Discovering Finnish music, 1971-2024.

26. 6. 2024 | Rubriky: Articles,Interviews

A long talk with Phillip Page, who took Värttinä, JPP and Kimmo Pohjonen around the globe.

Finland is musically one of the most diverse regions of Europe. The country of five and a half million offers tricky rhythms from Karelia, Sami joik, high energy dance tunes of pelimanni fiddlers, Finnish tango, runo songs from the Kalevala epic and of course music of Finland’s two national instruments, accordion and kantele. In Finland, tradition is practiced as a living process and not as a museum exhibit, due to many dozens of creative musicians and educators. The crucial move in updating Finnish folk music to modern times was made in 1983, when Heikki Laitinen (* 1943) started the Folk Music Department at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. One of the first entrepreneurs to bring Finnish music to the world stage was Phillip Page. Already charmed by Finnish LPs as a DJ and record shop manager in the US, he moved from Texas to Helsinki in 1987. Since that time, he worked with artists such as JPP, Maria Kalaniemi, Värttinä, Kimmo Pohjonen and others, introducing them to audiences around the world.

What kind of music were you growing up with? And did you get any kind of musical education?

I was not a musician although I studied music in school for about ten years, sang in choirs, dabbled at piano and was in two bands. Beatles and Beach Boys were the first bands that changed / shaped my life. The adventure, the songwriting/compositions, vocals, harmonies, arrangements, the innovation. My favorites in my formative years late 60s – early 70s: George Harrison – Wonderwall (1968: dreamy trippy soundtrack featuring Shivkumar Sharma and numerous Indian musicians plus Eric Clapton, probably the most brain expanding influential album of my life), Spirit’s groundbreaking first album (1968), Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle, Beach Boys – Smiley Smile, Györgi Ligeti, Apple Records, Freddie Hubbard / İlhan Mimaroğlu – Song of Songmy LP, Bee Gees, Stones – Satanic Majesties, Bowie, Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Egg, Gentle Giant, K Crimson, Amon Düül II, Gong, Strawbs, Shirley & Dolly Collins, Wigwam, Pekka Pohjola, Jukka Tolonen, Zamla/Lars Hollmer, Supersister. Anything from anywhere that was different and adventurous, composition based. I was seeking and buying records full time. The local record shop called me Captain Record.

How did you start your professional career?

September 1, 1971 at a regional record distributor and managing the number one alternative record shop in Houston TX. Soon I was an FM radio DJ doing weekly six-hour shows playing all the best underground European and American records. I wrote LP reviews for local music magazine The Lamb. I was import buyer/manager and starting team member at Cactus Records, Houston, the first giant record mega-store in Texas and ran a distributor of UK and European import LPs
In Texas. One major event was in 1975, meeting David Crosby and Graham Nash who turned me onto the 1966 Nonesuch Records album Music of Bulgaria by Phillipe Koutev. That amazing album opened up a whole new world.

The Nonesuch album was one of the most overlooked records in history, released twenty years before the British label 4AD sold 100 000 copies of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares album that made Bulgarian choirs popular worldwide.

That is correct. After the Indian music of George Harrison – Wonderwall, the Bulgarian LP was my second introduction and ear-opening exciting path of exploration into non-western classical and folk musics. “Theodora Is Dozing” was / is an incredible introduction to the genius of Philippe Koutev. Of course, on my first trip to Bulgaria in 1985 I bought a pile of Balkanton LPs.
From Cactus in Texas I went to JEM Records, New Jersey in 1977, managing the Visa Records label, releasing albums by and doing national FM radio promotion for National Health, Peter Hammill, Patrick Moraz, Shirley Collins and others. Then to Virgin Records America in NYC 1980-82 doing national FM radio promotion, mainly for XTC plus Motors, Fingerprintz, The Ruts etc.In 1982, my good friend Louis Karp and I conceived, created and opened Waterloo Records in Austin, TX. I simultaneously did regional US sales for Important Records distributor, including Texas promotion/tour press for Metallica – Kill ‘Em All LP.

