February 24th in 1999 CE was a beautiful winter day. That evening the Finnish-Swedish Hedningarna had the second concert of their Karelia Visa-tour at Kåren of Turku, Finland. The music, energy, intensity and the sense of the Heart of the group made a lasting impact on me. That evening numen was present for me at Kåren.
Four months later, during hot and sunny June 10th, I had a chance to make an interview with singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio, who had just had her last concert with Hedningarna and who´s solo album Musta had been released during previous year. The interview, that took place few days before a city festival DBTL, was done at a cáfeteria of the open air public swimming pool of Samppalinna at Turku. We talked about Musta, Karelia Visa, meaning and purpose of music and singing, witchcraft and near future.
Karelia Visa and New Winds
The interview was opened by putting an old molar of a bear to the table.
Vesa Iitti (V): How are you doing ?
Sanna Kurki-Suonio (S): I just climbed to ten meters and I have a terrible dread of high places. It was really fun (laughs). [Sanna sang there, at the high of meters, during the city festical DBTL in Alkumeri (”A Primeval Ocean”) occasion].
V: Does the height of the place effect your singing?
S: Well, I thought that when I go there and sing there, I will win my dread of high places (laughs).
V: With the new Karelia Visa-album, Hedningarna did also a tour, that reached to Finland, Sweden, Denmark and at least the States as well…
S: Norway too…
V: …also Norway. What kind of tour it was, in a nutshell? What kind of peak moments there were?
S: In a nutshell, it was my last tour with Hedningarna – I ended in the group on 2nd of May. There were actually a lot of peak moments during the tour. Personally, it was pretty demanding to keep up with my decicion to finish singing in the group, but grasping that I must move forward, keep up with my decicion, was one of my own peak moment. All the concerts where we got a good contact with an audience were really great.
V: Do you specifically recollect some of the concerts?
S: In Minneapolis people removed the chairs so that they could dance. According to the arranger of the concert it was the first time at the place (laughs). It was really fun, and after all, we played polska and other such material that was not so easy for them to dance. Some other concerts were special too. After the concert in Helsinki, which was not so special, it was nice to come to Turku. It was really great feeling here.
We started the tour from Norway and because of long distances of concert places we decided to do our tour with a bus. We had a big bus where it was possible to sleep. Several times during the tour we decided to not use our hotel rooms, but to sleep in our bus instead (laughs). It brought a special feeling to the tour. So although we had the hotel rooms, we could just use the showers before continuing our travel. That brought a special ”on the road”-feeling.
V: Why did you finish in Hedningarna?
S: I felt that it was a time to do something else. I was a member of the group for eight and half years - it was really rewarding, but at times also really tough time. I felt that I wanted to sing my own things also in other settings. I think that I have seen what it is like to be with Hedningarna on small and big stages and so forth. It is now time to do other things.
V: Around the time of making Karelia Visa you also traveled to Carelia. What kind of travel it was, what it gave and how it effected the album?
S: We had done and played most songs of the record before that travel, so we had the material of Karelia Visa already at that point. I had had for a long time such a feeling, that I want also our swedish members to experience what it is like in a place like that. I had not been at the places of our travel there either, but I had been at Setunmaa of Estonia, though.
It was actually a kind of time-travel, where we traveled decades backwards in time, just by moving from point A to point B, to such a little village. The travel took four, five days. We met four over 80-years old Carelian poet-singers and we recorded their stories and songs. One of them told fortunes to us and it is fun that her words have really come true (laughs). It is good that we did that travel, it was wonderful.
V: How personal the fortunes were, can you tell more about them…?
S: Noo ! (laughs). They were both personal and general. Anyway, the travel to Carelia effected the songs of Karelia Visa a lot. It made us to grasp that we needed to leave certain unnecessary things and go to much softer things.
V: I think that one of the most touching songs of Karelia Visa is Viima. What kind of background that song has?
S: It is a melody that originates from poet-melodies of Inkeri and which is combined with swedish polska. The instrumental part of the song is swedish polska. I remember that there were originally also lyrics to the song, but after all they didn´t feel necessary. It is a song that is largely based on repetition.
V: Summer is a busy time – Hedningarna has concerts and you have this Alkumeri-occasion here at Turku. How about the summer´s Hedningarna concerts, you really are not going to sing in them?
S: Yes, I am not going to sing in them. I had the last concert with Hedningarna on 2nd of May. After that gig I got a bottle of vodka that was brought from Carelia, very good stuff (laughs). The new singer in Hedningarna is Liisa Matveinen.
V: She has quite challenging place to take.
S: I guess she will take it very well.
V: There is this legend about you that you learned to sing before you learned to speak. Is it true?
