Photo credit: DagAlveng.
SINIKKA LANGELAND is an award-winning Norwegian-Finnish singer and kantele-player (Finnish table-harp.) She lives in Norway in Finnskogen, the Forest of the Finns. She talked to Alison Bentley about the way she blends folk and jazz in her unique sound, and recording with top Scandinavian musicians for the ECM label. She also has some advice for International Women’s Day!
London Jazz News: You’ve said that your mother was the first person to influence your music?
Sinikka Langeland: My mother was born in Karelia in Finland, the area that Russia took after the Winter War. She was sent to Sweden as a war child, and then she met my father from Norway and they moved to Norway. She still had inside herself the need for Finnish culture. Happily, they moved to an area called the Finnish Forest in Norway, where there were old immigrants from the 17th century. So when I was growing up I lived a little bit outside this forest. My mother always talked about this different instrument, the kantele. She played piano, so she took me to a piano teacher- so I started like that with classical music. She was also an artist in weaving, and we went into the forest to draw all the natural things- it was very creative for me to have her as a mother.
LJN: Did she introduce you to playing the kantele?
SL: Not exactly. It was quite late on that she said that I should get a kantele – in fact, I was 20 years old. We went to Finland and found a kantele and then it was just for fun. But I started to be so fascinated by it, and I thought, I really have to experiment and get some more lessons. So I went to Finland for a few months and took lessons, and then it became my main instrument.
LJN: Did you start off on the small kantele with a few strings?
SL: In fact, it was the opposite. I started off with a big one! [concert kantele, up to 40 strings.] My teacher played a big one, and I didn’t really know about the small ones, because somehow when I started it was not very popular in Finland either. When we went into a music shop to ask for a kantele they were almost laughing: ‘Why do you want to play that? You must be crazy coming from Norway to do this.’ So my uncle found a teacher for me and she played national Finnish songs. But later I discovered the small [kantele] and in fact that’s the instrument I use for improvisation – five, 10, 15 strings – quite different, and that was also fantastic to explore. So I use it sometimes, but I think still the big kantele is my main one.
LJN: You bend the notes- do you sometimes play it with a bow?
SL: Yes, sometimes I use it on the big kantele – I can use it on the bass strings. With the concert kantele there’s also a tuning mechanism that makes it possible to bend the notes, the strings, instead of just tuning. That’s the way I can tune it into all the keys. I can also use it like an effect.
LJN: It sounds very bluesy, and also ethereal.
SL: It has a special sound.
LJN: I read a story about how the first one was made from the jawbone of a giant pike?
SL: Yeah, that’s the story from the Kalevala [Finnish national epic poem].
LJN: Did the kantele lead you into Finnish folk culture?
SL: Yes, when I started to read about the kantele I came to the Kalevala – it was about rune songs, songs about the kantele and how it was made. And then I discovered that rune songs were a great tradition, bigger than the Kalevala. They were collected in my area here, so I started to translate them into Norwegian and to make songs- that was the CD called Runoja in 2004. And I still use a lot of them. These days we have a big debate about wolves, so I sing these wolf rune songs. And there are also bear runes and stone runes and everything. It’s a kind of shamanist tradition, but also has Christian elements in it.
LJN: Would those songs have been sung by women particularly?
SL: The main source for this tradition here was a woman called Kaisa Vilholm. She was the kind of woman who had very special powers – a healer who could heal at a distance. Finnish researchers came to this area to collect the old stories and songs and interview her. She was part of this tradition till 1940 – astonishing that it was so close to our era.
LJN: You’ve said that your singing style comes very much from Norwegian styles?
SL: I have worked quite a lot with this old Norwegian folk song style called kveder – it means you are really telling the story, or the kvede. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Agnes Buen Garnås – she made a fantastic CD with Jan Garbarek – and she was my teacher. She is the queen of the Norwegian singing style. The rune singing is quite different – the way I do it is to take it into a kind of modern style.
LJN: Are there any other singers who have influenced you?
SL: I’ve listened to Sidsel Endresen and Radka Toneff – we have these very strong jazz singers. I heard Radka Toneff when I was a teenager – she also sang Bulgarian folk music. Maybe it’s not that I tried to copy them, more that you get this fantastic experience, because these strong women have such a fantastic expression of themselves. Sidsel Endresen has developed herself into a wonderful, individual artist.
LJN: What inspired you to start writing your own songs?
