Sunday, July 28, 2002

Tangomarkkinat 2002

It is summer, time to return to Finland. Time to overdose on tango and strawberries. A summer spent anywhere else is simply wasted. Where else would you see a young woman curtsey to a tram driver? Or a bar selling nothing but sour milk? Or 120,000 tango-crazed party animals descend on one small town?
I arrived in Helsinki on the evening of Thursday 4th July. I wasn’t due to travel till next day and was going to have an early night, but I decided to go to the Vanhan Kellari. I’m glad I did, because the singer was Miss Cuteness Personified herself, Taina Kokkonen. They often have big stars at the Vanhan, but usually I seem to miss them and see only unknowns. She is utterly adorable in person and I have decided she is the daughter I never had. I spoke to her in my best Finnish, saying I admired her and asking when she was making another CD. She said she just had.
I encountered two ladies I had danced with before. One was wearing fifties-style glasses of the type once sported by Marjorie Proops. She insisted on dancing cheek to cheek, and I got seriously spiked. The other was Eine-Liisa, the one who thinks any foreigner will understand Finnish if it is shouted loud enough. She told me about her lapsilapset (grandchildren). I didn’t get much, except that there were three of them, so I said sinä olet liian nuori olla isoäiti (you’re too young to be a grandmother) and she simpered prettily. Am I a smooth operator, or what? She kissed me on the cheek and wished me hyvää kesää (happy summer).
Next morning I went to the market square to have a coffee and cake and watch the world go by. The old chap next to me looked friendly, so I thought I would try out my Finnish on him. Unfortunately he wanted to try his English on me. His name was Eero, he too was a retired bank manager, and he gave me a quick guided tour round Helsinki in his old van. I had seen the sights before, but I made the appropriate appreciative noises. He returned me to the market square, and, encouraged by my ability to make new Finnish friends, approached someone else. A woman, with a young unlined face and grey hair, a combination I have always found exciting. I beamed at her and said hyvää päivää (good day). She glared furiously at me and strode away. Oh well. I consoled myself with a salmiakki ice cream. Salmiakki is a sort of strong salty liquorice, containing sal-ammoniac, or chloride of ammonia, the stuff used in dry batteries, and used for flavouring sweets, vodka, and other things. It is very popular in Finland, and definitely an acquired taste. Once you have acquired it, you can’t get enough of the stuff.
Although the Tangomarkkinat was 6 days and 200 miles away, Helsinki was getting into tango mood. Street entertainers were playing tangos, there were even more on local radio than there usually are, and I heard Satumaa as a ring tone on several mobiles. I went to my favourite restaurant, the VPK, and the waiter remembered me.
I called on Kaisa. Her son is quite a big boy now - ten months. His name is Ian Christopher Coogan. I said he ought to have been given a Finnish name also, as he is as much Finnish as he is American. What about Pekka, a good Finnish name and one which might amuse the folks back in Arizona? Kaisa said she had never liked that name. She did say they were bringing up Ian to be bilingual. We took Ian to the beach, and Kaisa was a bit embarrassed that people might think an old codger such as myself might be the father of her baby. I said I was more likely to be taken for his grandfather, which mollified her somewhat. Ian liked the texture of the sand, and kept patting it and running it through his fingers. He also found it adds a nice crunchy texture to your strawberry if you dip it in. Kaisa had some Swedish crispbread, labelled MED SMAK AV MAJS. I said that looked as if it ought to mean “with taste of mouse”. Kaisa assured me that it did, and it was a Swedish delicacy usually served with rat pee jam.
I bought the train tickets for Seinäjoki, scoffed some strawberries and went for a ride on a tram. I found a car boot sale. I could have bought a statue of Lenin, a bible (Finnish language, old German typeface) or a milk churn; but I resisted the temptations of all these and bought an Arja Koriseva CD, and another CD by Lea Laven, who I had never heard of. I only bought it because one of the tracks was Kuin kissa (like a cat).
My first port of call in Seinäjoki was the health food shop. My two beautiful ladies were still there, and what is more they remembered me and said I had lost weight. They said I spoke very good Finnish, which proves they are as big liars and flannellers as I am. In the market square a trader was selling superglue and religious tracts. I couldn’t follow his sales patter. I suppose it was on the lines of “stick with Jesus”.
