Arto Järvelä
pelimanni for the 21st century 


It could be the culture, the gene pool, or something in the water. Whatever the reasons, the small Ostrobothnian parish of Kaustinen produces master fiddlers the way the Dominican Republic town of San Pedro de Macoris produces baseball stars. The most remarkable of these musicians may be the versatile Arto Järvelä, founding member of JPP. In his career he has played with many different bands and has composed many different kinds of music, some quite adventurous, but he has always kept close to his folk-music roots. With one foot in the old world and one in the new, he has helped to ensure that the traditions remain alive and exciting.

Arto grew up in Parola, a little town near Hämeenlinna, but spent his summers in Kaustinen, where his father's family is from. Arto is the fourth generation of fiddlers in the Järvelä line: his great-grandfather Antti Järvelä (1876-1955) was a famous wedding fiddler, and both his father, Aarne, and his grandfather Johannes were honored as mestaripelimanni, master fiddlers. Arto recalls, "My grandpa bought me my first fiddle in Kaustinen, at a hardware store! I heard a lot of fiddling at home, so I learned the melodies before I started to play. It was easy after hearing all those tunes for many years. I just picked up the fiddle and started to try them out." Arto learned from the musicians in his family and took some formal lessons as well, becoming familiar with different instruments. Eventually he was playing drums and electric bass in the family band, Isät ja Pojat [fathers and sons]. The lineup included his father Aarne and his brother Jouni as well as Timo Alakotila and his father, Toivo. In 1977, Arto began to play fiddle in Järvelän Pelimannit [the Järvelä village fiddlers].

His talents weren't limited to music: he was good at playing ice hockey, and had a passion for it. He comments dryly, "If I had spent all the time with my fiddle instead of my skates, I would be a really good fiddle player now." At one point as a kid, he played eight hours a day. "I lost a quarter of my front teeth, so hockey took a little bit of me, but not much. I was going to join the junior hockey team in Hämeenlinna but my daddy told me I couldn't go--that it was better to practice the violin." His father had the right idea. Arto put hockey aside, focused on his music, and eventually attended the music college in Kaustinen.

In the meantime, the band that was to become JPP was beginning to coalesce. "JPP was all part of Järvelän Pelimannit. We were playing together many years before JPP. Then we played with a folk dancers group named Kruusaus, playing dance music and also some music from different parts of Finland. We also started to compose our own tunes. That was when we started to call ourselves Järvelän Pikkupelimannit, 'the little fiddlers of Järvelä'. It was quite soon after I went to Kaustinen to the college. In 1982 my brother Jouni started to play bass in the band and Timo Alakotila started to play harmonium. That year we won the championship of Finnish folk music groups in Mäntsälä. So that's when we started. I think that was the big push for us. I was 17."

JPP was something different. They took the template of the old-time pelimanni group--fiddles, double bass, and harmonium--and used it as a basis for a new sound with richly textured arrangements. So many strings playing in perfect precision created a smooth, powerfully orchestral effect, like a fiddle version of Phil Spector's 'wall of sound'. They also expanded the typical folk-band repertoire, following the lead of an earlier group, Kankaan Pelimannit (including JPP's first fiddler Mauno Järvelä, Arto's uncle), which played music from other areas of Finland. JPP went even further afield and began to play tangos. How did the tango get into the mix? Arto says, "It was sort of an accident because one of my first compositions was a tango ("Siltatanssit-Tango" [bridge dances tango]) and we just played it. We had been playing a lot of dances, and people really like to dance the tango. When we play in the dance halls, we cannot play the polskas and some of the other stuff--people are going there to hear dances like tango and waltz, maybe a little schottisch. We love to play these dances because the tradition is mainly dance music, so it's a very good fit for us, and it's really fun to play." The tango became an important element of the JPP repertoire, and is the focus of their 1990 album I Found a New Tango, which includes two original compositions: Arto's "Tango A-Mollissa" and Timo Alakotila's "Eliaksen Tango."

In short order, JPP established themselves as one of the foremost bands in Finnish folk music, recording six albums and touring extensively abroad. In their two most recent recordings, Kaustinen Rhapsody (1994) and String Tease (1998), they artfully keep a balance between their ever-more-daring original tunes and arrangements and their traditional roots. Arto's compositions on these albums, including the beautiful title track of Kaustinen Rhapsody and the three-part "Wedding Suite" on String Tease, are notable for the way they breathe new life into old forms.

As JPP was getting started, Arto began to get involved with other groups, including a few of the first in the 'new wave' of Finnish folk music. "It just so happened that people were asking me to play. When I went to the Sibelius Academy we started the Niekku group and then I went to Kaustinen to work with Tallari after a couple of years, and when I was in Kaustinen I started to play with Salamakannel and Ampron Prunni, besides Tallari and JPP. When I came back to Helsinki to finish my studies at the Academy, Koinurit was formed, and then Pinnin Pojat."

