Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden ruth mackenzie

Minneapolis-St. Paul singer Ruth MacKenzie, dubbed "Janis Joplin of folk" in Finland and Sweden, has created a dramatic and deeply moving concert event, Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden. Using the vocal sounds and oral poetry of the Scandinavian and Finno-Ugirc traditions of ancient women's songs (cry singing, spell singing and animal calls)Ruth MacKenzie has created an original concert event--a story of the untamable within each of us.

Notes on Kalevala

By Ruth MacKenzie

ruth mackenzie Since 1993, I have spent many summers performing throughout Finland and Sweden with Eric Peltoniemi and the musical group Trova. My first summer in Finland was magical. I had never experienced sunlight at 3:00AM nor the kind of physical exuberance the midnight sun can evoke in a body. Everyone in Finland seems to live hard and thoroughly in the summer and we were no exception. We danced hard, we laughed hard and got thoroughly drunk on pontikka -- moonshine that Arto Järvela's uncle had made.

Trova's first performance in Finland was at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival. As is true with most festivals, the joy is not only in performing but hearing the incredible diversity of music gathered in one place. I happened upon a concert called, "High and Loud" presented by several singers from the Sibelius Folk Music Academy. I now look back on that day as either an incredible stroke of luck, the beginning of my own personal triatholan or as one of the more quirky tricks the universe has ever played on me. Sitting in a small movie house that doubles as the village concert hall, I witnessed a slight, mousy looking woman stand several feet from the microphone and produce a sound so compelling my bones rattled. She was kulning (a high pitched Swedish song for calling animals). The sound itself made me question, "Am I hearing the human voice or the animal within the human?" The sound itself made me question, "Am I crying because I have discovered a sound which reveals the ancient in my own Scandinavian heritage or one that leads me to the tap root of human sound and music-making where we all meet regardless of our ethnic backgrounds?" The sound itself grabbed me at my core and demanded that I try - try to be a channel for the song.

This trip came to an end but my interest, galvanized by the song, didn't; I had to return. In the summer of 1994, with the help of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, I traveled to Sweden and Finland and began my study of the traditional vocal sounds of kulning, jojking (spirit songs of the Sami people), Itku Virsi (song of the crier), and Ingrian choral sounds (edgy, poly-tonal singing). I began to understand that the lyric and melody sources for most of the techniques I was working on rose out of a pre-Christian age. The Finno-Ugrian language tree is an especially rich source of ancient stories and imagery because during the Dark Ages and for much of the Middle Ages, the forefathers and mothers of most speakers of Finno-Ugrian languages lived beyond the bounds of the "civilized" world in the wildernesses of Northern and Northeastern Europe. Many of the stories of forest spirits, ancient heroes, magic, the origin of the world and animal spirits remained intact through the beginning of the 1800's when a movement of research and Finnish nationalism compelled young Finnish folklorists, historians, and poets to venture into remote areas and record this rich culture of the "ordinary people." Elias Lonnrot was one these cultural explorers and out of his research, experience and artistry, he compiled the great Finnish Epic, The Kalevala.

I read the Kalevala and anthologies of Finno-Ugrian poetry and began to understand these sources to be more than poetic verse--they were songs! And central to this tradition of song is the singer. Over and over I read passages describing the power of the singer to evoke transformation:

 I will sing the seas to honey
 and to salt the seas gravel
 and the sea's rushes to fish
 and the sea's grasses to chaff
 the sea's sand to peas.

 Ring, ring out, forest
 echo, echo, woods
 shout back, sacred grove
 and sing back, thicket
 back at my good voice
 at my sweetest song!
 Where my voice is heard
 there the forest is broken.
 The trees pile themselves
 the logs heap crosswise
 floorboards in the yards are born
 stacks in the yards clatter down
 all without young men
 without a sharp axe.

It became clear to me that the Kalevala was meant to be sung!

I sing the story of Aino from the Kalevala, a story which I interpret as honoring the untamable within each of us. In order to communicate this story to an American audience I've chosen to sing in both Finnish and English. I've used traditional Finnish and Swedish melodies and created new melodies inspired by the tradition. I've integrated Finnish text with English text in order for audiences to hear the original language as well as understand the beautiful poetry that is part of this tradition. I've taken the original Kalevala text and interwoven poems from other Finno-Ugrian song lyric sources to broaden the emotional and metaphysical landscape from which the story is told. But truly at the heart of this work is the voice, the untamed voice. The voice of the Ingrian choral songs, the voice of the crier, the voice of spells and incantations, the voice for calling the animals, all of them house an intangible quality of otherworldliness, of magic.

When I first learned to sing the animal calls (kulning), my teacher Anna Sjoberg told me that in order to sing this way I must be willing to be beautiful and ugly. I've tried to keep that commitment at the heart of this performance work because I believe it is that ugly beauty which leads to the place of magic. Recently while Petra Zilliacus, Barbara Cohen and I were rehearsing a song from KALEVALA: DREAM OF THE SALMON MAIDEN, a woman, tapped on the door. She asked, "What are you doing in here?" I told her we were singing. (Duh!) "I know that!" she responded. I explained we were singing a Finnish spell song I had written. Her response was one which has continued to remind me that these songs touch something very old and very deep in people. She said, "I want you to know a bunch of us sisters have been standing outside this door, rubbing our bellies, asking ourselves what kind of magic's going on in there?" The magic is connection. It is recognizing in these sounds something the ancients understood very well--there is a way to inform the present through the past, there are sounds that vibrate the spirit and awaken the life, there is very little separating the earth, the animals and the human voice.

-- Ruth MacKenzie

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