The frustrating thing about the Tangomarkkinat is that it is impossible to be in six places at once. As well as all the official events there are bands and dancing in every bar and restaurant, street musicians, karaoke (I have never heard tango karaoke before) and much else. A boy of about 11 or 12 was playing tangos on a harmonikka nearly as big as himself. I would have liked to join in the tango karaoke, but I have a vile singing voice. I inherited this raucous screech from my mother, along with her dark colouring, her over-emotional nature and of course her good looks. Plus her lack of false modesty.
Mira Kunnasluoto has completely shaken off her Miss Seinäjoki 1951 image. Her hair is cropped very short, with a blonde streak. At the opening dance she was wearing a bright pink dress tastefully embellished with broad blue bra straps. Her singing style has lost its saccharine sweetness. She put in many appearances during the festival, including one in the shopping mall, where I was able to speak to her. She signed a photo for me, and said she was glad to have English admirers.
Other artists appearing included Jari Sillanpää, who gave a concert at the Areena; the delectable Taina Kokkonen; Kaija Pohjola, she of the matronly figure and deliciously husky voice; Tiina Räsänen, who that week was marrying fellow tango star Petri Hervanto; and the unsurpassable Arja Koriseva. I have spoken highly of other ladies; but without any disrespect to any of them, Arja is at a completely different level of sheer wonderfulness. The fire of her personality leaps from the stage. In the huge Atria hall I felt she was singing just for me. It didn’t matter that I recognised barely one word in twenty - the emotions went straight sydämestä sydämeen: from heart to heart, in the words of the song. Then it was over. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
And Arja is hardly known in this country. Presumably there are other stars of Arja’s quality in Portugal, Latvia, Hungary, etc that we don’t know of either. We are very parochial really.
A band that was not there last year was Trio Corazon, who played Argentine style tango. The trio consists of singer, guitar and harmonikka. The songs had mostly been translated into Finnish, though Mi Buenos Aires Querido was left in Spanish. There were five couples dancing Argentine tango, valiantly attempting ochos and giros on the tarmac, watched by a handful of bemused spectators. It was here I heard the only milonga I have ever heard in Finland. It was introduced as “a fast Argentine rhythm, similar to the humppa”. I enjoyed it, and so did Liisa, but what a contrast when we went round the corner to the main part of the Tangokatu. There Erkki Räsänen (no relation to Tiina Räsänen) was regaling a huge crowd with Satumaa. The dancers were packed shoulder to shoulder and there must have been hundreds of spectators (including teenagers) joining in the chorus. I don’t think this South American thing will ever supplant the original.
I noticed a young couple, clasped in a close embrace while Rakkauden yö (night of love) throbbed about them. Each had a mobile phone to their ear. Could they be talking to their spouses saying they were working late and weren’t anywhere near the Tangomarkkinat? Were they fixing up partners for the next dance? Were they even talking to each other? Did they find it easier to talk on the phone than face to face? Who can say?
I had taken 740 euros with me, and after 9 days this had evaporated to a mere 80. So I had to pay a visit to the bank. Inside was a live band, playing tangos. I told the cashier that I had worked in a bank for 34 years without ever hearing a tango played there.
All too soon it was time for the last dance on Sunday evening.The finalists of the singing competition came on stage to sing two tangos each for the cameras. The winners were announced: Mikko Kilkkinen and Johanna Pakonen. Mikko is 17 years old. In the papers next day there were headlines like “Is he too young to be Tango King?” Well if he’s old enough to belt out a good tango - and he is - then of course he’s not too young. Cliff Richard was 17 when he had his first hit, and Lulu 14. Deanna Durbin was about 12.
Janne Tulkki put in his only appearance on the Sunday night. With his dark brooding good looks and sexy voice and demeanour he attracted many fans who clustered round the foot of the stage. Two girls, who seemed to be aged about 12, were holding out small red plastic hearts to him, their faces gleaming with lust. An elegantly dressed lady of about 75 screamed out something of which the only bit I understood was me rakastamme sua, Janne! (we love you, Janne).
Now I am back in Blighty. I have brought with me 7 packets of ultra-strong Presidentti coffee, 20 packets of salmiakki sweets, a bottle of salmiakki vodka, 18 CDs, and some very happy memories.