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Trad/roots: Finnish band Droichead prove no bridge too far for Irish music

Finnish traditional Irish music band Droichead – Samppa Saarinen, Jani Suvanto, Anna Luusua, Vesku Niemelin and Brent Ó Casaide Picture: Juuso Haarala
Robert McMillen

THE Oulu region in the north of Finland seems to be a very special place. From there you can see the wondrous Northern Lights, those glowing green and red auroras of the Arctic winter, for up to six months of the year.

You can celebrate summer festivals until the morning, spend a leisurely city break in downtown cafes and enjoy some shopping. Or you can hike in a national park under the Midnight Sun, ski on the frozen sea or spend a happy family holiday on a sultry, sandy beach – and you can listen to the best of Irish traditional music.

Eh?

Yep, Oulu is home to the most northerly festival of Irish music in the world and to a number of bands who have fallen in love with the music of Ireland. To be honest, I scoffed at the idea when I sat down to listen to the debut album by Droichead, a band made up of four Finns – Samppa Saarinen (uilleann pipes, tin whistle), Jani Suvanto (bouzouki, guitar), Anna Luusua (fiddle, mandola, vocals) Vesku Niemelin (banjo, button accordion) – and an Irishman, Brent Ó Casaide.

However, from the opening track, it was ‘Wow! These guys can play and they know their stuff.”

A week later, I'm sitting at home in Belfast chatting to Anna and Samppa via Skype and I ask them how Irish music has taken a hold 107 miles from the Arctic Circle.

"At some point in the 80s some people got into it and started playing it," explains Samppa.

"One of the three uilleann pipers in Oulu, Markus Lampela, was in a band called Irish Friday. The next two Oulu bands that played Irish trad were Ketun hölkkä – or 'the jogging of the fox' in English – and Yläsiirtola Ramblers.

"The people from those bands had some sessions in the local pubs but the current more developed session scene began forming later in the beginning of the 21st century just before Markus, Brent and Jani formed The Soap Pig (great name!) with fiddler Anthony Johnson and mandolin player/singer Jorma Marital."

Samppa himself was oblivious to all this, however, as he learned the uilleann pipes in his home village of Muhos, a half-hour drive from Oulu.

"I was learning the uilleann pipes before I knew that there is Irish music in Oulu," he recalls. "I started playing the Instruments because I liked their sound and the way you ornament Irish music; it just sounded great to me. When I moved to Oulu in 2005, it didn't take long until I found the session and started going to it. It was mostly just listening at first, writing down the tune names in a notebook and learning the tunes at home, then trying them at the next session."

At the same time, Anna was playing in a band called Cascade.

“Well, we see ourselves as being the second generation of Irish musicians here in Oulo because the music started here in the 1980s with Markus. I began to play Irish music around 2004 because there was a session going on here in Oulu since the 1980s and I started playing at that so here was a scene there already when I started playing,” explains Anna.

But what, I hear you ask, is the attraction of Irish music for the Finns, who of course have a long and varied native music tradition of their own? Samppa says he has always preferred Irish trad to Finnish trad for some reason.

“It is just more enjoyable to me and the spontaneous reactions I get from it are more positive,” he says. “I think the kinds of music a person likes is not tied to your nationality. To me Irish trad and every other type of trad music are just genres of music one can either like or dislike or feel neutral about, just like rock, pop, rap or classical music made in various countries. Everything originates from somewhere and ends up everywhere."

But there are definitely connections in the musics of Ireland and Scandinavia which has seen 'fusion' bands such as Slow Moving Clouds and Lorcan Mac Mathúna's Northern Lights and the popularity of Norway's hardanger fiddle (listen to Máiread Ní Mhaonaigh and/or Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh) all mining forgotten relationships that go back to the ninth century when Irish monks took their stories to Iceland.

But I digress.

Droichead have released their debut album, The Banks of Tuira, which shows the breadth and depth of their playing. The opening track is called The Rakes of Tuira and features Peadar Ó Riada's Mairseáil Mac Mahon as well as Piper's Picnic, The Rakes of Clonmel and The Cordal jig.

There are songs in English and Irish (Brent is a sean-nós afficiando) although the ensemble wanted to choose tunes and songs which would best represent the band.

And what does the future hold?

"I think we are developing all the time, working on our technique so we can play better, play more, and hopefully make another CD when we have enough good tunes,” says Samppa.

Hopefully, we'll see Droiched in Belfast in the near future; you can catch the band in their native city during the Irish Festival of Oulu, October 4-8. Among those taking part will be Altan, Dervish, Rianta and Clann Mhic Ruarí, as well as Belfast storyteller Eamonn Keenan.

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