Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Tangomarkkinat 2004

On Tuesday 6th July I got the 6.30 a.m. flight to Helsinki. I had to be up at 3.30 to get a taxi to the airport in time to check in so I went to bed early but my brain, in its usual perverse way, would not let me go to sleep .
Wednesday 7th was the first day of the Tangomarkkinat. The train from Helsinki arrived mid-afternoon. The landlady, whose name was Seija Smedlund, met me at the station. The accommodation was very grand, with its own bathroom and kitchen. Seija invited me into her own apartment for coffee and rhubarb cakes.
Dancing started at 19:30 that evening. Amongst my partners were Pirkko, who had attended every Tangomarkkinat since the beginning in 1985, and a lady who I recognised from the dancing competitions in previous years. I didn't ask her name, as I felt I ought to know it. It would be a bit like asking Monica Romero who she was. But it was very nice to be dancing with a real Finnish champion. She gave me a fright at the end of one tango when she bent her back right over in a picture figure. I don't know if I inadvertently lead it or she decided to do it by herself. Fortunately I didn't drop her.
I danced many times with both these ladies over the next few days. Three other ladies attracted my attention because of the deely boppers they were wearing. I think they were mother and daughters, but I didn't ask in case they weren't.
I found my Argentine tango experience very helpful in responding to my partners' wishes. Sometimes they want to jive to foxtrot tunes, sometimes they prefer walking steps in close embrace. How to tell? You need to follow the subtle signals. As somebody once said, the leader suggests, the follower leads, the leader follows.
On Thursday 8th Jari Sillanpää was at a bookshop publicising his biography. A fat lady did all the talking. When Jari managed to say anything she interrupted or talked over him and I thought she was being very pushy for a bookshop employee. In fact I was doing her an injustice - she was Aino Suhola, the author of the biography. I bought a copy and the two of them signed it.
Mikko Kilkkinen, who must be all of 19 by now, sang tangos and Elvis numbers in the shopping mall. After his performance his fans rushed up to meet him and he disappeared in a crowd of eager older ladies. Every boy's dream, or possibly nightmare.
At 18:00 there was Arja Koriseva's "Golden Earrings" concert to celebrate her 15 years at the top. In 1989 she won the Tango Queen title, establishing herself as a star and turning the Tangomarkkinat from a local festival into an event of national importance.
I was worried about dozing off as I had had about 6 hours' sleep in the last 4 days. Returning to my room for a nap was of course not an option as so much was happening. I drank heroic quantities of strong Finnish coffee. I thought I ought to eat something to raise my blood sugar level but didn't want a full meal in case it made me sleepy. So I ate two litres of strawberries and half a packet of salmiakki. There's nothing like a balanced diet for making you feel better.
In the end I needn't have worried. Seat numbers were not allocated, so I got to the venue an hour early and got a seat near the front. The concert opened with Piazzolla and young dancers. Arja won the Tango Queen title in 1989 with a rendition of Kultaiset korvarenkaat, or Golden Earrings. I have this on LP, together with Vie meidät rakkauteen, which is Tango d'Amour. In spite of its French name, this was composed in German by a Greek, Leo Leandros. It was a big hit for his daughter Vicki. Both tangos are lush, dreamy and romantic and I enjoyed them very much. But when Arja sang them again on Thursday evening it was a different experience altogether. Her voice has depth, maturity and confidence and I thought they were the best tangos she has done. Mind you, I thought that when she recorded Voitko vain unohtaa (Can you just forget). She seems to excel herself every time.
After the performance I was able to speak to Arja. This is the second time I have spoken to her this year. Life can't get any better. I asked if she intended to re-record Kultaiset korvarenkaat and Vie meidät rakkauteen but she said she had done it 15 years ago and had no intention of doing it again.
On Friday 9th Mira Kunnasluoto was singing at the morning dance. I watched the band setting up. A nice-looking, very slim, young woman, holding a sheaf of papers, seemed to be directing operations. I thought she was a bit too well-dressed to be head techie; perhaps she was the announcer. It was only when she stepped up to the microphone and began to sing that I realised who she was. Mira has changed her image several times since she became Tango Queen in 2000 and this is the best yet. She had lost weight, was not excessively thin, had waist-length straight hair and was wearing a skimpy top and white leather trousers decorated in dark red. Very nice. Her singing was, as usual, brilliant.
After her spot I went to the backstage area. The gates were protected by a female security guard who looked as if she wished she was packing a machine gun.
"Is Miss Kunnasluoto coming out?" I asked politely in my best Finnish.
"No" she said.
