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From Karelian Woods Magic to Bulgarian Folklore Enigma: the unusual art story of Emmy Kujanpaa

She holds in her soul the northern summer sun with a breeze of cool wind over the fields, full of flowers and the beauty of the forests of Karelia, where an ancient magic still exist. Emmi Kuyanppaa is a singer, who plays the wonderful Finnish folk instrument kantele, she writes music that elegantly combines the Finnish lands folklore traditions and the ancient unequal rhythms of Bulgaria. She is Bulgarian Music Association’s project See The Music precious guest this week. Together with Emmy we discover how the music weaves unique sound images of three of the most interesting cultural traditions in Europe: Finno-Ugric, Karelian and Bulgarian. A journey full of emotions, exquisite melodic lines and the mystery of Bulgarian voices. In Finnish. And in Bulgarian …

Emmi, please share with us your feelings and thoughts about Karelia as an influence and inspiration in your life ..
My grandmother Maija, who passed by four years ago as 90-years old was from South Karelia, Luumäki which is located to the Finnish part of Karelia. She moved to Kiuruvesi at the end of the 1940s when she got married to my grandfather. Kiuruvesi a small town located in Savo, in the middle of Finland. After moving, she kept her Karelian dialect and old Karelian traditions. We lived in the same yard and I spent a lot of time with her. She passed me the Karelian traditions and also her curious, kind and open attitude to life, nature and other people. She taught me all the names of the flowers and the trees. The last song in Nani album “Valkean yön joiku – Yoik of the White Night” is dedicated to her. She died at the end of May when everything was blooming.
“The white maple trees and the birches were mourning on the night she died.
Like a bird she flew over a white blooming forest.
And the holy rowans and the bird cherry flowers were guarding her way … ”

 How your music story began? Tell us more about your early experience as a musician.
The music came to my life from my grandfathers’ side. He was playing accordion and mandolin. He always said that ”music is going in our blood”. His ancestors had been working as a sacristan in churches already in the 1700s. In Kiuruvesi there was a strong kantele playing tradition when I was in primary school and I also started to play kantele. My first wish was to play the piano but my parents didn’t have money to put me to music school. But I had so strong wish, a hunger to play! But all the kantele groups were full of kids! Finally I started to play kantele in a group which was organized in primary school after the school day. And I progressed so fast on kantele playing. We sang a lot of Finnish folk songs and also composed and wrote our own songs. Our teacher Anna-Liisa Tenhunen was ahead at its time. We participated in competitions and won them all! After primary school, I went to music high school to Kuopio and I studied at the Conservatory in Joensuu, North Karelia. I did my academic studies at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department and also at the University of Helsinki where I studied musicology. When I started to study at Helsinki my grandparents sent me a postcard in which they wrote that my grandfather is proud that I’m continuing the musical tradition of his family. I still have the postcard. I’m the first in our family who has got an education to music, the previous generations have been folk musicians without education.

Tell us more about your career as a kantele musician and composer. The sound of kantele instruments is so gentle. It’s almost like an ancient Finnish fairy tale.
Yes, indeed, you”r right. Kantele is an old folk zither instrument that has been played on Baltic-Finnish, West-Russia and Finno-Ugric areas for thousands of years. The sound of the kantele is sensitive and expressive as you tell. The old players in Karelia played kantele in shamanistic traditions and expressed the Nature’s power by the instrument. In West-Finland kantele has been played more in dancing purposes.

I started to play kantele when I was 6 years old. I played first 5 string kantele, but quite soon I started to play 10 string and 34 string kanteles. The repertoire we played were Finnish folk songs and we composed our own folk song in folk music style. I started to teach kantele playing in my village when I was 16 years old and I have been teaching at that time. At the moment I’m teaching kantele and folk singing in Käpylä Music Institute and Sibelius Academy. At the beginning of my studies at Sibelius Academy I did several solo kantele projects. In 2007 I had a 2 weeks solo tour in Germany. After this tour I realized that a career as a soloist without colleagues was not my thing. It was too lonely to travel by train around Germany and carry the heavy instruments. 