SL: I had some old texts at the beginning. I used a poet: Hans Børli. I grew up knowing his work so it was hard to use my own lyrics. On the latest CD, The Magical Forest, I wrote all the poems, based on these old runes. It’s not easy to ask somebody else to do it – if you have something you want to express then you have to do it. Sometimes I feel that there are so many things I want to study but I compose, and I play these instruments, and I sing, so to do the lyrics as well would be fantastic but…
LJN: How did you choose to set Hans Børli and Edith Södergran’s poems?
SL: Hans Børli is from my area here – then I also found that some of the poems were about forest workers. Edith Södergran – I think it’s something about the wisdom in their poems that I’m searching for. And she’s also fabulous in expressing how to be a woman. They say she was the first Modernist in Scandinavia. She was also from Karelia and lived there. She died so young but they are extraordinary poems.
LJN: Would you say that your music has been influenced by the musicians you work with? Anders Jormin, for example, has recorded a lot with you.
SL: Yes, since 1996. I just heard him and thought he was the best bass player I’d ever heard and I still think he is so amazing. I’m just happy that he can be in the band. And Arve Henriksen – I started working with him on the rune songs and I think he suits my music so very well. He plays the trumpet but it’s not as if he’s in a town. I think he’s almost like an animal, you know [laughs] – like an animal’s voice and the trees’ voice. I think his way of making these sounds is timeless, and he has fantastic phrasing in everything. I know he’s been studying the Japanese flute, shakuhachi, and the same with [saxophonist] Trygve Seim. He’s been studying folk instruments to be inspired by that style of playing. And of course from the singing tradition and the folk tradition we have microtones -we try to use these in the music. Trygve has also been quite influenced by Arabic and Iberian music- and I think we give something together. We’re used to each other now so it’s difficult to talk about it, but I’m incredibly happy with this band
LJN: Are there any other jazz musicians who’ve inspired you?
SL: It’s impossible to not be inspired by Jan Garbarek in Norway- I heard him when I was a teenager and he was not very famous. I thought I wanted to do this but I had to do it in my own way. And there are many Norwegian jazz musicians, and also Miles Davis and Coltrane and Keith Jarrett – not that I’ve been listening an extraordinary amount, but they’ve been there all the time. Miles Davis uses microtones very much I think, creating these small tensions, a little bit higher or a little bit lower. That’s also very much the way I use my voice – even if you have very simple melodies you just use microtones a little bit, and you can get a very nice tension
LJN: One of your CDs is mainly instrumental [Starflowers]- did you feel you wanted to be singing?
SL: At first it was very strange because I was always thinking, when is the voice coming in? But when I got this viola player [Lars Anders Tomter] he became my voice, in a way. I was also quite nervous at the beginning – that it would be good enough without the voice. I had always played behind singing, but it was really good for me, and I’m very happy about it. Sometimes less is more.
LJN: You said in one interview that the kantele is the mother of the band?
SL: Yeah, it’s the mother of the band because everything comes from there – the music is born with the kantele and then the arrangements and the melodies and everything comes from that. It’s maybe like people who compose for orchestra but then have a piano they can put everything into.
LJN: You studied mime in Paris in the ’80s – did that influence your performing?
SL: I chose the École Lecoq because I was interested in theatre coming from the folk tradition, telling stories. It was all kind of abstract, without words – it was a very creative process. But I felt very strongly that I had to go back to music – I couldn’t live without making music.
LJN: You once said that the forest is like a kind of cathedral for you. Your most recent CD, The Magical Forest, has very spiritual lyrics – is there a connection?
SL: It’s partly this shamanistic rune song tradition – they had this old expression which means the mother behind everything, the goddess behind the bear, wolf or stone. They could also replace them with some Catholic saints, or the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. These are stories I heard and then I made them into songs. But it’s also to get a bigger space around – there’s a connection with wholeness, and a way to bring nature into Christianity. We need to connect with nature.
LJN: You have the voices of Trio Medieval on the recording. In general, do you do the arrangements of your songs?
SL: Yes, but there are some parts that are a little bit freer for the jazz players to improvise. More and more I write out as much as possible, but then I discuss some things with the musicians and with Manfred Eicher when we are in the studio. He produced it and said ‘maybe this is too much here’, or ‘maybe we can arrange things like that’ – good advice.
LJN: There’s quite a lot of free jazz as well?
SL: They’re good players- it’s very important to let them feel that they can do something free too. Sometimes it suits the lyrics very well to have this kind of expression.
LJN: Any other thoughts for International Women’s Day?
SL: Women are the mother of the music and the musicians! I used to say to my female friends that we should stop cleaning our houses so much. Because you always feel that you should be doing so many things before practising or playing. We will never get as good at playing as the boys are – they just play and play, and we have to learn from that. Play first and do your house afterwards. That’s a good thing for women’s day, I think [laughs].