I returned to the Tangokatu. I could see Mira behind the stage. I waved to her. She waved back. That was something, I suppose.
That evening the semifinals were held in the Seinäjoki Areena. Pirkko told me she would be going there, but I didn't go because I would rather be dancing; and besides both Kaija Pohjola and Arja Koriseva were in the Tangokatu that night.
A very beautiful woman, about my age, dressed in an expensive-looking linen suit, asked me to dance. Her name was Aili.
Sometimes, in Argentine and Finnish dancing, you get a certain "connection" with your partner. This never happens in ballroom. I have been dancing ballroom for 43 years and I can do it with anybody, and the experience is always pretty much the same whether my partner is a near-beginner or a national champion. With the improvised dances it is different. Sometimes it just doesn't work and you never do get on the same wavelength. The experience is awkward and embarrassing and you can't wait for the tune to end. The three minutes seems to stretch into hours. But sometimes it is perfect. Everything comes together - the music, the ambiance, the embrace - and you really feel at one with your partner. Afterwards you both feel obliged to burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, and also to remind each other, and more importantly yourselves, that you are just two strangers enjoying a dance, and what you felt is just a construct of the tango, or foxtrot or whatever it was. It can happen in any dance, but most often in those two.
Aili and I didn't laugh. We danced together a few times, and I offered to buy her a drink. This was a mistake. She had had one or two already and the pear cider I bought her seemed to make it just one too many.
"You're a lovely boy" she said, and gently bit me on the shoulder. It's a long time since anyone has called me that.
"You're a lovely girl" I said. It seemed only polite.
I bought coffee. Aili promptly spilt hers over herself, and me; but mostly herself. I borrowed a cloth from the waitress and wiped her down (Aili I mean, not the waitress). She said she would go home to change and we made our unsteady way to the end of the Tangokatu.
Aili flung her arms round my neck.
"Lovely boy" she said. "I love you". Nobody says that to me either. Neither of my wives, nor my mother, ever said it.
I disentangled myself from her regretfully. Regretfully, because I enjoyed having Aili draped all over me, and also because I doubted her ability to stand up by herself.
I watched her taxi drive away. I never saw her again.
Kaija Pohjola appeared at 21:30. She has recently issued an all-tango CD, Tangokuningatar (Tango Queen) which was described in the papers as the world's only gold tango record. Does this really mean it sold a million copies? There are only 5 million people in Finland. There are a lot of expatriates of course, and Kaija has some foreign fans (me, for one), but all the same it seems that every Finnish household must have a copy of this record. Possible, I suppose. They're very keen on tango out here.
I was able to speak to Kaija after her spot.
"You aren't Finnish, are you?" she said. I had to admit I wasn't.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Bristol, England" I said.
"I know who you are!" she said. "You wrote to me about my mother."
That was two years ago. I had read in the paper that her mother had died suddenly at the age of 77 and I wrote a letter of sympathy, as my own mother had died at the same age under similar circumstances. Kaija is a big star and must get a lot of letters from fans, and it is very flattering that she remembered me. She gave me a signed photo and also signed a CD insert of Tangokuningatar that I had brought with me.
Tangokuningatar is also available on DVD. It has exactly the same numbers as the CD, and the visuals consist of Kaija singing in a brick-lined room while two children dance ballroom tango round her.
It was getting late and I was feeling hungry. I went to the snack bar for reindeer and mashed potato. A young woman sat down opposite me, though there was plenty of room elsewhere, and I thought I seem to be in luck tonight. Without looking at me, she packed away her meal as if she had not been fed for week.
Arja Koriseva appeared at midnight. Her selection of songs was largely different from her concert but I was pleased that she sang Golden Earrings and Vie meidät rakkauteen again, as I was able to get them on video (filming wasn't allowed at the concert). After an hour of sublime Arja experience I rushed round the corner to catch the end of Kaija Pohjola's second spot, which had started half an hour previously. As I passed the gate I saw Arja come out to greet a crowd of eager fans. Decisions, decisions! Do I stay to speak to Arja (twice in two days!) or get to see the end of Kaija's spot? I decided on the latter, and was glad I did because it was all tangos.