And what about your singing career beginning, about your  inspiration to start it?
Folk singing has been a big part of my musical life since I was 6 years old. We sang folk songs all the time during the kantele lessons. I also sung in several choirs in my village. I started to sing more as a soloist when I studied at Sibelius Academy. On that time I also started to compose choir songs. My singing teachers Anna-Kaisa Liedes and Ritva Eerola and composing teacher Timo Alakotila were supporting me on that, and at the end of my master’s studies at Sibelius Academy, I had two main subjects: folk singing and kantele. And during my master studies in 2009 I went to study at AMTII Plovdiv as an Erasmus student.

After the studies in Plovdiv, in 2010 I created the group Finno-Balkan Voices with my Finnish and Bulgarian student colleagues from Sibelius Academy and AMTII. The singers in Finno-Balkan Voices were Emmi Kuittinen/Ingrit Vaher/Sirkka Kosonen, Juulia Salonen, Mira Törmälä, Sonya Bakoeva, Marina Stefanova-Kaneva, Iliana Tabor and Gergana Taskova. Finnish singers were performing as a Mamo quartet and Bulgarians are still working as Vaya Quartet Professor Dora Hristova was working as an artistic ”guide” to Finno-Balkan Voices and she was conducting the choir songs. Our repertoire consisted of Finnish and Bulgarian folk songs and our own compositions and arrangements. We published an album in 2014 and performed both in Finland and Bulgaria. The album got really good feedback internationally and I learned a lot about international working in Finno-Balkan Voices. During that time I became a mother  – as well the most of the singers in the ensemble. And I noticed that the combination to have a baby/babies and international musical career is still quite demanding and difficult. 🙂

Tell us more about the previous albums you was involved with? Interesting projects or collaborations, for example?
The album of the Finno-Balkan Voices (2014) was the first album of my own projects. In 2015 I published an album with Celenka project. Celenka is a trio which performs Karelian and Balkan music more in folk dance style. I sing and play kantele, Jarkko Niemelä plays trumpet and sings and Eero Grundström plays harmonium and sings as well. Celenka’s album was published in both in Finland (Kuu Records) and in Germany (Nordic Notes) and the album got also good critics. Celenka means green in Karelian language. 

I was a quest singer and kantele player in many Finnish albums. The music styles has varied from indie-pop to progressive rock and Balkan music. I have also composed and arranged music to albums of the choirs inspired by Bulgarian choir music: Vokalselskabet Glas from Denmark and Slavonic Tractor from Finland. I’m so lucky to work with so many different musical styles and talented musicians. 

Tell us about your experience as a composer and performing artist for TV documentaries and fashion shows. That’s almost another art Universe …
In 2004, when I was starting my studies at the Sibelius Academy I was asked to compose theme music for a documentary series ”Finland celebrates” to Finnish National Television. The documentary series was about the Finnish traditions and celebrations in holidays like Easter, Midsummer and Christmas. Also I had a cameo role in an episode about the Finnish Independence Day celebrations. Regarding the fashion shows Marimekko is the most famous cloth design brand in Finland. In 2008 the company launched a collection that was based on folklore patterns and the collection was designed by cloth designer Sanna Annukka. I was invited to create a sound space for the fashion show with kantele improvisation. The show environment was really magical: it was a dark winter morning and the 10 meters long fabrics were hanging from the roof and the walls. 

In 2015 and 2016 I took part to Monokini 2.0 fashion show which was a community art project that combined fashion, photography and empowerment. The idea of Monokini 2.0 was created by artists duo Tärähtäneet ämmät (Katriina Haikala & Vilma Metteri). The models on the fashion show were women who had each suffered from breast cancer. The music in the fashion show was performed by indie rock artist Astrid Swan and I was arranging and performing the folk choir parts with my colleagues from Mamo quartet. The Monokini 2.0 fashion shows were both touching and hard experiences for an artist. One of the shows was organized in an old swimming hall in Helsinki. 

