In eight years, the four-piece ethno techno outfit Suistamon Sähkö has grown from a research project to a complete band. Coming to their third album Varokaa! Hengenvaara, they now consider themselves drifted quite far from the folk music roots. These days they are even collaborating with internationally acclaimed fashion designers.
Four androgynous people, could be two guys and two gals, or maybe not – who cares – are fooling around on a small, sweaty stage in eccentric, colorful attires. Their performance includes tiny, Russian toy accordions, rapping, jagging electronic rhythms and physically liberated choreographies. At times you might hear motifs from Karelian or Finnish folk melodies.
Yet the focus is on the relentless beat and the catchy, singalong choruses. Suistamon Sähkö’s tracks sound like earthy, artisanal DIY-versions of arena sized EDM bangers. The quartet’s lyrics blend folkish sceneries with issues of today in a tasteful, almost postmodern way. They take on topics like societal inequality, environmental dystopias and even sexuality in a manner that doesn’t feel too preachy nor too obscure.
Suistamon Sähkö (“Suistamo Electricity”) is surely a mind-boggling outfit. If you would make a roleplay game where Sheffieldian acid house would be discovered in post-Soviet Karelia, you could end up something like this. “Ethno techno”, as the band defines it. “I’d say that stylistically we’ve drifted quite far from the folk music circles. Some of us just happen to have a degree in that music”, Anne-Mari Kivimäki, the accordionist, vocalist and the project’s originator states.
Tuomas Juntunen, one of the vocalists and the band’s other dancer (the other one being Reetta-Kaisa Iles), elaborates: “Our main point is to make people dance and have a good time. Surely we can just suddenly introduce a club of folks to the traditional dance of jenkka if we want to. But that’s just part of the fun.”
A Long Way from Karelian accordionists
Even though Suistamon Sähkö doesn’t affiliate themselves with the Finnish folk music scene, it is worthy to mention that Kivimäki and the outfit’s beatmaker/rapper Eero Grundström (who was interviewed by Music Finland last autumn) are actual music scholars. Also, Suistamon Sähkö has its roots in the life story of an accordionist named Ilja Kotikallio. He was a character from the village of Suistamo located in the Ladoga Karelia, and Kivimäki built her doctoral studies around his heritage.
“Initially this was just me and Eero”, Kivimäki says. In 2013 Kivimäki and Grundström made a solo concert and a record called Aikapyörä. Its electro-acoustic soundscapes sound like a predecessor to Suistamon Sähkö’s outlandish antics. The quartet came together in late 2015.
“Everything around the band’s [self-titled] debut was assembled quite quickly. Our sophomore release “Etkot, pectopah ja etnoteknoa” was our first proper ‘band album’. We wanted to be a real band, not just a research project.” “At that time we also started to move away from the folk music concept. Our songs took a different angle topic-wise”, Juntunen continues.
Many lyrics on the debut album took on the worrying state of things in current Russian Karelia. Their latest album, titled Varokaa! Hengenvaara, which translates to “watch out – danger of death” takes on personal and global issues. The album starts with the sexually rowdy Vetovoimaa (“attraction”), but then goes on to apocalyptic themes: the title track is a climate change anthem.
Despite these heavy themes the group finds itself primarily as a gang of entertainers. And the Karelian roots are still there, Kivimäki remarks. “When we go abroad, the audience has an interest in what we are singing about, but mainly the point is to make a bodily connection. We make melodies that are catchy and that are easy to sing along. And I still play these simple melodies on my Notka-accordion, so from that point of view the ‘folky’ thing is certainly still there.”
A steady ground work
Suistamon Sähkö’s members are professional, routined performers. Anne-Mari Kivimäki and Eero Grundström formed their first band in the early 1990’s. Kivimäki and Reetta-Kaisa Iles have their performance art/stand up duo Puhti. Iles and Tuomas Juntunen are long-time dance artists, who were between 2015–2018 also employed as artistic leaders for the dance theatre Tsuumi.
However, their combined charisma comes from doing a myriad of gigs as a group. “From the beginning we’ve had this attitude that you have to be ready to tour and to play shows that might feel insecure. Eventually it pays off”, Kivimäki states.
What she says seems to be true. Suistamon Sähkö has played domestic gigs in small and remote venues all over Finland, and almost always have managed to expand their audience. “I’d say that we’ve done our ground work well”, Juntunen continues. “We’ve taken a good look at which places we could possibly play and what kind of budget we’re capable of. I think we’ve just been brave enough to put our heads in all kinds of places.”
Brand on the run
One could also say that Suistamon Sähkö is an exceptionally well crafted brand. Their striking, colorful and even a bit burlesque appearance stands out. The aesthetic reminds of the Finnish indie supergroup Ruusut.
Juntunen laughs when he hears the comparison. “Now that you mention it, you’re completely on the spot! I really enjoy Ruusut though, so I take that as a compliment.”
Kivimäki expands the meaning behind their visual style: the band hired Justus Kantakoski, an acclaimed fashion designer to rethink their look. “He also designed the album sleeve and directed our latest music video. His friend Mortti Saarnia took our photos. I think it is solely refreshing to work with folks from completely new circles. And especially if they are young guys who live in Paris and who know how to do their make-up!”
Kivimäki and Juntunen say that their idiosyncratic style has baffled mainly the folk and world music people. “When we played at the international world music convention Womex, some people came to ask us if we are a joke”, Kivimäki chuckles.
“I think the folk music scene has had more issues with our approach than other audiences. Other people don’t expect us to perform the ‘tradition’ in a certain way. Yet it’s important to remark that the music of Suistamon Sähkö would not exist if we wouldn’t have gone through all that education in traditional music!”
In his Music Finland interview, Eero Grundström found it fun to do Suistamon Sähkö’s “crazy poppy stuff” even in his fourties. Does Tuomas Juntunen find it liberating and empowering to do sweaty gigs in heavy makeup and flamboyant clothing? “Well, it permits us to try out different things. I guess I can explore my feminine sides through Suistamon Sähkö. Yet it’s not just one single part I play: when I’m on the stage, I try to conjure a handful of different roles.”
The article has originally been published @ MusicFinland.com, June 2021, a showcase in English for Finnish musical culture since 1985.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Suistamon Sähkö, (4) Puhti, (5) Finnish Music Quarterly / Music Finland (unknown/website).