What was the most impressive concert of that era you remember?

Genesis – The Lamb, Houston Texas, 1975 and The Shirts at the Bottom Line, NYC, 1978

And, how did you discover music of Finland?

In 1971 in a Houston record shop, my music seeking antenna found the album: Wigwam – Tombstone Valentine, double LP on Verve Forecast label. That was a life changing event.

It was produced by Los Angeles musician, producer Kim Fowley who also worked with many L.A. artists including Frank Zappa and produced the first single by Soft Machine.

Yes, Fowley produced the Wigwam album and apparently he organized the Verve deal. I am not sure who decided to make it a double LP in USA (with non-Wigwam tracks) but it was a brilliant move. The cover, band name, album title, were like nothing I had ever seen and the album instantly “spoke” to me, like a zap from another dimension: “Enter this new world. Buy Me Now”. Of course I obeyed and playing the album at home, the first song was beyond anything I had ever heard or experienced, as was the entire album.

Inside the music business, I dived deeper into Finnish music, and went to Finland in 1983, ’84, ’85 see and hear for myself and when back in Austin Texas began importing Finnish LPs into USA via my company Suomi Sounds selling by mail order and at Waterloo Records.

At which point did you decide to settle down in Helsinki?

In 1987 I went to Kaustinen Festival, Finland and instantly was blown away by the band JPP and the festival. Another life changer and I instantly knew I had to stay. Helsinki became my base and I spent all my time in Digelius Music shop and mail order company, my main Finnish connection since 1974. I was an employee and in fact co-conceptualist with owner, Ilkka “Emu” Lehtinen.

The name of the band that changed your life, JPP, is short for Järvelän Pikkupelimannit, “Little Fiddlers of Järvelä”. At that time they were, and still are, a family band of relatives featuring master fiddlers, playing high energy dance music typical for their home region.

I had been importing their first two LPs into USA via my company Suomi Sounds 1985-87. Four fiddlers (three were of the Järvelä clan) plus Timo Alakotila on harmonium plus double bass. They were amazingly innovative, mixing trad folk tunes plus original compositions and arrangements with distinctive melodic and harmonic twists that I had never heard. Way beyond folk music, they were a miniature orchestra playing, composing and arranging in a totally new and distinctive way. Timo Alakotila was for me a genius composer up there with Brian Wilson, Sibelius and Benny Andersson.

After moving to Helsinki, what were the next bands that caught your attention?

Seeing Maria Kalaniemi’s first solo show in Helsinki was magical. As an accordion player and composer, she was so special, different, original. A serious player / composer opening ears and hearts of all who heard her. Immediately I knew I wanted to work with her. I also started working with Värttinä in 1993 organizing press, radio and extra gigs around their SXSW Austin showcase, then licensed the Seleniko CD to USA and made several US tours plus international tours and licensing.

Värttinä’s Seleniko album (1992), produced by Womex co-founder Ben Mandelson, reached the top of the European World Music radio charts, and remained there for 3 months. Wasn’t that the crucial era for both you and Finnish bands?

Indeed it was an important time for all Finnish music folk music and contemporary folk music artists. In 1993, I brought all three: Maria, JPP and Värttinä, to Rudolstadt Festival in Germany, followed by more gigs and tours and licensing in Europe, USA and later Japan.

Rudolstadt at that time had budget similar to Womad in the UK and was very influential. Finnish music was breaking through but from the mainstream view, it was so far away from the music that makes money. Did you have a vision that working in this area would help to pay your bills?

Well, my expenses were low: cheap rent and sharing flats with friends, my office was inside Digelius. My main vision was that these artists were truly brilliant and had great chance for international attention, work and success. My goal was to help make that happen.

How did the business plan of Digelius music start? In a garage, like Google decades later?

Digelius started in Helsinki in 1971, same year that I began in the music business in Texas. Digelius began as a tiny electronics shop and quickly became a jazz shop, importing jazz and all kinds of LPs from USA, UK, Europe etc. “Emu” Lehtinen was the expert who turned Helsinki onto exceptional music of all kinds. When I joined, jazz was the biggest genre for Digelius and we promptly decided to expand into worldly musics, avant garde/experimental, etc. Not much later we moved from the tiny shop to the much larger, highly visible corner space at Viiskulma (Five Corners).

