Connecting Hearts: Maria Kalaniemi

by Heather Henderson

[published in Snowbound 2002]


“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted...” – E.M. Forster, Howard’s End


In the case of most musicians, we admire their expertise and enjoy their music, but there’s a certain detachment.  We’re always aware that they’re performing.  They’re onstage and we’re observing them, on the outside looking in.  But the truly great musicians go beyond technical virtuosity, breaking through that invisible wall between stage and audience and touching us on an emotional level.  They’re no longer just performers; they’ve become conduits, connecting directly with our hearts and filling us with the music. 


This is what Maria Kalaniemi and her band Aldargaz did at the 2001 Nordic Roots festival in Minneapolis.  Their two albums, Iho and Ahma, excellent though they are, didn’t prepare me for the transcendent experience of their live performance.  Kalaniemi’s playing was exquisite, and the band (Timo Alakotila at the piano, Arto Järvelä on fiddle, Tapani Varis on bass, Olli Varis on guitar, and Petri Hakala on mandolin) supported her perfectly, their accompaniment a smooth, graceful partner for her elegant accordion.  When they swung into “Los Mareados”, an Argentinian tango from Ahma, it was so sublime that it brought tears to my eyes.  I found out later that I wasn’t the only one who was moved in this way.  People talked about the concert in hushed voices and agreed that it had been the highlight of the festival.  As one member of the audience said to me, “I feel like I’ve been at Carnegie Hall hearing one of the world’s great chamber orchestras.”


Kalaniemi has a genius for connecting, and that’s true in her personal conversation as well as her music.  When we talked at the festival, she was warm, responsive, and down-to-earth.  She has none of the prima donna attitude one might expect from a woman who’s called “the queen of the five-row accordion”.  Yet in our conversation, one regal quality did come through: she’s well-aware of her own abilities, a world-class artist comfortable in her powers.




Q:  Has it been difficult to be a woman instrumentalist in a mostly-male field?


A: When I was younger, I had the feeling that it could sometimes be a little bit hard because men don’t always believe that you are a good musician and that you have something to give.  But now that I have played for many, many years, I think I have a different kind of status.  The men who I play with listen VERY carefully.  And I think it has come with the years of playing.  They have learned to respect me.  I must say nowadays I am quite surprised at how the men listen.  I have always been quite shy and quiet and so on, but I have learned that, in a way, I must also change a little bit, so that men will accept me and listen to my suggestions.  But in another way, also, we are women, we are not men.  You don’t need to do things in the same way as men.  You must be what you are, speak your own language.  So men must also learn to listen to how women are talking, because we have two different styles.   These are things that we have to learn about each other.


Q:  You didn’t feel you had to change your personality and become aggressive to be successful?


A:  I’m not that type of woman and I’m never gonna be.  The great thing about folk music has always been the freedom – I can play and I can be who I am, I don’t need to act rockish, or cool, or whatever.  I hate this, that I must put on some kind of mask.  When I chose folk music, I thought “This is great because I can be who I am, I don’t have to be anything else.”


Q:  There don’t seem to be a lot of female instrumentalists in Nordic folk music.


A:  In the folk music scene in Finland, there are many.  In fact at this moment there are many women playing accordion at our folk music department at the Sibelius Academy, and also other instruments.  So it’s not unusual.  In fact, in my first band, Niekku, at the Academy, we were five women and one man [Arto Järvelä].


Q:  You’ve also played in the all-female accordion group, the Helsinki Melodeon Ladies.  From your many years of experience playing in different groups, would you say it’s easier to play in a group of women?


A:  No. (laughs)  In fact it can be very hard to be in a woman’s band.  It’s so new for women to be in focus as instrumentalists, it’s quite a new thing that you are playing on stage and people are writing about you, so it can be really easy for there to be a kind of competition between the women.  And that can be quite hard, and very interesting, because everyone wants to be the focus.  I have had these kinds of experiences.


Q:  When you were growing up, did you have any women instrumentalists as role models?


A:  No.  I never thought about it, if they were men or women.  I knew women accordion players who played in Finland, but my biggest idols were men.  But there was this interesting thing – those men whose playing I really loved played in a very sensitive way, they had something very passionate in their way of doing the music, and I felt that that was something I wanted to do.  My father was also very sensitive.  When he heard accordion music, some beautiful tune, he would start to cry.  I’m used to this side of men, so that’s maybe why I don’t have so much of a problem with this men and women thing, because I know that men have this sensitive side also.


Q:  Do you act as a role model for younger women who want to play accordion?


A:  Yes, I think so.  And also here, I think, for instance, it has been very important to me to be kind of a model for women.  I teach many girls and women, and I know that there are so many who want to play like me.  That’s not so good, because it’s not good that we have copies – but anyway, that’s the way in every music style, if you love somebody, if you want to be like Astor Piazzolla, you try to do the same things.  And little by little you play in your own style.  But I think it has been very good and important that these young girls and women have some model.


Q:  How did you come to the accordion?