Let’s talk about your fascinations with Bulgarian vocal folklore. How and when you made your first Bulgarian music related discoveries?
I heard the Bulgarian folklore choir singing the first time from the album I borrowed from the library. The year was around 2002. I had just moved to Helsinki and I didn’t know so many people yet. That period of my life was not easy. The album I borrowed was Trio Bulgarka’s album and the song which especially touched me was “Tragnala e malka moma”. When I heard the song I started to cry. I felt that this music is the only thing that can comfort me. I had a strong inner feeling that I want to know what those women are singing about and I want to learn to sing like them!

The years passed by and I forgot the strong experience with “Tregnala e malka moma”. In 2007, when I had just met my coming husband, I saw a very strong dream that I have to go to a singing course in Bulgaria. I remembered the dream when I woke up and I made a google search ”folk singing course + Bulgaria”. Then I found out about the Summer Academy at AMTII. At that time students in Sibelius Academy could apply support for the travel costs to go abroad and I decided to apply to go to a singing course in Bulgaria. And I got the support (it was not sure at all). This is a crazy story, but this really happened! So at the end of July 2007, I traveled with my boyfriend to Plovdiv and I studied  2 weeks Bulgarian singing with Petrana Koucheva. We also visited with her in Draginovo village in Rodopi mountains and heard Pomak singers. I felt so “home” in Plovdiv! I wanted to go there for a longer period. It took two years to organize the ERASMUS place there and with the kind help of my professor Heikki Laitinen in Finland and Elka Nedeva in AMTII it was finally possible. Living in Plovdiv was a really good period in my life. I loved the environment and the city. I could concentrate there only on studying Bulgarian folk music (in Finland I had been teaching all the time to pay my studies, Helsinki is an expensive city for a student). In AMTII I had really good professors and teachers: Svetla Stanilova (folk singing), Zoya Mikova (ethnomusicology), Vladimir Vladimirov (tambura), Ivan Deliradev (choir conducting), Kostadin Bouradzhev (choir singing) and Dora Hristova (folk singing in chamber choir). I appreciate all of them and I’m thankful for the knowledge they shared about Bulgarian music. 

I have been thinking a lot what are the patterns that fascinate and touch me in Bulgarian singing. I think that for me it’s the strong connection between the voice and the emotions. And you have to sing with your whole body to make a folk singing sound with strong chest resonance. Also, the ornaments and the irregular rhythms and other kind of sounds like “tresene” (there is a similar effect in Karelia by the way) give a lot of possibilities to expression. We must remember how deep the folk singing is connected to nature and old history and habits of human beings. In Finland the folk singing culture kind of disappeared from the villages after the 2nd world war. Bulgarian singing gives me tools to understand my own Finnish and Karelian folk singing roots better. 

I studied the Bulgarian language in AMTII with Rusanka Filipova and Bulgarian language is a singing language for me. I have written some of the songs in the Nani album in the Bulgarian language. It has come naturally without pushing. The story and the feeling has created the text. When I’m teaching Bulgarian singing in Finland I always tell to students and wrote to notes that from whom and when I have learned the song. It gives respect for the tradition, for the teachers I have had and for the old folk singers who carried the tradition through decades. And I’m asking my students to do the same when they are teaching the folk songs (from any music tradition) for their own students. 