S: Yes, it really is true. Also my younger daughter learned to sing before she learned to speak – she didn´t have much words yet, but all melodies became familiar to her.
V: You study and apparently also teach at Sibelius Academy. How are your studies currently?
S: I have a break in my studies, I have no time for them now. I have not either teached much lately, I have needed to say ”no thanks” to that work as well. Here in Turku I have teached a bit this spring for students of musictheatry, mostly just because Ari Numminen asked me for it (laughs). During the fall I will teach for a short period at academy of dramatic art. Otherwise I haven´t done much teaching, I have mostly focused on doing music. Spring was intensively spend with Hedningarna, during the fall I will start to work with Raivoisat Ruusut. It will totally take my time.
V: One of my favorite philosophers, late russian P.D. Ouspensky, wrote that the meaning of music is generally speaking emotional understanding of things, search for beauty, expression and processing of such inner things which one can not properly otherwise express verbally. Also such classics of comparative religious studies as Schleiermacher and Rudolf Otto used to think likewise – according to Otto, music is one direct way to experience numen, the deepest Mystery of Being, which is beyond the reach of logical mind. What do you think about those views?
S: They sound very true to me.
V: What does music and singing mean for you?
S: They mean for me possibility to express such things which I can not otherwise verbally express. I also get things that can not necessarily be properly described with words from them. For me, singing is great connection to some greater being (laughs). Is does not matter what one might call it.
V: How does it manifest as experience, what do you experience as you sing?
V: What a bad question, we just agreed that such things can not be properly verbalized (laughs).
S: Exactly! (laughs).
V: Well, let´s try it this way: Yours and Hedningarna´s lyrics are excellently modernized poet-singing and as such they also deeply touch fenno-ugrian collective unconsciousness. What happens in your inner world as you sing, do you experience that via singing you can be in connection to something transcendent, archetypal forces or so?
S: I feel, that there are different kind of powers within individual herself that she can use as she does different things. In music it is possible to use those powers without causing too much confusion in one´s environment (laughs).
V: Aristotle had a concept called telos, which refers to a given thing´s perennial nature, mode of being and function. As your telos is apparently involved with singing, bringing beautiful sound into being, what, as complementary to that, does silence mean for you?
S: Silence is the beginning and the end of music. In my Musta-record I had an attempt to have silence in music – so that although there is sound there is also silence and peace in a music. I think that silence is the beginning of everything. When there is silence, there can be also something else. I have times when everything must be silent. At some point it really went that way – we watched also television without sound (laughs) and I didn´t listen to any music. There are periods like that. I had that kind of really silent phase when I had been much touring with Hedningarna and life was really noisy. There must be other side to it, otherwise one will lose oneself.
V: What do you aim to with your music?
S: I aim to, or I hope, that with my music I can give something meaningful for others. I hope that what I do can have such meaning to others that brings something good for them, or that the listener really experiences something. I intend to do music, not muzak (laughs). I said earlier that music is a way to express things that can not be expressed verbally. It is natural to hope that what one says will also reach the other people. Similarly one hopes that what one sings will reach the other people.
V: What are your own favorite songs from your solo-album and from Hedningarna and why?
S: The song that I most miss about songs I sang with Hedningarna is propably Tina Vieri, but I have done that song! (laughs). It was really great to sing. And on Musta… there are certain special things in each of those songs… maybe Polska Release, that one I like a lot, and Vaskilintu too. They are all very personal songs and stories. It is difficult to pick some of them above others.
V: When you do music, is it difficult to draw a line between what becomes too personal self-expression and what does not?
S: We talked about that topic with Aki Yrjänä once. Aki said that he does not want to show what personal things his songs involve, that he wants to do his texts so that it is possible to hide in them. I feel that I can sing about what I experience quite freely, and I think that others might experience about things in the same way than I sing and that my songs might that way give them something. I think it is more so, that there are certain ways I do not want to say things. I think I can sing about very personal things.
V: Your solo-album Musta was fantastic. Do you have plans for the next album?
S: No, it was not fantastic, it was great to get done. I think that the next album will be released during the next year.
V: How does your new material differ from the previous one, what kind of music it will be?
S: Well, when that question was asked from Hedningarna, we said that ”well, it will be such jazz”… (laughs). Time will tell, but there will maybe not be so much poet-singing as earlier.
V: Hedningarna [´Heathens´ in Swedish] has often been asked about witchcraft and paganism. What kind of funny or less funny stories there are about this subject?