You could find similar cases in other places at that time. Sterns in London, later one of the most important labels focused on African music, started as radio shop. Was there any exchange between these emerging independent labels/distributors?

I am not sure if Emu had been buying from Sterns before I arrived or if I initiated that. We had steady business with Sterns importing and exporting for many years. We were importing LPs and CDs from around the world including large and small companies and distributors. We also bought direct from artists. We imported LPs / CDs from Japan plus LPs from EMI Pakistan and EMI India. Exports of Finnish music were to international partners in many countries: UK, Europe, Japan, USA. I also ran the Digelius international mail order business, selling folky ethnical worldly and other musics to individual buyers worldwide. As regards other players: Tapio Korjus was established for many years with his successful Rockadillo Records and Agency. Martti Heikkinen was importing from Rounder Records and others.

Years later, in 2019, it was Tapio who co-organized the first Finnish Womex in Tampere. In the Digelius era, people were still buying CDs, and producers could invest money into projects like Buena Vista. How profitable was your work at Digelius?

Profitable? Well we stayed afloat but there were periods when Emu and I both did not take salary. We kept it going somehow.

So in these periods you just lived off your savings?

I had commissions from gigs and CD license deals from my Hoedown Arts management company plus I was DJ
on Finnish national radio YLE doing weekly two-hour shifts for four years (which fortunately paid very well!). My program Worlds Away was very eclectic

Was it in English? Was it the only English music show on YLE?

John Peel and I had the only two English language programs on YLE.

How did promotion work, how did airplay help to sell your CDs? There were some important like-minded partners around the globe. World Music Charts across the whole Europe, Cliff Furnald with his RootsWorld magazine and radio in USA, fRoots magazine in London.

As regards my management work, all these and many others were in my regular contact list. Sending CDs, press releases etc. Radio airplay definitely helped draw attention and of course World Music Charts was vital, especially as so many Finnish albums entered the Top Ten. fRoots and Songlines gave us positive reviews on a regular basis. Those things plus touring generated significant interest, fanbase, CD sales.

While attracting new audiences, was there any turning point?

Kimmo Pohjonen at Womex Berlin 1999. A life changing event for him and me. His career took off from that one amazing gig.

Any travel stories?

One of the main reasons I wanted to represent artists was so I could see them on stage as often as possible. There are so many great stories. The best was seeing audiences go apeshit at the concerts. Värttinä at Club Quattro, Tokyo. Phenomenal. Kimmo at Womex. Wow. One big challenge was with JPP: getting Timo Alakotila’s 100 year old / 88kg harmonium on the plane as checked baggage with no costs. We succeeded every time except one!

The two decades, between 1990 and 2010, that was the most important time of discovering unknown musical territories. The French producer and festival director Christian Mousset was exploring music of Mali, Madagascar, La Reunion. Francis Falceto started the Éthiopiques CD series mapping music of Ethiopia. Both of them received Womex awards for lifetime achievement in years 2009 and 2011. Did you get any recognition from the Finnish authorities for your work?

Yes I think I received three awards: one from Kaustinen Festival and two from Music & Media convention.

How is your life now? How did your work with JPP, Maria, Värttinä, Kimmo evolve during the past decades? Don’t you miss seeing audiences go apeshit?

Management work evolved into exciting projects such as director of Värttinä’s – Ilmatar album which led to the Lord of the Rings musical with Värttinä as co-composers and then the Miero album with Real World. With Maria the highlight was Accordion Tribe with ten years of touring and three albums (including working with Lars Hollmer, now sadly passed on). For Kimmo: Uniko with Kronos Quartet was a high point plus mainly KTU with Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn. With JPP, co-ordinating the String Tease album was a rewarding project,
bringing in Väsen as special guests. Hoedown Arts evolved until 2016 when I moved to countryside where peace and nature quickly became priority. Of course, I still seek, explore, buy and listen to music daily with the same ravenous appetite. The hectic work schedule is now greatly reduced to minimal but yes I do miss the gigs with the wild audiences.