On Saturday morning Tino, the 13 year old son of Tango King Sebastian Ahlgren, was singing rock and roll. He is extremely lively, energetic, and talented. After him was Fuego, an all-female band playing Argentine tango. Argentine tango usually puts in an appearance somewhere every Tangomarkkinat, and you do see a few people dancing it, but it is normally confined to the smaller venues and is fairly conventional and mainstream. This was in the Tangokatu itself and was very avant-garde. It didn't seem to be going down very well. A good-looking young chap and his attractive red-haired partner were dancing Argentine tango to it but a lot of people were leaving in search of alternative entertainment, or perhaps drink. I heard a man say "Ei ole tango" (It isn't tango) as he walked past. This is what Hanibal Troilo said about Piazzolla, but I don't know if the man was quoting him. The next tune I recognised. It was the Finnish classic Satumaa. This attracted three more couples onto the floor, or rather tarmac. Two attempted Finnish tango, though one abandoned it, and the third thought jive was the most appropriate interpretation of the music. After that I wandered off to the bar for a piimä. I saw Eija Kantola with her young daughter. I spoke to her, saying I was looking forward to her performance that night, and she allowed me to take a photo.
Tiina Räsänen was the singer in the mall that afternoon. She had been one of the entrants in the preliminaries for the Eurovision Song Contest, singing a duet with a young American. They appeared under the names of Iina and Gary. This afternoon she returned to tango, and her full name.
Four other tango stars had taken part in the Eurovision, though most didn't sing tangos. . The others were Heidi Kyrö, Kirsi Ranto, Arja Koriseva, and the eventual winner Jari Sillanpää. He sang Two to Tango, the words of which he wrote himself. It is not the song of the same name which Louis Armstrong recorded in 1953. I would have liked Arja Koriseva to win, but I had to admit that Jari Sillanpää's song was better.
As happens every year at the Tangomarkkinat, there was a cat show in the mall. The winning cat was a big ginger Maine Coon called Escape's Matrix. That is the cat's actual name, not a translation. At the presentation of the awards Katariina Mäkinen (who I must admit I had never heard of) sang Mustan kissan tango (Black Cat Tango), as is usual at this event. The difference was she sang it straight.
According to M.A. Numminen in Tango is my Passion, this was originally an Italian tune called Voleveo un gatto negro. In 1971 it was a big hit in both Japan and Finland, where it was sung by two little girls, as was the Italian original. Now it is usually sung by an adult duet, putting on silly childish voices. This is the first time I have heard it straight, and it is actually a very nice tango.
When I came out of the mall I saw Tiina Räsänen waiting patiently in the cashpoint queue. Somehow I can't imagine Victoria Beckham doing that. I spoke to her and said how much I admired her singing earlier.
There was time to refresh myself with coffee and strawberries before going back to my room for a shower and change before the evening's dancing started at 18:30.
In the Tangokatu that evening I met a dazzlingly beautiful young blonde, dressed all in white, aged about 20 (the same age as my granddaughter), with a really radiant smile. Normally I would avoid approaching someone so young, for fear of being thought a disgusting old perve, but I couldn't resist this one. She granted me one tango, Siks oon mä suruinen (That's why I'm Sad) and a handclasp, then disappeared.
There are two stages side by side on the Tangokatu, so that one band can get ready while another is still playing and there is no break in the entertainment. At 21:30 I was waiting by stage 1 for Eija Kantola, along with hundreds of other fans.
After her spot, the finalists appeared on stage 2. Because of the crowds I couldn't move from my place, but that was just as well as I would be near the front when Jari Sillanpää appeared an hour later.
My particular favourite, Ailamari Vehviläinen, was runner-up. I had to strain to get a glimpse of her, though because of the excellent sound system I was able to hear her very well. The winners were Tommi Soidinmäki and Johanna Debreczeni. This is a Hungarian name (though she is not Hungarian) and is pronounced something like "Debra Chaney".
At last, at 23:30, it was time for the ultimate alpha male. The young blonde woman beside me was squeaking with excitement before Jari Sillanpää even came on. She was positively orgasmic by the time he was halfway through his first number, which was Two to Tango. A woman fainted and had to be taken away by ambulance men. Jari kept the crowd in a constant state of excitement all through his hour long spot.
Could anyone follow that? Saija Varjus can. I have some of her records and they are fine, but seeing her live is far more exciting. It isn't just because of her good looks, though I can't deny she has those. There is something about her live performances that just doesn't come across on records. She treated us to various tangos and foxtrots, and a headbanging number that I didn't understand at all, but I think had something to do with tango because I detected a few shattered fragments of La Cumparsita in the introduction. I don't normally like this sort of music - I think it's a racket - but I enjoyed this one. Probably because Saija was creating the racket.
Then all the band members apart from the keyboard player disappeared and Saija started on Tuhon tietä kuljen, or I'm a Fool to Want You. This is very popular in Finland and I have heard it performed by a number of artists, including Arja Koriseva. Usually they use the same suave arrangement as Sinatra did, but this was much more raw and impassioned. This was followed by what Saija described as "another American tango" (though it is really Danish), Jealousy. Her face crumpled in misery as the accompanist pounded the hell out of his digital piano. Afterwards she whispered "thank you" and fled the stage in floods of tears. The MC came on and said seriously "that was from the heart", before returning to manic mode and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. Saija returned, having composed herself, and treated us to two more headbanging numbers by way of encore.
