Maintenant #62: Pekko Käppi
An interview with Pekko Käppi by SJ Fowler.
Pekko Käppi is a balladeer, in the very purest sense a poet. A linguistic artisan and communicator, Käppi’s practise serves not only to preserve elements of his heritage, through his repatriation of Finnish ballads and folk songs and his mastery of the Jouhikko, but to explore the newest and most exciting areas of the sonic, and vitally, the linguistic. His poetry and music cannot be limited to a single genre as it cannot, should not, be limited to a single medium. A vital representation of Maintenant’s aim to display all forms of poetic, with Pekko Käppi and our 62nd edition we are perhaps returning to the very root of poetry.
3:AM: 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?
Pekko Käppi: 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.
3:AM: 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.
3:AM: 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.
3:AM: 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.
3:AM: 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.
3:AM: Could you tell me about the significance and your knowledge of the Kalevala as compiled by Elias Lonnrot?
PK: This is an extremely interesting and emotional issue for me. I have to apologize already if I sound too depressed. Kalevala and Lönnrot are of course priceless and holy in their ways. But it is not as simple as that. For me the main source of the runo-song tradition has been the 34-part anthology of the Finnish Folk poems – Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot – partly gathered by Lönnrot, but also many many others. Oh, and the whole darn priceless beast of an anthology is now available on the internet too. The anthology consists of 85,000 poems and over one million verses or so. So it is quite monumental thing to have in your bookshelf.
Lönnrot is to me a saint, a tragic, distant and shape-shifting figure. His achievements are in a way comparable to the miraculous deeds of any mythological hero, but he was a doctor with a practice, he lost most of his children and was helpless. I think he also destroyed his diaries and I don’t know why but it has made him more distant to the generations. Although he kind of is everywhere and one of the most important historical characters. But I like the feeling when one’s hands and mind gets dirty. Lönnrot’s “rival” K.A. Gottlund’s journals have survived and apart from being a scholar workaholic and enthusiast for the folk traditions he was a dirty old bastard in a way, sorry for the expression. But I guess we all are, and have been since the dawn of the mankind. I like to think that tradition is as always imperfect as I am and it doesn’t convert or translate from its world to mine directly, many things are lost, many things are different, some things are similar, few things the same.
As an icon, symbol or as a “thing” Kalevala is all over in the Finnish society, but I am afraid that the “Songs behind the Kalevala” are not at all as I said earlier. Maybe the downshifting of the Finnish peoples interest towards poetry began already when Lönnrot compiled and released Kalevala and later the Kanteleta. The forming nation had it’s share of ancient poetry and folk poetry, and contemporary poetry became a form of an entertainment for the scholars and the geeks. However the weird thing is that Finnish fiction has its monumental place among the contemporary folk in all the layers of society so the folk didn’t abandon the literature, just lost its interest towards poems. Why? I have no idea. Maybe poems are too strange, too referential, too vague, too much.
3:AM: You seem to work in two streams, both repatriating work from the past, championing Finnish music in it’s folk or ballad form, and then also you seem to produce fascinating experimental / sonic work, reminiscent of Ghedalia Tazartes, perhaps even great figures of avant garde poetry like Henri Chopin.
PK: Thanks, heh. But true, in a way. I like the idea that the past somehow blurps into the present either in a semi-random or more calculated way. It is quite hard to put this into words, even in Finnish. From my point of view there should be a really strict interpretation of tradition, but as an equal there should be this boundary-less way to absorb something from the tradition to the present or to the future. Also, there should be a boundary-less way to absorb things from the possible futures to the past as well.
I have been complaining a lot how the tradition is often updated in quite embarrassing ways like putting pink pvc-pants and sunglasses on a Jouhikko player or ancient hero, have them play and sing for example Rihanna’s songs in a Kalevala metre and that should represent that how tradition can be brought to the context of contemporary popular culture. I think it is just lazy. I am not sure that anyone really thinks that’s relevant or even entertaining. To me that kind of usage of the tradition has been just trivialized from any aesthetic value of the layers of traditions (folk tradition, the tradition of sunglasses, the tradition of pvc-pants and the tradition of Rihanna) to a plain and simplified and brainless boredom. From my point of view, the traditions have a lot of strength in between the lines, contexts. In this way, I notice that I am a bit of a puritan or at least I lack a sense of humour. Also, I see that traditions are always layered and as I pointed out earlier there’s so much time in between, that to make something worthwhile and sustainable from tradition (be it the old folk poems, a way of weaving baskets to hunting birds, fixing a Model-T Ford or playing modular synths) one should be sensitive in general but straight-forward in an artistic way. There’s a certain hole in my logic though, because on the other hand I truly think there should be a freedom to interpret the tradition and then deliver it.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 23rd, 2011.