S: Personally, I think it has been mostly funny to become called a witch. Always. There are not actually more such funny stories. One and a half year ago during a tour in Norway, at Bergen, I felt at the concert that there was something terribly wrong. There were certain kind of persons in front of the stage. Luckily there was one song during which I was able to recollect myself and ”get power over” those persons. I know this sounds wierd. Afterwards I heard that one of those persons was released from a prison a day earlier, and that he was a devil-worshipper who had been sentenced to jail because of burning churches. Those guys belonged to a gang that was lead by a certain ”Count” who now sits in a jail for twenty years for burning churches. If your music starts to draw people like that around you, it is no more fun. At that poin it is necessary to show that ”your thing is not my thing”.
Some satanic and national-socialistic-labeled music was at certain time apparently very popular in Germany and it was seen as a bad thing, naturally. For some reason our music was also labeled as national-socialistic and satanic there, (laughs) and accordingly it was banned to play our music and to sell our records there.
What I want to share is never that dark, there is much more love and positive energy in my music. Although one might sing songs that are dark, it does not mean that one would seek to spread angst all around.
V: Well, if someone ask you, ”are you a witch?”, what would you answer?
S: I developed this answer to this question at some point – if witchcraft is to doing things in an intuitive way, in a way that things you do come from deep within your self, then ok, I can accept the term. Actually, I think I experience to be more a member of some kind of Inanna-culture (laughs).
V: On some of Hedningarna records and also on your solo-album there is the element of wind strongly present. Does wind have some special symbolic value or meaning for you?
S: There is a song on Trä and Musta that has almost the same text. I did that song, Tuulen Nostatus [Finnish for ´Raising the Winds´], for a certain dance performance and it was almost the same version that now is on record. First the song didn´t mean that much for me, it was more like a text that just felt very strong and which ”had to be sang”. Afterwards wind has started to mean much more for me.
When I was doing Musta I thought if I could use those lyrics or not, because it is almost the same text as on Trä. I could not change the lyrics because I had done the song with those lyrics and because that song meant so much for me.
V: In earlier times, finns were generally considered to be very strong in magical skills in the eyes of South-Europeans, and it was thought that one of the special skills that finns had in magic was that of the ability to raise and to control winds. This just came to my mind…
S: Yeah… (laughs).
V: If you would have or if you have a shamanistic spirit-animal, what it would be or what it is?
S: I think this question is too personal (laughs).
V: I understand.
V: How Hedningarna or you have been interested in folklore?
S: It interests me a lot. I think that as you study such texts and think to what kind of things they are connected to, as you read about different mythologies, about old Finnish poems, it becomes very important to know more and more about different archetypes, about what those things mean and what there is generally is behind all of that.
It is funny to note how certain things can feel strong although one might not know where those things really link to, where they come from or what is really meant by them – just like in Tuulen Nostatus. I just felt that ”this song just must be sang” and only later I understood why I needed to sing it. It is intuitive action, ”this just must be done”. I really does not always use first my reason in doing things (laughs).
V: Is Taivaantakoja-composition, that was performed at Kalevala´s [Finland´s national epic] 150-year´s celebration at Helsinki, to be recorded at some point?
S: No, I don´t think so. There has been talk about it, but nothing more yet. Did you see it from television or were you there at an occasion?
V: I was there.
S: Oh, it must have sounded terrible. We didn´t have any kind of soundcheck. Before going to the stage we decided with Aki that ”it is most important that your hair is well and that it feels good” (laughs). When I took the microphone I didn´t know whether it works or not (laughs). And then there were that huge choir, cellos and all… it was totally uncontrolled palette.
V: What kind of plans and visions you have for a near future?
S: How long does a near future reach to?
V: You can decide that.
S: Aha, okay! (Laughs) Right now a near future means for me about one and a half year ahead, maybe two. During that time I will do a solo-album. I will be part of some theathre things as well. I have already been asked for four different operas to sing, but I will really not go to all of them (laughs). I hope there will be as much solo-concerts as possible.
V: This is the last question: What makes you happy?
S: Hmm. (long reflective pause). Life makes me happy and unhappy. I can not really say just one thing that makes me happy, not even two, because there are so many little things that can make me very happy, all of a sudden.
V: That sounds intuitive.
S: Yeah! (Laughs).
Original interview and text in Finnish, as well as this translation to English by Vesa Iitti.
Zen Garden Page on Sanna Kurki-Suonio
Northside Page on Sanna Kurki-Suonio
Hufvudstadsbladet on Sanna Kurki-Suonio
Iltalehti on Sanna Kurki-Suonio
Lyrics of Sanna Kurki-Suonio´s Musta in Finnish and English
DBTL page on Alkumeri
Official Hedningarna Homepage
Another Official Hedningarna Homepage
Unofficial Hedningarna Homepage
Henrik Mides Hedningarna Page
Spanish Hedningarna Page
Concert pictures of Hedningarna by Thomas Bengtsson
Folk Roots Magazine On-Line