Saturday, February 1, 2014

Region--Finnish Runo-Song, Karelia, Finland

For this post I'm pulling an excerpt from my book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit) and including runo-song examples I found on YouTube.  If you look at "Finnish Runo-Song" on YouTube, you will pull up a collection of wonderful videos.  In fact, you could easily spend an entire afternoon listening to those wonderful Karelian songs.

Finnish painting of scene from The Kalevala, Wikipedia
Magical Chants
While these chants felt strange to my ears at first, I felt attracted to their primal qualities.  In my adult years, music has acted as the vehicle that has brought me closer to the world’s cultures.  Besides, it didn’t hurt that Nordic music had enjoyed its days in the spotlight, thanks to small American labels such as North Side Records in Minneapolis, who also booked US tours for Nordic acts.  True, trends come and go, but in this case, I delved further into the shamanic roots of the runo-song.  Imagine that in ancient times before the arrival of modern doctors, these songs brought cures to people.
The best description of this song tradition appears in Andrew Cronshaw’s chapter, “New Runes” in The Rough Guide to World Music, Volume 1.  “Until the seventeenth century, and in some areas much later, virtually all Finnish singing was runolaulu (runo-song) form, of which close relatives can be found throughout the Balto-Finnic area.  The rhythm of the words-typically something like ‘dum-di-dum-di-dum, daa daa’--is virtually always four syllables per line are stressed.”  Runo-songs have also shown up in Norway among the Skogfinns who immigrated to Norway in the seventeenth century.

In the liner notes of Sinikka Langeland and Ove Berg’s Tirun Lirun, the runo-songs sung by the Skogfinns of Norway, represented incantations for a variety of tasks to getting a fire going in an oven, to repelling bees, to stopping wounds from bleeding.

In the Karelian region of Finland (eastern Finland near the Russian border), runo-songs share a connection with the Finnish national legend, The Kalevala, a shamanic epic story that features a pantheon of gods and magical figures who reside in different realms.  For people who think that they aren’t familiar with the Kalevala, need to look no further than the English linguist/author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring Series.  In addition, anyone who has listened to or seen the Finnish folk pop group Värttinä has heard runo-songs (from neighboring Estonia too).

Finnish hero, Wikipedia
The Finnish language was saved from extinction due to an oral storytelling tradition associated with the Kalevala stories that remained in a mountainous region of Finland.  The country doctor Elias Lönnrot traded medical services for the stories, which he preserved in a written format.  And with any magical storytelling tradition, songs play a role in passing the stories on to future generations.   

The central character of the Kalevala, a kantele-playing bard, Väinämöinen is thought to have given birth to the world through the use of sound (a familiar story in ancient stories where a sound vibration or word brought life to the planet).

The origins of the kantele (zither or lap harp) associate with the Kalevala Legend remains a mystery.  According to Professor Timo Leisiö of Tampere University (Finland) in an e-mail interview from the fall of 2012, “There are two separate myths on the origins of the kantele.  In the eastern one (myth), the kantele was made of the horn of a buck (Orpheus Myth), and in the western one, it was made of bones of a great fish (like the pike in Karelia and the whale in Ireland).   

Kantele is a single noun with its roots obviously in Proto-Baltic.  The historical proofs suggest that the kantele referred to a 5-string psaltery.  However, this data goes to the middle age, after the tenth century in modern Russia and Ukraine.”

He goes on to decipher the origins of this traditional Finnish instrument, “The original instrument of both myths may have been a lyre, not a psaltery, which replaced the lyre during the early centuries of Russian Christianization, that is, since the tenth century, because the lyre is represented by paganism.”

 Leisö said that the Kalevala and the kantele came about during separate times in history, and the origins of the Kalevala remains as mysterious as that of the instrument.  When I dug deeper for shamanic roots associated with runo-song and the magical Finnish legend, I found only fragments.  Leisiö mentioned the difference between a humble shaman who traveled to the Upper and Lower worlds to retrieve healing information and the magical post shaman bards. While shamans were healers, bards used divining songs to control the world.  

“However, it is clear that the song texts that the diviners used were partly used by the former shamans.  That is, in no culture area the shamanic and the bardic texts fully separate--as is also the case in Norwegian Finnish songs.  So the bards were not humble shamans, but commanders of the universe.”