Koinurit was a group of young guys who played traditional tunes like their hair was on fire. Listening to them, you might think that they were hardcore rockers who had gotten hold of some fiddles and accordions and were competing to see how blisteringly fast they could play a polska. The rough, half-crazed vocals helped to blur the line between folk and rock. But they weren't merely a folk 'garage band'. At the heart of the wildness were some very talented musicians, including Olli and Tapani Varis. "We were the Pogues of Finland, in a way," Arto laughs. "We started as a pub and party band. We used to have jam sessions in local bars." The name Koinurit had historical significance: "It's an ancient name from Kalevala, I guess. But it has quite a bad meaning. It means 'fuckers'." Apparently the word was so archaic that many Finns didn't know it, so it didn't cause much controversy. Arto says he doesn't recall how the name came up. We can only speculate.

They won the championship of folk music groups in 1989 and recorded two albums, Yllätyspaartit [surprise parties] (1990) and Askon 3-Rivinen [Asko's three-row accordion] (1992), but stresses broke up the band. "It was the usual story--our lead singer had very bad problems with alcohol and stuff, and touring and playing gigs turned quite difficult, so to keep from having nervous breakdowns, we quit. But at the very beginning it was really fun, and I think the first album that Koinurit did was one of the best I've played on, actually."

Pinnin Pojat ('The Pinni Boys'--the word 'pinni' has a number of meanings, ranging from a woman's hairpin to a small boy's penis, and was the nickname of an old fiddler, Elias Sorvari) came into being when Arto was at the Sibelius Academy and studying with harmonica and accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen. "I started to play with Kimmo. We had a little duet in our final concert and after that we just started to jam at the school. Then suddenly someone asked us to come to play somewhere." A lasting partnership was born. Their first album, Pinnin Pojat (1992), introduces the pair's style: charming humor, jaunty vocals, brilliant musicianship. The combination is irresistible. Arto plays the fiddle, nyckelharpa, mandolin, and octave mandolin, while Kimmo plays a number of different harmonicas, switching to a two-row accordion for "Hennepin Avenue," a tune by Finnish-American accordionist and composer Kip Peltoniemi. Arto recalls, "We started Pinnin Pojat because we wanted to make the harmonica better known as an instrument. The harmonica was played long ago in Finland, but then it almost disappeared. We didn't have very many players. But now it's having a kind of revival, I guess. So the idea was that Kimmo was playing harmonicas and I was playing the stringed instruments. On the first album, Kimmo is playing mostly harmonicas. But in the second album, we tried to have more varying sounds. And now it has turned out that Kimmo is playing more two-row and other instruments too."

The majority of the pieces on the first album are traditional, but the second album, Gogo 4 (1994), ventures into new territory. Several of Arto and Kimmo's originals are included, and three more tunes by Peltoniemi. Their rendition of his hilarious "Minnesota Tango" (in Finnish!) is a highlight of the album. "Vuoma Pertti & Eastwoodin Clintti" is a melding of an old mazurka with the theme from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Kimmo's interest in African music comes through in "Gogo Nne," in which the Pinni Boys meet Afropop and Kimmo plays the gogo marimba. With a different group, such an eclectic collection might sound like a mishmash, but in the hands of these two virtuosos, it all comes together and becomes a vibrant, colorful patchwork, full of fun and energy. Gogo 4 was acclaimed as the Finnish folk music record of the year in 1994, and Pinnin Pojat was named the band of the year at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival.

It was the same year that Arto struck out on his own with a solo album, Polska Differente. This album displays his versatility as a performer and composer. Like Gogo 4, it includes a wide range of material: traditional-style polskas and waltzes, a bluegrass-flavored banjo and mandolin tune ("Trotting Race in Käpylä," by legendary polka fiddler Otto Hotakainen), even a danceable pop song, "Wäinö's Stork," which blends a kantele with electric bass and guitar. More than half are original compositions of Arto's. He is supported by a cast of well-known guest stars, including the Varis brothers, Maria Kalaniemi and Kimmo Pohjonen, Timo Myllykangas and Timo Alakotila of JPP, and Roger Tallroth of Väsen.

Folklore says that if a fiddler plays on a rock in the middle of rushing rapids, he will receive inspiration from supernatural forces. In a photo on the CD cover, Arto recreates this scene at the Perho river which runs through the Kaustinen area. He says, "Perhojoki rapids in Järvelä village means much to me because I spent a lot of time there, all my summer vacations actually, when I was young--fishing, swimming, etc. I'm sitting on the rock and playing because that's the link to the old time, when the devil taught fiddlers to play on midsummer night. Järvelä is a magic place for me because all those great spirits are there."

