Varttina Finish Finnish Myth Cycle With Ilmitar

Band's eighth album nearly lost to contractual limbo.

Finland's Värttinä are breathing a collective sigh of relief. After being trapped in contractual limbo after the Wicklow label collapsed last year, their eighth album, Ilmatar, is finally seeing the light of day in America today (February 13).

"It had only been released in a few other countries beside Finland," explained fiddler Kari Reiman, "so it wasn't the worst possible situation."

Wicklow eventually returned the master tapes to the band, and they snagged a deal with U.S. indie NorthSide Records.

Ilmatar concludes a Finnish-myth trilogy that began with 1996's poppy Kokko and continued with the rootsier Vihma in 1998. All three albums were inspired by the Finnish song-myth tradition known as "runo," and "they're all close in lyrical style," said Reiman.

Runo songs often consist only of bare melodic snippets, so composing something new from them required a laborious assembly process. The group combined verses and added instrumental breaks in order to form more Western-oriented pop songs.

The atmospheric sound created by the kantele (a type of zither), accordion and fiddle on "Itkin" (RealAudio excerpt) propels the band into folk-rock territory. The tight four-part female harmonies that have come to define the group, highlighted on the a cappella "Kappee" (RealAudio excerpt), demonstrate how firmly rooted in the Finnish tradition the group remains.

Ilmatar is a far cry from the group's beginning. Värttinä's original lineup consisted of 15 female singers and six male musicians who came together in Karelia. Their early performances included recitations of runic poetry. That group split up in 1989 and was followed by a slimmer and more gender-balanced version. A new name was planned, "but no one could thing of one," Reiman recalled. "People were calling all the time, wanting to book us." Their name, Finnish for "reel," remained the same.

In 1992 Värttinä's "Kyla Vuotti Uutta Kuuta" (The Village Waits For the New Moon) was a hit single in Finland, something unprecedented for a folk band.

"'Kyla Vuotti Uutta Kuuta' gave us great opportunities," admitted Reiman. "Without it, I don't know if we'd exist in this form. But it was just the beginning." Not only did it make them known at home, it got them gigs outside Finland. And after their 15 minutes of Finnish fame passed, continued Reiman, "we started to do music."

Frequent tours and numerous records have subsequently helped establish Värttinä as fixtures on the world music scene. Currently fronted by four female vocalists, their material, both traditional and original, has always been strongly from the distaff point of view. Whether or not it's feminist, however, "is up to the listener," insisted Reiman. Their goal, he said, "is to be honest to the folk tradition and talk about the position of women."

With Ilmatar this brand-name Finnish band seems to have finally become a true ensemble, with less emphasis on the women and more on the group. As they regain momentum after being stalled by business, they're looking ahead to their next record, a live album. "We realized how different we sound live compared to the albums," said Reiman. "In person we play a lot of faster, happier songs."