply vice versa also, I mean that sometimes the music should be left alone. On the other hand I am a terrible poet, so I am quite dependent on sources outside me, so to me poetry is important after all and I do like to browse among poetry and other texts. I have the feeling though that when I am talking about poetry, it must sound a bit silly to a person who is a poet. Maybe I like “texts”, which can include poems, transliterated folk songs, psalms, essays, phares from fiction, nonfiction, articles and whatever.
SJF: How important is poetry to the Finnish language, to its strength in the face of Swedish and Russian encroachment?
PK: The importance has most likely changed a lot. If Elias Lönnrot – the guy who compiled Kalevala and collected huge amount of runo-song texts – was the only one or among the only of the founding fathers of the Finnish Literature Society who knew how to speak, read and write Finnish in the mid 19th century. The situation must have been very different than it is now. Now there’s five million native speakers of the language so there’s no immediate worries about the state of the language. I think people who are worried about the language these days are more concerned how the English influence is ruining the proper language among the young people. But I guess there are always people who think someone or something is ruining something. The curious thing is that there are loads of contemporary poets in Finland, but I think for the majority of them the sales of their releases isn’t that great or even the general knowledge of their existence isn’t that wide. Of course the situation is kind of the same with folk music or more marginal forms of art in general, but there has been definitely a change. For instance my mother can recite poems of her generation’s poets by heart, but not many of my generation can. I am not sure if poetry in written form has ever really penetrated the thick levels of “folk”. Maybe the Old Hymnal(The psalm book that was printed in Finnish in 1701) kind of did. It was among the first real books that were written in Finnish and was found in common households in 19th century.
At the present times I guess the texts of popular music have some sort of “folk poem” status these days, but in the way they used to be: songs of the folk. Most of the people can sing them by heart but reciting them is kind of unnecessary.
SJF: Could you tell me about the significance of the Jouhikko, and your history with it?
PK: The Jouhikko playing tradition was practically dead at the beginning 20th century. There were only a handful of players left in remote villages. So its overall importance in the world isn’t that significant, I mean statistically. However to me Jouhikko is one of the dearest things I am dealing with, almost to the point of being a nuisance. For me Jouhikko is an elemental tool and companion, but at the same time I have been thinking that I should some distance from it too. My history with it started roughly fourteen years ago. After finishing high school and trying to figure out what to do I found myself reading an article about the history of Finnish Folk music and there was a few lines written about this strange instrument I had never heard of. Then I started furiously to search more about it and I am still kind of on that road. These days there’s definitely some kind of Jouhikko-thing happening or there is this certain interest again towards it and I am fine with that. However I have quite practical approach to it – it’s kind of the only thing I can play.
SJF: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe, if you indeed, as a musician, consider yourself a poet over a storyteller or sonic artist. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
PK: Maybe this is bit obvious, but first thing that comes in to my mind is some kind of sonic image of the tale of Tower of Babel. If you just take the element of mixture of languages and leave out everything else in the story in Parnassus it might be possible to simulate that situation. How did it the sound back then with all the languages all over the place.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is perhaps one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
PK: To be honest at first my feelings were bit mixed. I was very happy, thrilled, curious, thankful and honoured to participate the festival but on the other hand slightly confused how and why a singer of poems of – mostly – unknown authors and origins can represent a country or a language in this kind of huge POETRY event. But then soon I got over it and thought it is a splendid and genius idea. But I think the most lovely and interesting idea in this festival is the idea of – as you put it earlier – “interaction with fellow poets from every corner of the globe”. Of course it’s difficult to really interact or hear or meet with all of them, but the idea is most exiting, even from the sonic point of view of the Tower of Babel.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.