1995 was a busy year for Arto. He formed the Helsinki Mandoliners with Petri Hakala and Olli Varis and recorded an album of traditional and original mandolin music. The same year, the three of them became part of Maria Kalaniemi's ensemble Aldargaz for the album Iho. Arto also played on Kaustinen, Texas, an album by Erik Hokkanen, a Finnish-American fiddler from Texas.

Pinnin Pojat's third album was a collaboration with master folksinger Erkki Rankaviita, which was selected as the folk music record of the year in 1996. The Pinni Boys have not recorded together since then, but Arto says that the duo is still alive and kicking. The difficulty is that they are so much in demand for other projects. "Kimmo has his own solo thing going on-he's just returning from WOMEX in Berlin. He's also playing with Ismo Alanko, a very famous Finnish rock singer, plus he's doing some modern stuff with the dancer Reijo Kela and the singer Heikki Laitinen, and lots of other things too. I think he's even busier than me now!"

Arto has published a book of sheet music preserved from the memories of Frank Hietala, a fiddler from Alavieska who had emigrated to Minnesota as a young man. Over the years Hietala continued his involvement in music, and in the 1930s performed popular dance tunes with his own ensemble in the local Finn Halls. But his knowledge of the centuries-old Ostrobothnian traditional music lay dormant until 1942, when he wrote down 56 polskas from memory. In later years, a professor of folklore recorded him playing and singing 176 different pieces.

This music came into Arto's hands almost by accident. "The Kaustinen Folk Music Institute arranged a competition to collect folk music and Frank's neighbor sent copies of this music to the competition. It came too late to get any prize, but I saw the collection and said, 'Wow, what's this?' The tradition had disappeared here and suddenly we found a lot of new material. It was really great that Frank himself wrote down the music and played it on the tapes." Arto and Kimmo Pohjonen have since visited Minnesota and Wisconsin with members of the Folk Music Institute, doing research and field work collecting music. Arto has strong ties with the US because of his research there and his connection to Finnish-American musicians. He says, "It's always fun to visit because I have so many friends there."

Four tunes from Hietala's collection are included on Arto's new solo album, Arto Järvelä Plays Violin. This recording is quite unlike anything else Arto has done. There is no fiddle 'wall of sound', no all-star supporting cast, no experimental eclecticism. Instead, he gets back to basics and focuses on something close to home: polskas, marches, and waltzes from the repertoire of past generations, including his great-grandfather Antti and his grandparents Johannes and Martta. A measure of the emotional significance of this album is the fact that Arto has dedicated it to his grandparents.

The austerity of the unaccompanied solo violin allows the music to shine through in all its complexity, a multifaceted jewel in a simple setting. It needs no other adornment--the effect is dazzling. Listeners will be reminded of J. S. Bach's solo violin sonatas and may recognize that the distance between Bach and an old Finnish fiddler isn't so very great.

Arto is compiling another book of sheet music based on the material on the album. He plans to publish it in the spring. His goal is to re-establish the practice of solo performance in Finland. "That's one thing that's important for me. There's not so much solo traditional fiddle in Finland. Sweden and Norway are really solo-oriented, but Finland is quite bad in that situation--we are more of a band country. It's hard to say why, but it's probably because the folk music tradition was quite dead in the '60s and when the first folk music revival came, in the late '60s, Konsta Jylhä and Purpuripelimannit [potpourri fiddlers] became very popular and they were kind of the model for other bands--afterwards people started to form bands like that. So actually, the solo fiddle tradition disappeared in that time."

Young Finnish musicians are playing folk music much more than in the past, says Arto--"Especially in Kaustinen, where my uncle Mauno is teaching, and there are a few other places. I've also noticed that there's a lot of interest in folk music now because of Värttinä and all these other good young bands. And because of the folk music department at the Sibelius Academy, there are a lot of very talented musicians."

Arto's next recording is with Erik Hokkanen and Lumisudet, an album entitled In a Heart of a Waking Dream, which will be released soon. He is also in the process of producing an album by Kip Peltoniemi on which he, Kimmo, and other prominent Finnish musicians are performing. In the spring of 2000, he and JPP will return to Minneapolis for the second Nordic Roots festival. Last year, their performance brought a packed hall to a standing ovation. JPP's many fans will have to wait for a new album--the band doesn't plan to record anytime soon. "I think probably not until at least 2001," Arto says. "We have new material coming up, but we need to play it a little first. We have realized that it's good to play the songs for a while before going to the studio."

In the next few months, he plans to continue writing music and lyrics and to record a single of his songs. Other than that, Arto is occupied with his 14-month-old daughter, Verna Elina. Will she be the fifth generation of the Järveläs to play the fiddle? "I just bought a fiddle for her but I think it will have to wait until she's three. Not earlier. But she is already picking kantele! Her mother also used to play fiddle, so who knows?" He adds wryly, "Probably she'll play electric guitar."

© Heather Henderson 

SNOWBOUND 3 | 2000