Let’s talk about your album NANI. What would you like to share with us about the project and the album release?What we did not know but you want to tell us?
I started to plan the Nani album about 4–5 years ago. I have been working 20 years as a teacher and I’m a mother too and I started to feel that I’m just giving and giving to others. I realized that I don’t want to become a bitter middle-aged woman that I must take a responsibility of the situation and I have to do something MYSELF. In June 2017 there was a 100 years Independence of Finland celebration concert in Sofia at the Central Military Club, organized by the Embassy of Finland in Bulgaria. I planned the concert program. I choose to perform different Finnish folk songs and we performed my choir compositions with The Mystery of The Bulgarian Voices Vocal Academy.  An year later, in June 2018 with the support of the Finnish Art Council we recorded together five songs at the Bulgarian National Television. The recordings were made by Delian Ivanov and Mikael Hakkarainen. We recorded with Mikael the other five songs in Finland with Finnish musicians – the colleagues from Celenka and Sauli Heikkilä (Tuvan throat singing & morin khuur). 

NANI album was published by German label Nordic Notes as a part of the albums releases project of Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department. Album was released at the end of January 2020 and we had a promotion concert in Sofia in December 2019. The event was part of the Finnish Presidency in European Union Celebration Program and it was organized by the Finnish Embassy in Bulgaria. I had one solo album release concert in Berlin on 1.2.2020 and on 13.3.2020 we had an album release stream in Helsinki with all the musicians just before the COVID-19 virus changed our life. It was not meant to be a stream but luckily we had it instead of canceling the whole concert. 

The NANI album has got a lot of attention abroad during the Spring. The reviews of the album have been really positive. The album was included in the World Music Charts Europe list for three months. The album was also nominated for the German Record Critics’ Award in the Folk and Singer/ Songwriter category in April. I’m deeply grateful of the good feedback. The stories of NANI album are a lot about the women experiences and the ancient goddesses. I wrote the most of the lyrics by myself and the compositions are mainly my own. Two of the songs have either a traditional melody or the text. I also produced the album. To make the album took almost three years. 

The first song on the album, Ogrejalo slantse – Vuota vuota is in Bulgarian and Karelian language. I wrote the choir song when I was with my daughter at maternity leave on 2013. The message of the song is ”don’t complain if you already have everything good around you”. A music video of this song was filmed in Helsinki on August 2019. The film was directed by Vilma Metteri (we wrote the script together) and filmed by Antti Kujanpää (my brother-in-law). It’s about the relationship between the voice, Nature and the women of different ages. We would have like to make the music video in Bulgaria but we didn’t manage to find financial support. 

And at the end of our Karelian – Bulgarian folklore music journey please tell us about the choir you are conducting. The folklore choir with the unusual name Kukuvitsa (Cuckoo in Bulgarian)!
I started to teach Kukuvitsa choir in Helsinki in 2010. Kukuvitsa performs folk songs from Bulgaria and Finno-Ugric folklore regions. At the moment there are 10 Finnish singers and 1 Bulgarian singer now in the choir and next autumn Kukuvitsa celebrates 10 years anniversary. It was created in the historical Bulgarian town of Koprivshtitsa in 2010 – I met by accident Finnish people there! We were planning to come to visit Koprivshtitsa in August 2020, but the Festival of Bulgarian Folklore Arts has been postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19. Now we will organize a 10 years anniversary concert in Helsinki in winter 2021 which we hopefully can held with a real audience. I hope the situation in the world is better next year and we will come to Bulgaria.

In the Autumn when I’ll be probably in Finland all the time, I’m planning to compose new choir music and write my Ph.D. research at the University of Turku. The subject of my Ph.D. is about transnational Bulgarian singing. And I believe that next few years I will make concerts in Europe with the NANI album’s Bulgarian and Finnish musicians.  

Thank you very much for your kind attention, Emmi! 
You are welcome!

Nani Promo Photos: Venla Helenius

The Project See The Music of Bulgarian Music Association is held with the special support of National Fund of Culture of Republic of Bulgaria

 

 

 

 

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За контакти:
+359 878 739 555
София 1000, ул. "Ген. Гурко" 70, ет. 3, ап. 9
За музикални събития: calendar@bgma.bg