Runo-song these days has been demoted from the divining realm of bards and shamanic healers to musical entertainment.  Whether or not any magical or healing consciousness still accompanies these ancient songs, we would need to scour every nook and cranny of Finland and Estonia to unearth old time healers working with the purpose and intention of runo-song.

When I asked Norwegian jazz vocalist and kantele player Sinikka Langeland why these songs suffered the fate of oblivion, she responded by e-mail, saying that Christianity and secularism played roles.  While Langeland doesn’t practice the magic herself, she has brought the kantele into a new arena, jazz.  When asked how she began playing this ancient instrument, she responded, “My Karelian mother told me about the kantele and it brought me to the Kalevala, (then the) Kalevala brought me the rune-songs.  When I understood that there were also rune-songs from Finnskogen (Norway), I started this project to find a way into the tradition and find an artistic way of using them.”

Langeland’s ancestors, the Skogfinns arrived in Norway in the 1600s and they brought with them the magical songs (runo-songs means magical songs).  According to Langeland’s notes for her CD, Runoja (Heilo/Grappa), “Rune-songs are based on shamanism, but they also bear traces of other aspects of intellectual history.”

Langeland goes on to describe the categories of rune-songs including: Epic runes, lyrical runes (which are mostly what we hear these days), chain runes, and incantations (loitsu).  According to Langeland in her liner notes, “Incantations were the most prevalent type used by the Skogfinns.  They were used for both protection and healing, and were read or chanted with intense emotion and power.”

Again, referring to another CD by Langeland, Tirun Lirun (Finnskogen Kulturverksted) which she pairs up with kantele player Ove Berg, and includes field recordings on the CD, listeners are privy to a tradition that died with old timers during the early twentieth century.   

This CD features an excerpt from a conversation between the old school shamans, Puro-Juhoin Pekka to Kaisa Vilhuinen, “You must not place a sword in the hands of a fool.  With sorcery both good and evil can be done.”  Vilhuinen died in 1949, the last of the Skogfinn shamans.  And without the wise ones remaining to teach this shamanic tradition to younger generations, perhaps we should feel thankful that the magical music remains only as scratchy field recordings.

However, with thousands of years passing between the ancient Finns and contemporary times, we can only wonder if magical chants need to go the way of the dinosaur.  However, if we resuscitate the magical chants, and place them in the hands of conscientious healers, could we rebirth a sound healing modality?
Copyright Patricia Herlevi, 2013  Searching for new publisher for this book. 

Video of Varttina:

Video of Me Naiset-Kuulin Aanen (I Heard a Voice) :

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Region: Music of Galicia, Spain

 Let's go on a musical treasure hunt.  For this post we're heading to Spain to sample some flavorful music traditions. Grab your headphones and get on a board.

Tucked in northwest Spain, the province Galicia hosts a variety of music traditions, including folkloric traditions that Galician musicians innovate then present to international audiences.  While I'm mostly familiar with the folkloric songs thanks generous Spanish labels that send this music to me, I also have Galician jazz ensemble recordings in my collection.

The region hosts several music festivals each year featuring an array of genres of music, from opera and early music to pop rock, jazz and folkloric. for details.  However, I'll focus on the folkloric and jazz recordings and artists for this post.

The Celtic region of Spain along with Asturias, Galicia is situated between Portugal to the south, Asturias to the north, and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Leon on the other.  You can find historic information of this fascinating province at

The folk music has mostly Celtic strains with Galician bagpipes, frame drums, tambourines accordion, hurdy-gurdy, wind instruments, and various types of lutes.  Go to and World Music Central's instrument directory, (the Galician instruments will be mixed in with other regional instruments from the world).

You will also hear Portuguese, Moorish, and Andalusian influences in the folk music.  The singing style is robust, usually with vocal ensembles such as women playing the traditional frame drum and singing. 

Gallego is the language of the region along with Castilian Spanish.  You will most likely find other languages spoken and sung in this region and I've heard Portuguese lyrics on occasion.

Here are some other helpful sites and resources:

Labels for folkloric and jazz music:

Folmusica, and


In the US & Canada (for the artist Uxia) (look for the Alan Lomax collection)


Here is a 2013 video of Basque accordion player Kepa Junkera performing with Xabier Diaz and the women's vocal ensemble, Adufeiras De Salitre.  This song appears on the album, Galiza, released by Folmusica and BOA labels.

Here is an example of Galicia pipers.