WOMEX 12 Artist Award

WOMEX is proud to announce the winner of the WOMEX 12 Artist Award: Värttinä from Finland.

They will perform on Sunday morning, 21 October 2012, during the WOMEX Award Ceremony accompanied by a WOMEX Networking Breakfast, both open to WOMEX delegates only. The laudation will be offered by Fiona Talkington (UK), BBC Radio Presenter, Curator.

Varttina 2013 marks Värttinä's 30th anniversary. They have toured worldwide, have a huge global fan base, they have won awards, recorded 14 albums, sold thousands upon thousands of them, collaborated with the great A.R. Rahman writing music for The Lord of the Rings musical. They are outstanding ambassadors for Finnish music around the world, and are text-book examples of how to remain true to the roots of a tradition yet find a new voice and excellence in performance.

You don't have to be a Finnish speaker to have been intoxicated by their tales of fishwives and lovers, murder and revenge, from ancient blood-curdling spells to heartbreaking songs of betrayal and loss, and still find yourself smiling and laughing at the sheer joy and exuberance of their music.

The Värttinä story goes back to 1983 to the Finnish village of Rääkkylä where mothers and grandmothers got some of the children to sing and play the old songs of the Karelian region, and recite ancient stories to the accompaniment of the kantele, the Finnish zither-like instrument. It caught on and soon there were saxes and flutes, accordions and basses joining in and these old songs took on a new life.

They became a somewhat unruly group of 21 singers and instrumentalists who began to make a bit of a name for themselves and, in 1987, released their first self-titled album and were named Band of the Year at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival. Two years later another album, Musta Lindu or Black Bird, hinted that this was a band with its own ideas about reinventing traditions, but it was in 1991, with the album Oi Dai, that the now teenagers had their first big hit just as they were making their own life decisions, some of them going off to study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. They actively researched singing traditions from a wider region and women's traditions in particular, unafraid and uncompromising in their lyrics. Oi Dai was eventually to go platinum and was Finland's biggest folk success for 20 years.

A year later record producer Ben Mandelson helped them forge Seleniko which entered the World Music Charts at Number One, the rest of Europe sat up and took notice with performances at Womad, Dranouter, Glastonbury then SXSW and a US tour. Under the guidance of Phillip Page, who was to remain their manager for many years, the Värttinä energy seemed unstoppable. The next album Aitara showed off their originality and their willingness to storm through any boundaries that existed between folk, pop, rock and jazz and earned them NAIRD's Best Contemporary Music Album award. 1996 brought Kokko and appearances supporting the likes of Björk and Joan Armatrading, and hot on its heels another number one in Vihma which achieved two Best Album awards in Japan.

The year 2000 gave us an album which, for many, defined Värttinä's sound. Ilmatar - Goddess of Air - saw the band return with a greater intensity to their roots and the Finnish runo songs, allowing the ancient spells to leer and spit at us amidst beguiling vocals and outstanding instrumental playing. The producer was Frenchman Hughes de Courson, known for his work with electro-folk band Malicorne and someone who, as producer, had already reinvented the way we listened to Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. Värttinä played to nearly a quarter of a million people at the Rock in Rio festival, toured Japan, and got to know the departure lounges of many of the world's airports.

Those of us who were at the Aleksanterin Teatteri in Helsinki in February 2003 for Värttinä's 20th anniversary concert saw a true celebration of the band's extraordinary achievements, with fans who knew every word to every song, travelling from many different countries. And the band celebrated with another album, Iki.

What could they possibly have left to achieve? This came in the form of an invitation from the great Indian producer A.R. Rahman to collaborate on a musical production of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The premiere was set for Toronto in 2006 and London's West End in 2007. It proved to be one of their most intense periods of work ever, seeing the next album Miero released on Real World in 2006, just after they had been awarded the prestigious Suomi-Palkinto (Finland Prize) for their exceptional career achievements.

Miero seemed to come on an unexpected surge of creativity, taking their song-writing skills even further, stretching their vocal range and style. So much time spent together on The Lord of the Rings had provided a cauldron of material. One of the band described the period to me: "Just when we were worn out and tired," he said, "we wrote our best tunes ever." Producer Aija Puurtinen put her finger on it when she said that you don't have to understand the Finnish language, but we are all human beings and the heart is the seat of affections, and she made sure they rained down strong and fearsome emotions on us. Cloaked in the rhythmic mysteries of the Finnish language came lines such as "My loathing drips blood, my pain slashes, curses, drenches us with pus" yet the music was witty and vibrant, the contrasts powerful.

Varttina Utu Before we knew it came the 25th anniversary and a celebratory compilation album, still amidst constant touring. And earlier this year they released their latest colourful album, Utu.

The band in front of us today is, of course, different from that group of children singing as a hobby in Rääkkylä all those years ago. There have been lots of changes of personnel over the years, the call of families and other musical projects necessitating reinvention, but the spirit of Värttinä has never faded.

It is fitting to celebrate Värttinä - and I mean the whole family of musicians who have ever been part of this creative whirlwind - not just for what they have achieved in their own musical path over 30 years, but for the example they have set in being inspired by, nurturing, yet never fearing their own tradition. They are outstanding composers, producers, singers and instrumentalists, and those of us who have been lucky enough to see them live and enjoy their music have surely fallen under a spell that will never be broken.

Text: Fiona Talkington

Photo: Philip Ryalls

More information about Värttinä: www.varttina.com

See also: Meet the Winner of the WOMEX 12 Artist Award

Värttinä Donates WOMEX Award Contribution to UNICEF Haiti

Along with their WOMEX Artist Award, Värttinä will be given money to put into a project of their own choice. This is why Värttinä will be using it to support UNICEF Haiti::

In 2010, in the wake of the unprecedented earthquake, the world came together in solidarity with Haitian children and families to mount an unprecedented response. The resources mobilised after the earthquake have provided more than just short-term emergency interventions, contributing also to longer term development especially in hard-to-reach rural areas that were previously left out. As 2013 approaches, it is important that we continue to build on this hard won progress, ensuring that we are able to fund reconstruction and recovery projects.

In Haiti, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has been working together with the national authorities and UN and civil society partners to keep children alive, safe and learning in Haiti and hundreds of thousands of children have benefitted from these programmes.

We were touched to learn that music has been identified as one of the tools chosen by UNICEF and its partners to support the recovery of the thousands of children who were left traumatised by the earthquake. UNICEF together with its partners is doing valuable work in this regard by, for example, bringing music workshops to children in remote areas. UNICEF will support music students in the south of Haiti through workshops mixing styles from classical to Haitian songs. This is why we feel that it is important to direct our WOMEX Award contribution toward this work in Haiti.

UNICEF Haiti: www.unicef.org/infobycountry/haiti.html