January-February 2013

More Finnish Tunes
for Gloomy Days

By Roland Sturm

Antti_JrvelRainy winter days seem to call for more subdued tunes and since we don’t have that many cold wintry days in Southern California, better to take advantage of them when they happen. Here is a Finnish tune that manages to even make the otherwise cheerful key of D major sound gloomy. I’m sure there are many cheerful tunes in Finland as well, but almost all the ones I know definitely lean towards the darker side at least when compared to old-time fiddle tunes.

Our family learned the tune in this month’s column from the traditional Finnish fiddler Antti Järvelä, who was featured in my column from last September. The September column had a video and a transcription of Antti playing a Polska. Polskas are very common in the traditional music of Nordic countries and are in ¾ time, but with a very different feel than waltzes. Polskas are very intriguing tunes, fun to play, and it is unfortunate that they never crossed over into US fiddle style – although this is might be changing. Here is old-time master Bruce Molsky himself playing a Polska:

Bruce Molsky - Three Mark Polska / Down the Road

Polskas should not be confused with the much better known (in the US) Polkas which are in 2/4 time. These two tune types have no similarity other than an implied references to Poland. Bruce Molsky learned the Polska in his video from Arto Järvelä (who may be Antti’s uncle) and the group JPP, which originally meant Järvelän Pikkupelimannit (the small folk musicians of Järvelä). That name proved to be too difficult outside Finland and the group only uses the abbreviation JPP. Pelimanni music is an instrumental style and one of the two major traditions of folk music in Finland (the other is a singing style).

But on to today’s tune, which is much slower, maybe more like a Polonaise (a slow type of dance in ¾). A transcription of the tune is posted on a Finnish website, but Antti Järvelä emailed me his transcription. If you visit the website, you probably have to rely on Google translator, but most of the time you get a somewhat understandable version of the text. While I have heard this tune played, I could not find a performance of it on the internet, so here is our family version recorded on a rainy day in California, although we play twin mandolin and guitar. It may not exactly match the sheet music of course because we did not learn it that way and when you play a tune from memory, it will start changing a bit over time, but that is how traditional tunes develop.


The Sturm Family - Twin Mandolin: Polonsessa Spoof

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm