Thursday, December 23, 2010

An interview with J. Karjalainen

This interview which I did a few months back with J. Karjalainen was recently published in the New World Finn. This fine quarterly is carrying on the long tradition of a Finnish-American free press and I highly recommend that you subscribe to their publication.

If you would like to read the interview in the New World Finn pdf version, please click here (page 7 of the pdf).

The 3rd record of J. Karjalainen’s Finnish-American Trilogy Polkabilly Rebels was released last spring. On a chilly evening at the end of October I got a chance to catch the last show of the Polkabilly Rebels tour at Tanssisali Lutakko in Jyväskylä. A few hours before the show I stopped by “Lutakko” to have a little chat with Mr. Karjalainen.

It’s been four years since the first album of this trilogy, Lännen-Jukka was released. You have stated previously that the Lännen-Jukka project is now coming to an end. Would you happen to know how Lännen-Jukka is going to spend his retirement?

A trilogy is always a good thing – a three record collection. Although the recording project ends here, it doesn’t mean that I won’t be playing these songs anymore. As far as performing the material goes, this project doesn’t really have an end. I’ll play this material at gigs if the opportunity arises, either solo, or with Veli-Matti (Veli- Matti Järvenpää -accordionist on the second record of the trilogy Paratiisin pojat as well as on Polkabilly Rebels), or even with the Polkabilly Rebels (Veli-Matti Järvenpää, accordion, Tommi Viksten, electric guitar, and Mitja Tuurala, bass). I figure Lännen-Jukka is going to spend his retirement like I hope to spend mine – playing music. And I have to say that it has meant a lot to me that Finnish-American folks and folks here in Finland have taken Lännen-Jukka as one of their own.

During the course of this project you had the opportunity to travel to the States and see some of the places settled by the Finnish emigrants, and perhaps more importantly you got a chance to meet some of their descendants. What sort of impressions did these American-Finns leave you with?

The American-Finns were absolutely fantastic, especially after all the difficulties we had getting in to the country. Once we got to meet the people we had an incredible experience. We were lucky enough to get to know musicians like the Haapalan pojat and Jingo Viitala. Everyone was so warm and friendly and we got along right away, real natural-like. I had been a little nervous beforehand about how people over there would react to Lännen-Jukka because the style is kind of rough and raw. I needn’t have worried. Everyone we talked to appreciated the music.

Over the past few years you have managed to discover some original Finnish-American material and record it yourself. Have you noticed any differences between Finnish-American and Finnish music of the period that these songs were originally recorded?

Something in the music over there in America was a little different. For example, in the music of Hiski Salomaa there is a completely different sort of mentality – livelier, more reckless. It was kind of strange when Jingo taught me Siantappolaulu, I was sure that it was a Finnish-American song but it’s actually a Finnish song from up in the north of Finland. When we started performing the song people would come up and say “that’s the song our grandpa used to sing!” Jim Leary from the University of Wisconsin in Madison introduced me to the recordings that were collected by Allan Lomax – that’s where we found Varoitus Duluthin Pojille. It was nice to have an opportunity to revive some old, mostly forgotten songs.

U.S. Immigration treated you rather harshly when you visited a few years back. Would you consider visiting the United States after that unpleasant experience?

I would return to the States, of course only if we can get all the visas in order. Actually – and here’s a scoop for you – it looks like we’ll be performing at Finnfest in San Diego next summer. We are going to make sure ahead of time that we have every possible visa and permission slip in taken care of before we even get on the plane. Our problem with the U.S. Immigration Services was really the result of misunderstanding. We weren’t sure what exactly what documents were needed in advance. I’m sure we won’t have any problems this time around. During the same trip I’d like to swing through the North Country and hook up with our friends there.

Immigration is a hot topic these days, both in the U.S. and in Finland. As someone who has spent a few years working with music that is pretty much the product of people who have migrated to a new homeland for one reason or another, do you have any personal insights or opinions concerning the movement of people from one land to another and politics of immigration?

I’ve approached these immigrant songs with consideration and compassion. I know what it feels like to be in a strange land and not really understand the language – you know - the feeling that others might think that you are some kind of idiot for not being able to speak the language properly, and feeling yourself that you are kind of stupid for not being able to express yourself properly. I realized how important ones own language is. Being with the Haapala boys in their own home up there in Upper Michigan and speaking Finnish – it felt like a bit of Finland was right there. Take the immigrants in Finland, from Somalia for example: How did they feel when they arrived? Lonely and lost, not having fluency in the Finnish language? But when they are at home, or with other immigrants from their own country, a part of their homeland is born again. I feel that first and foremost we need to think of immigrants as people. We need to try and understand how it feels to be in their shoes. Sometimes entire families end up moving from one place to another, for whatever reason – the future of an entire family may be at stake when the decision is made to leave their home country. Working on the Lännen-Jukka project, meeting Finnish emigrants and their descendants has helped me think about this whole immigration thing. We have all been immigrants at some point in history – half a million Finns made the decision to emigrate in not-so-distant history. Ultimately this project has helped me understand what it might be like to be a stranger in a strange land.

The Polkabilly Rebels performing Sun kloorin klooring halleluuja at Tanssisali Lutakko:

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