Maria Kalaniemi Delivers Fine Finnish Ahma

Accordion wiz and her Aldargaz band expand horizons of Nordic folk music.

The title of Ahma, the latest album from accordion wiz Maria Kalaniemi and her keyboard-and-strings band Aldargaz, is the Finnish word for "wolverine," an endangered species — much like Finnish folk music was before Kalaniemi and a host of other virtuoso players came along to revive it in the 1980s.

"I see something similar in the wolverine, myself and folk music," Kalaniemi said. "Classical music has a higher status in Finland, so it's been a struggle to get to where we are now, when more people appreciate the greatness of folk music and the accordion."

Kalaniemi's music has become more confident and expansive over the years. Ahma, released Tuesday, is her third solo album, second with the Aldargaz quintet and first for the NorthSide label. With her rich and fluid accordion at the center, Ahma mixes originals by Kalaniemi and pianist Timo Alakotila with radically rearranged traditional Finnish folk tunes.

Alakotila also provided string arrangements and the thrilling horn chart on the album's title track (RealAudio excerpt).

And like each of Kalaniemi's prior albums, this one contains a tango. "Huuma" (RealAudio excerpt) was written in 1920 by Argentinean composer Juan Carlos Cobian. And while tangos usually provide a sultrier sound than one might expect to hear in the Nordic region, Kalaniemi begs to differ. "Finnish people really love tangos because of the sensitive melodies and dramatic words dealing with difficulties in love."

Kalaniemi, 36, is a product of the famous Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, which was formed in 1983 and has provided an important platform for a wide spectrum of resuscitated and reinvented folk forms. It was there that Kalaniemi formed her first band, Niekku, with three other women. Violinist Arto J&aauml;rvela, a member of the important string band JPP and currently part of Aldargaz eventually joined them.

In addition to Alakotila and J&aauml;rvela, Aldargaz consists of Olli Varis (guitar/husband), Tapani Varis (double bass) and Petri Hakala (mandolins).

The opposite of the raw backporch playing folk music connotes to most Americans, Kalaniemi's music is refined, virtuosic and remarkably detailed. It erases the boundaries separating classical music, folk and jazz improvisation. In fact, it's often difficult to determine where the compositions end and the improvisations begin.

"I often don't know what's improvised and what's the tune when we play," Kalaniemi confessed. "But it's all quite natural."

This is particularly true in a tune such as "Namas" (RealAudio excerpt), where her accordion wails like a ghostly synthesizer over Hakala's mandolin solo. "It's a great, slow tune with a lot of space for everybody to swim around and do their own little things," she said.

Kalaniemi studied jazz and musette (old-timey French music) in 1990 with accordion master Marcel Azzola in Paris. She employs the classical "free-bass" accordion technique that involves playing individual bass notes rather than the bass chords heard on most accordions.

Other Ahma tunes, such as "Nautilus" and "Arctic Paradise," seem to paint pictures of the Nordic tundra and northern lights Kalaniemi said she can see from her Helsinki home on nights when the temperature drops to zero.

A busy and promiscuous performer, Kalaniemi is currently working with Finnish singer/actor/flutist Vesa-Matti Loiri. In March she will tour the Nordic countries Greenland, Iceland and Norway for the first time.

She is also about to record a second CD with the Accordion Tribe, which also includes U.S. accordionist Guy Klucevsek, Slovenia's Bratko Bibic, Sweden's Lars Hollmer and Austria's Otto Lechner. The Tribe may tour Europe in the fall.

Kalaniemi also plays with Finnish-Swedish project Ramunders Döttrar. "It's another important project because I am Finnish-Swedish," she said, "so it's great to play these Finnish-Swedish tunes."