Kardemimmit blends old with new in Finnish music

Kardemimmit will perform a free concert in Marquette Saturday, October 21.

By Michael Murray

Finnish immigrants first came to Marquette County just after the Civil War to work in the region’s iron mines. The ore was abundant, and the miners settled in the area whose lakes and trees reminded them of home. A-century-and-a-half later, the saunas, sisu bumper stickers, and abundance of Finnish surnames show  this heritage is alive and well in the central Upper Peninsula.

This month, the descendants of those miners—as well as music lovers from any background—can celebrate their ancestry through a Finnish folk group that will be spending a week in Marquette as part of a program organized by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Arts Midwest in conjunction with the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University.

Arts Midwest Folkefest presents traditional music ensembles in weeklong residencies featuring performances and educational presentations. The Finnish group Kardemimmit will be in Marquette from October 15 to October 21, after spending time in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Kardemimmit’s visit to Marquette will conclude with a free concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 21, in the Reynolds Recital Hall at NMU.

Stephen Manuszak, program director for Arts Midwest, said his organization was strategic in selecting which countries and artists to feature, as well as the communities that will serve as hosts.

“This program is really looking at working in smaller and mid-sized communities in the Midwest that experienced a significant influx of Scandinavian immigrants during the 1800s and 1900s and that still bear signs of this heritage even today,” he said. “We’re trying to deepen the awareness of those Scandinavian traditions that are present in the Midwest while also fostering curiosity and appreciation of global cultures in general.”

This year is the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence from the Russian Empire, so Manuszak said it would be natural to feature a Finnish group during Folkefest. “There are a lot of other activities happening around [the anniversary], so we’re tying into that. We’re building awareness for Finland and Finnish culture.”

Once Arts Midwest decided to focus on Finland, organizers began looking for communities in which a Finnish musical group would fit.

“We mapped out where Scandinavian heritage was and still is in the Midwest,” Manuszak said. “We looked for pockets of higher concentrations of Finnish heritage, and there is quite a bit of Finnish heritage all across the U.P.”

There are more Finnish-Americans in the Upper Peninsula, in fact, than anywhere else in the country.

Manuszak then consulted with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and got in touch with Daniel Truckey, director of the Beaumier Center at NMU. He said, “We knew Marquette would be a great place from the perspective of Finnish heritage and Scandinavian heritage in general.”

The Beaumier Center has a history with Arts Midwest, having hosted an ensemble as part of the Arts Midwest World Fest about seven years ago. Truckey arranged Beaumier’s participation in that tour and is familiar with this style of programming.

“The Beaumier Center is a great partner for this work,” Manuszak said. “It’s nice to be able to return with another program.”

Manuszak traveled to Finland to audition groups for Folkefest.

“We have to have a specific kind of ensemble,” he said. “They have to be very committed to educational programs. They must be willing to be cultural ambassadors, willing to interact with people, do workshops with younger kids as well. They also have to be excellent performers, steeped in Finnish culture with a strong background in traditional music. … Kardemimmit really fits that bill.”

Kardemimmit is comprised of four women who have played together since 1999: Maija Pokela, Jutta Rahmel, Anna Wegelius, and Leeni Wegelius. They all sing and play the kantele, the national instrument of Finland. The kantele is a stringed instrument similar to a zither or dulcimer. The body is made of wood, and the instrument can have between five and 38 strings. Kardemimmit’s members play 15- and 38-string kanteles.

“They have studied this instrument and culture since they were young,” Manuszak said. “They’ve been in graduate-level programs and studied with master musicians. They give a very good representation of Finnish culture. … At the same time, they’re creating their own compositions, tying in traditional elements.

“We sat down with them for a day. They gave a presentation. They gave a workshop to us. And we talked about the program to make sure they understood the commitment they were getting into. We focus on education, smaller communities, engaging with people, taking it to schools and community centers. They’ve done this before and will be really good cultural ambassadors. … Sitting down with Kardemimmit sealed the deal.”

While they are in Marquette, Kardemimmit will give presentations and performances for about 2,000 students, ranging from elementary age to university classes. The group will visit a world music class at NMU taught by Carrie Biolo.

“Teaching a world music course in the Upper Peninsula can be a difficult challenge,” Biolo said. “Numerous music recordings and videos are available, but music is really a social act of communication among people. With modern technology, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of live music. Live music events connect people and transcend cultural boundaries.

“Many of the NMU students who take world music have no prior knowledge of music—and many I find out have never attended a concert or recital. I’m excited to have students experience this workshop. When students actually get to a concert, their ears and eyes are opened to a whole new experience that they want to have again. This workshop with Kardemimmit will be an engaging class activity. Students will see and hear and be able to ask direct questions to the artists. Observing and experiencing musicians make musical magic transcends the classroom.

“The Beaumier Center is providing an invaluable opportunity to my world music class as well as the community of NMU and Marquette. It is extremely important for the community to have live music of this caliber being offered. It is a special plus for the world music class that Beaumier is hosting international performers.

“I hope that the world music students will be inspired and motivated to attend more live music events at NMU and in their years beyond. I know when the students walk away from this class with Kardemimmit, they will have a deeper appreciation and understanding for the music and the musicians. All cultures have music; it is important to listen.”

A sampling of Kardemimmit’s music can be found on Youtube.


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