Is there still new music to be discovered? Can you relate to what the young generation is listening now?

There is an incredibly vast amount of new and old music of all kinds to be discovered, going back one hundred years to the present, from all around the world. Every day is a new opportunity to find something exciting. As regards the “younger generation”, the current mainstream music is not to my taste but fortunately many thousands of people, from teens to eighties are still making music outside the mainstream and much if it very adventurous and thrilling. One must dig deep to find it but thankfully we have internet. I still buy many albums per week and my daily joy is discovering something old or new, not previously known or heard and listening at home or out and about on one of my ten iPods.

What kind of work do you do now? Maybe you should teach management at Sibelius Academy?

I do very little work from past projects but there is the new project with Timo Alakotila and Japanese accordionist Yuka Fujino. I introduced them to each other in Tokyo in 2022 during Timo’s Nordic Women tour. They recorded their piano / accordion album Seiras in Helsinki in summer 2023. A gorgeous, exquisite dreamwork from two like-minded composers / players.

On the subject of Timo Alakotila: harmonium is an instrument almost forgotten elsewhere, but maybe Finland is country with most harmoniums per 100 bands, is there a reason?

Timo can answer that. Somehow the harmonium became an important part of Finnish folk music tradition. Which is good, that being my second favourite instrument.

Besides Finnish music, did you develop also affection for Finnish countryside, language?

Finnish nature is beautiful, peaceful, re-energizing and spiritually very important for Finnish people and it is an importantpart of their character. I am fortunate to be able to experience this in balance with the world of music.

The Uniko project was originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2003. In 2011 you were in Prague at Strings of Autumn festival where Uniko was performed by Kimmo Pohjonen, Samuli Kosminen and the Proton String Quartet. Would you like to share memories of the concert?

Yes, that was a big and memorable event. The Uniko music is so powerful, the audience felt the full force of the work and responded with incredible gusto. It was one of those experiences that made my work so fulfilling, not to mention the artists feeling the same way. Yes, a magnificent occasion. Uniko in fact continues to the new decade, as performed with Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in 2022.

Your latest project is the album Seiras, recorded by pianist Timo Alakotila and accordionist Yuka Fujino. In the press release you wrote: “Timo and Yuka met in Tokyo in 2022 and began discussions about collaboration based on mutually aligned attitudes towards the art of composition”. Can you specify these “mutually aligned attitudes”?

Melody is the main focus in the musics of both artists. They hold that to be the highest form of communication and expression. They are true “melodists”. Harmonies and arrangements and performance are vital as well but melody is the basis for their work. Their styles are quite similar. For example, Yuka’s piece “Nanohana” sounds and feels like it could have been composed by Timo.

The project also can be seen as a creative musical puzzle. While accordion is considered a Finnish national instrument, here it is played by Japanese lady. You plan a Japanese tour, will the Japanese react in a different way than you expect Finnish audiences to react?

There are actually quite a few female accordionists in Japan, as well, there are very many in Finland. Female Japanese
accordionists are performing, recording and releasing CDs. Japanese audiences are well aware of the prominent female accordionists. Yuka is very busy and Maria Kalaniemi has performed there several times. Japanese audiences feel the emotion of the instrument and have great respect for it, same as in Finland. I think female accordionists have a special understanding and deep relationship with their instrument. Certainly that is the case with Maria Kalaniemi and Yuka Fujino. The April 2024 Japanese tour with Timo and Yuka is organized by Yuka and we are hoping they will perform in Finland in summer 2025.

Further information on artists mentioned in the interview

Kimmo Pohjonen

Timo Alakotila

Yuka Fujino

Sizzling Finnish Folk Fiddling

Maria Kalaniemi

Finnish Folk Band Keeping The Karelian Vocal Music Traditions Alive!

Have you enjoyed the article? Digg

Directory of Articles

Most recent Articles