A:  My grandmother bought me my first accordion.  She was the one who went with me to accordion lessons, because my mom and dad were working.  She loved music.  When she was a young girl, she borrowed a two-row accordion from somebody because she had no money to buy an accordion of her own.  She learned some melodies but then she had to give the accordion back.  Later she had a very hard job, working on construction sites carrying heavy things - because women in Finland did many of these hard jobs - so there was no possibility then to play anymore.  But then she had it in her head that she wanted me to play.


Q:  Was she the only musical person in your family?


A:  My daddy was also very musical – he played mandolin a little bit when he was younger.  He was a very good singer, also.  But he loved the accordion, and he was so sensitive to music that it was unbelievable.


Q:  Heikki Laitinen was the director of the folk music department when you were studying at the Sibelius Academy.  Can you talk about his influence on the Finnish folk music scene?


A:  When we started in ’83, we never knew what was going to happen, what we were going to learn, what he was going to teach.  It was quite open and wide-ranging.  His main idea was that he wanted us to do music that was never heard before.  And that’s really true -now we have so much new folk music from Finland in many different styles.  I think the folk tunes are my mother language, my musical language, much more than some popular stuff which is coming out.  They are great tunes and you can do whatever you like with them.  But also, it is quite interesting that when folk musicians now are doing their own polskas, sometimes you can’t even know if it’s an old historical polska or if it’s new, because the musical language is so near their heart.  And it is close to my heart when I do something like that.  I think that’s really great.  That was also, I think, one of Heikki’s philosophies, that the music is not only historical museum music – it lives today, these old instruments live today, the bowed harp and jew’s harp and kantele and accordion.


Q:  I understand he encouraged the students to write their own compositions and to improvise.


A:  To do your own compositions is very good when you have done so much traditional material.  So why don’t you do a polska or a waltz of your own?  And that was so incredible to do your first composition because you thought, Oh, that’s not so hard!  You don’t have to be a big man sitting somewhere in some room… you can do things in so many ways, so don’t be afraid to compose, just try it and do it.  And search for your own voice, your own musical language. For me, that’s very important.


Q:  And improvisation?


A:  I don’t like to use this word “improvisation” because people think of jazz improvisation.  Improvisation is also when you do a small variation.  You don’t have to do big performances, you can do also small things.  That was Heikki’s idea – that you have a simple folk tune, for instance, and you play it ten times, and every time you do something of your own, some small variation, and your brain is working all the time, working with dynamics, with rhythms, with small ornaments and variations.  So everybody doesn’t have to be a big improviser, but you can have fun and vary your music. 


Q:  You’re also a member of the group Accordion Tribe, along with Guy Klucevsek, Lars Hollmer, Otto Lechner, and Bratko Bibic.  Can you tell us about the Tribe’s new project?


A:  We have just recorded for ten days in Sweden.   There were some people from Switzerland doing a film of this recording, and will be filming the tour next autumn, the rehearsing and the whole process, and then they will also come to film everybody personally, at their homes.  So it’s a big project. 


Q:  When is the album coming out?


A:  Hopefully in February.  Lars Hollmer will do the mixing and editing in Uppsala, and then Intuition, the German record company, will put out the record.  Our first concert is next October 27, at the Zurich Jazz Festival. 


Q:  What kind of music will be on the album?


A:  Every member has composed something for the whole group and also there are smaller groups, duos and trios.  And Lars Hollmer has arranged some of his stuff for us.  This record is going to be a change from the first album – it’s more like a band recording, because there are many more tunes where everybody is playing.  One important thing is that we did many hours of free improvisations, and we also want to have some of those on the CD.  This recording was a very nice experience.  Even though we hadn’t met for five years, it was so easy, it was like we had met a week ago.  It felt really good, and there were no problems.


Q:  Accordion Tribe is an unusual group.  It’s remarkable the way that you can all mesh together in the ensemble pieces, yet you each retain your own distinctive sound.


A:  I think it’s really great because every one of us has their own style of playing, and a very personal way of thinking of the accordion, and so it’s a great mix of different accordion styles and personalities.  There are so many possibilities in this group – the different styles mixed together, and also there are these small duos and trios.  So many combinations.  Everybody respects each other’s way to do music, and to compose and play and so on.  That’s the most important thing.  Because we are so different, some of us don’t read scores – for instance, Otto is blind, so we must do things with him in a different way – so the respect is very important in this kind of project.


Q:  How did this relationship develop?


A:  In the beginning, the first time when I met these guys, it was not easy, because their styles of playing were so different that for me, first I thought, “What is this going to be? Is it possible for us to do something together?”  But then when we played and played, and did the gigs and so on, then I started to understand.  The thing is, as I told you, that you must feel the respect, and also try to understand everybody’s thoughts about music.  There is no right or wrong way to play the accordion.  You must try to understand each other’s background, and how they think, and then to find a middle way of how to do things together.


Q:  That evolved from the tour in 1996?


