22 November 2006

Maria Kalaniemi – Bellow poetry
Accordion = polka…? Think again…!

Maria Kalaniemi’s name has been well-known for years among those who love Nordic music – she did a brief stint with Värttinä, was a member of Niekku and has several fine solo and group recordings to her credit. She has also taken part in some wonderful collaborative work with other fine musicians, such as the 2001 release Lufstråk (Airbow) (with fiddler Sven Ahlbäck) and her work with the amazing multi-national ensemble Accordion Tribe (the bellows can indeed be extended far enough to cross multiple borders!). Maria is classically trained, but is best known for her love and interpretation of the traditional musical forms of her native Finland and related Nordic cultures. However, she is in no way limited to playing what would generally be classified as ‘folk’ music – there are elements of a wide range of styles in her work, embracing characteristics of other forms and folding them skillfully into a whole that is uniquely her own.

On Bellow poetry, her latest release, one of the forms Maria has chosen as her focus is the ancient form of runo song, found in Finland, Estonia and Sweden. This tradition is hundreds of years old (in some cases over a thousand), and from what I understand about it is closely related, in purpose at least, to Druidic and other shamanic poetry. The songs were originally written as poetry and were concerned with many aspects of life – religious beliefs, recounting historical events so as to pass them from one generation to the next, matters of love, and as a tool in healing or casting spells. In her notes to the album, Maria says, ‘Runo singers sang in meditative and improvised fashion. I wanted to explore the concept of runo playing where the feelings of the runo poems are expressed not in words, but in the music…I wanted to find the pure essence of runos in this way.’

Those lucky listeners who are familiar with Maria’s work know to expect nothing but quality from her – they will not be disappointed. For those unfamiliar with her – especially anyone who hears ‘accordion’ and immediately thinks ‘polka’ – the first notes of ‘Kuun henki’ (Spirit of the moon)’, the opening track on the CD, will let them know that they’re in for something very special indeed. Maria calls the accordion ‘one of the most expressive of all instruments’, and in her capable hands it’s no exaggeration – she has perfected her technique to the point of being able to filter the whole range of human emotion through her playing. Mechanically speaking, of course, the instrument ‘breathes’ in order to produce sound – when Maria plays, it’s as if it has a life of its own. The spirit of this music, so alive within the soul of this fine player, passes through her instrument to fall on the ears and hearts of the listener – more than two entities (performer and instrument) working in tandem, Maria and her accordion become one, and the effect is incredibly moving.

All of these pieces are solo performances, with the exception of ‘Ikkunan äärellä (By the window)’ and ‘Kevään kurjet (Cranes of spring)’, which feature some beautifully delicate and very appropriate understated electric guitar work from Olli Varis, Maria's husband, who has collaborated with her in the past very effectively. In addition to the accordion, some of the pieces include Maria’s voice – again from the liner notes, she states, ‘…for this album, I used my own inner bellows by singing on a few of the pieces…This album provided me the opportunity to allow both sets of bellows to breathe and vibrate together.’ On ‘Salin hämärissä (Dim light in the farmhouse)’, she sings wordlessly, accentuating the mood and melody of the piece – on ‘Niityt ja vainiot (Meadows and fields)’ she voices the poetry as well – all to wonderful effect, adding another dimension to the already-rich music.

These tunes, in these arrangements, are possessed of an extremely intimate feeling – on first experience, I felt almost as if they were meant for my ears alone, which I take as a sign of the strong power of this musician to communicate the soul of these pieces to that of the listener. They go straight to the heart, with no barrier of culture or language strong enough to keep them out.

If you’ve heard Maria’s work previously, you know the quality you can expect from this recording – I recommend picking it up immediately. If you’re unfamiliar with her, by all means check out some of the samples available on-line (at Amazon.com, for instance). Either way, you’re in for a treat – this is music of deep emotion and beauty, to be experienced over and over. It transcends barriers effortlessly – and isn’t that what music should do…?

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