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Brazil Comes to Finland

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Shimmying and tripping around the stage she carried audience three continents away
Zetaboo and the Emma Salokoski Ensemble at the Helsinki Festival
Helsinki Festival
Helsinki, Finland
August 31, 2006

As we all know, a good concert can have many different effects on its listeners—raised blood pressure, boosted adrenaline, soothing tranquility. For my daughter it was a blissful night's sleep, for me images of a light-spangled stage, shifting and shuffling rhythms, and the occasional riff from the evening's final numbers.

Summer festivals in Finland can be hot and sweaty affairs, but the Helsinki Festival is an end-of-summer program here, and is held evening-time in the large marquee on the shore of Töölö Bay, just behind the main railway station. Last Thursday it poured all around the perimeter of the tent; and inside it poured too, in an atmosphere as sweaty as any Brazilian rainforest.

In a country where an Argentinian influence on local tango tradition is well-known, these two bands have been instrumental in spreading that latin influence. Zetaboo take the role literally, offering only one fully vocalized song between their first two albums. He showed live that their autumn release will continue in this vein, with guitarist Jarmo Saari extending his extensive electronic palette skill to vocalised texturing and real-time 'looping'. For the first half of their show he used only an amplified nylon-string instrument, offering greater space for the acoustic rhythm and bass section that has always been the band's hallmark. Keyboard and vocalist Anne-Mari Kähärä offered one solo song from her own repertoire, paired down to only bass and percussion accompaniment. This arrangement allowed space for the range and broad nuancing that this contemporary Finnish diva is well-known for. Percussion was added by veteran Finnish session man Mongo Aaltonen, a guest on both the band's album, and judging by his work with caxixis and timbales he, too, is a true Brazilian!

At the heart of Zetaboo, however, has always been the delicate and inspired drumming of Marko Timonen. Along with Zetaboo's bassist Pekka Lehti, he was responsible for ushering the most successful Finnish female vocal group Värttina into the world of South American styled backbeat and polyrhthms on their 90s albums (Ilmatar). Since then he has continued to work with a variety of Finnish folk and rock units, including Lehti's own Outo Voima, and veteran punk artist Ismo Alanko's Säätiö.

However it is behind young Finnish funk singer Emma Salokoski that, since the beginning of 2006, Timonen has found his greatest success to date. Started with bassist Lauri Porra and guitarist Mikko Kosonen as a student trio at Helsinki's Pop and Jazz Conservatory, the Ensemble took on Timonen and keyboardist Tuomo Prättälä in 2005. Though Salokoki's earlier recordings with Quintessence and The Don Johnson Big Band are more groove orientated, the five-strong Ensemble's first full release Kaksi Mannerta (Two Continents) is a tribute to the meeting of northern Europe and southern America. Like her drummer, Salokoski had been inspired from student days by bossa nova and other samba styles. She has demonstrated her talent for taking classic Finnish ballads and laments and, with the aid of this thoroughly talented group, turning them into tunes that rise from the depths of dark, morose Finnish bogs, and fly with all the band's youthful energy 4000 miles South to dance in the South American sun.

Most tracks from the album were covered, from the opening haunting lament by ill-fated 70s singer Pekka Streng Katsele Yössa (Nightime Observations) to the final grand Fa Da Bahja, aided here by a chorus of Zetaboo's remaining musicians. Salokoski's voice is not dominant, but lingers and teases the melodies between her masterful musicians, equally at home with bouncy Brazilian choruses as with those sad refrains. Under the taut canvas, the 30 year-old singer swept away the packed audience and, shimmying and tripping around the stage, carried them three continents away, to a place where the lights always twinkle beguilingly and the rhythm always get under your skin.

The main languages of her repertoire are almost equally impenetrable to an English-speaking listener, but it is barely of consequence. Could Portuguese and Finnish soon become the joint new lingua franca of world music?


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