A:  Yes, and listening to each other’s music.  You really try to understand each other.  I think that has been very, very helpful to me as an accordionist with a classical background.  You know, in the classical way to play accordion, there are fixed ideas of what is the only right way to play, and then suddenly you meet four really different accordionists who do everything that my teachers said not to do.  And then I think, OK, it sounds great!  You can do music and play accordion in so many different ways. 


Q:  Why don’t we see more all-accordion bands?


A:  There are big accordion bands in the world.  There are these big accordion orchestras in Finland, but they are much bigger – there can be many, 20, accordions – but I’m not so interested in that.  I think it’s nicer to have a smaller group, for instance, five, three or four.  It’s more like chamber music.  If you have very many accordions, it can be a kind of mess also.  I don’t like the sound of the big accordion orchestras.


Q:  The album I Ramunders fotspår (in Ramunder’s footsteps), with Marianne Maans on fiddle and jouhikko, and your husband Olli Varis on mandolins and guitar, is a very traditional-sounding album.  It seems like a conscious effort to get back to the roots of folk music.


A:  I belong to the Finnish-Swedish minority, which is 8 percent of the Finnish people.  So they are my roots, in a way.  I learned both Finnish and Swedish at the same time.  I was in a Swedish school.  All the traditional melodies on the album are Finnish-Swedish.  And then there are a few of our own compositions.  That’s why it was so great and important for me to do this album, to sing in my own mother language and to also play the music from the Finnish-Swedish parts – mostly from the coast, because the Finnish-Swedish people mostly live there.  Marianne Maans is also Finnish-Swedish.  So Olli is the only completely Finnish member here.  This project has been very important, and this year we have had many gigs here in Finland, at folk and jazz festivals in the summer. 


Q:  What were the reactions of the audiences at the jazz festivals?


A:  They were very open-minded.  They think that it’s refreshing to have this kind of music also.  I think that’s really good to have some folk music at a jazz festival, because there’s not such a big difference between the styles – there’s improvisation and the same kind of thinking in jazz as in folk music.  We have the same kind of tradition, with much playing by ear, and not so much from scores.


Q:  The album is beautiful.  I especially enjoyed your singing.


A:  I must say, there is one of the greatest moments in my musical life from that CD, because the ballad “Herr Peder” where I sing and Olli plays guitar, we recorded in our summer house.  And it was such a great feeling that I thought this is the way I want to do all my recordings – there is nobody telling me how much money it costs to be in the studio!  We did it there, and the birds were singing… I don’t know what that song means for other people, but I have heard comments about that melody and I am so glad.  Olli and I have talked about having a studio of our own, with some kind of freedom to do these things.  That’s what comes to my mind more and more - so that you are on your own in that sense, that nobody is pushing you.  You are independent.


Q:  Your repertoire contains music from several different genres – it’s hard to categorize you as a folk musician or a jazz musician.  Is there a problem because they can’t put a convenient label on you?


A:  That’s a problem for other people, but not for me.  I play tango, I play French musette and I play my own compositions or whatever.  I even play humppa.  I heard humppa when I was a child, and it’s also a very good music style if you can play it in the right way.  I love all that music.  I hate this label of “folk musician”, because what does that mean?  Somebody says, “Oh you play tango, you cannot be a folk musician, you must play only polskas.”  Or, “You must play only avant-garde.”  So that’s very hard in the music world, when you become locked in.  And I hate every type of locks – in the musical sense and in every sense.  You must have the freedom, because otherwise you don’t have good results.


Q:  So music is beyond genres – it’s a human communication.


A:  That’s the main important thing – I want to be human!  I want to be a human being and I can’t be anything else.  The music, and playing, it doesn’t matter how it comes, the most important thing is that there is passion, and there is some kind of feeling in this music.  It doesn’t matter if it’s tango or it’s polska.  Everything is music.




Niekku: Niekku (1987) [Olarin Musiikki]

Niekku: Niekku 2 (1988) [Folk Music Institute]

Niekku: Niekku 3 (1989) [Olarin Musiikki]

Maria Kalaniemi: Master of Folk Accordion (1992) [Finlandia Innovator Series]

Maria Kalaniemi and Aldargaz: Iho (1995) [Olarin Musiikki]

Maria Kalaniemi and Aldargaz: Ahma (1999) [Rockadillo, NorthSide]

Helsinki Melodeon Ladies: Helsingin Kaksirivisnaiset (EP) (1995) [Folk Music Institute]

Accordion Tribe: Accordion Tribe (1997) [Intuition]

Heikki Laitinen/Maria Kalaniemi/Anna-Kaisa Liedes: Pidot (1998) [HecRec]

Maria Kalaniemi/Marianne Maans/Olli Varis (Ramunder), I Ramunders Fotspår (In Ramunder’s footsteps) (2000) [Folk Music Institute]

Kalaniemi and Sven Ahlbäck: Ilmajousi/Luftstråk (airbow) (2001) [Amigo, NorthSide]

Maria Kalaniemi and Timo Alakotila: Ambra (2001) [Amigo]


Related Links


Maria Kalaniemi (at Hoedown Artists Management)

Accordion Tribe (at Hoedown Artists Management)