Was this all a big act? Probably. It's what we pay for, after all. But suppose it was real? Suppose she had worked herself up into such a state that she was really feeling it? I wondered, are we selecting the most beautiful and talented of our young citizens as sacrificial victims, compelling them to suffer and weep and bleed for us, because we can no longer feel anything ourselves?
Enough of such morbid musings. Johanna Pakonen was coming on stage. Her light bubbly style was a complete contrast. Suddenly the same beautiful young blonde I had danced with hours earlier appeared, still immaculate, shot me a really dazzling smile, and disappeared into the crowd. I thought, nothing better than that is going to happen tonight and I might as well get back to my apartment.
It was 2:30, the sky was starting to lighten, and the streets of Seinäjoki were packed with revellers.
In the afternoon of Sunday 11th was the Royal Concert. This was to celebrate 20 years of the Tangomarkkinat and was broadcast on national radio. A total of 34 past and present tango royals were taking part, and the programme consisted entirely of tangos. It was scheduled to last 3 hours, and went on for 4. Members of the audience were given a free CD - the best of Sauli Lehtonen, who was Tango King in 1994 and was killed in 1995, when his car collided with an elk.
An important member of the audience was the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen. She has red hair, so naturally the first tango was Punatukkaiselle tytölleni (To my red-haired girl), sung by Erkki Räsänen, Antti Raiski, and Jouni Keronen.
Jari Sillanpää continued with a boisterous version of Two to Tango, Finland's Eurovision entry this year. Together with a rather over-qualified backing group consisting of Marita Taavitsainen, Johanna Pakonen and Eija Kantola, he sang an old arrangement, used by Olavi Virta and the Harmony Sisters in 1955, of Sinitaivas (Blue Heaven). The President later said that this, and Jealousy, were her favourite tangos. It is said that Bill Clinton's favourite is Monika, Monika, Monika.
Saija Varjus and Jouni Keronen sang a really heartrending duet, accompanied by piano with a harmonikka wailing quietly in the background.
At the end of the evening Jari Sillanpää pulled the president from her seat and danced tango with her.
I saw the president wandering about chatting to people during the intervals. If there were any bodyguards about, I didn't see them. I wondered whether to approach her, but I don't know anything about Finnish politics and couldn't think of anything to say, so I didn't.
That evening the last dance of the Tangomarkkinat, the Royal Dance, was held in the Atria Hall. It was nice to dance on parquet for a change. The finalists came on to do a spot, as did Marita Taavitsainen. I was able to speak to her afterwards and she gave me a signed photo. She said I spoke very good Finnish, which was nice to hear, even if it wasn't true.
Back in my room at 3 next morning after the dance finished I made pot of Presidentti coffee. This brand is strong even by Finnish standards. I realised I could have said something to Tarja Halonen: "Madam President, I love your coffee."
I had recorded five hours of video. Furthermore, there had been a number of tango programmes on national TV during the Tangomarkkinat, but I hadn't seen any of them. I had spent all my time at the Tangokatu so had recorded them. There was a programme on the life of Unto Mononen, the composer of Satumaa and many other classic Finnish tangos and other dance music. This was introduced by M.A. Numminen, the author of Tango is my Passion. We also watched the semifinals and finals of the tango singing competition. Jari Sillanpää and Arja Koriseva presented both.
Sometimes I think it is more frustrating to know a bit of the language than none at all. At least if you know nothing you can let it all wash over you and just listen to the music. I understood most of Arja Koriseva's chat with competitor Marko Lämsä. I grasped that he was an Elvis impersonator. Did he know Elvis's only tango? Yes he did - Walls Have Ears. But why did he ask Arja to crawl between his legs, and why did she do it?
The following day, before returning home, I went to Swingsters, specialist supplier of tango shoes. It is in a rather dilapidated art nouveau building, looking more suited to old Barcelona than modern Helsinki. There is no sign of a shoe shop; all that is visible is a travel agent and an antique shop. You have to look for the tiny brass plate beside the door, ring the bell, and if the proprietor Jari Norkola is within earshot, he will let you in and conduct you to the basement. I bought three pairs - black and dark red, black and electric blue, and black and purple. Just call me Imelda. Matching ladies' shoes, or rather matching shoes for ladies, are available; but these are what my mother would have called "sensible" - lace-ups and low heels. Look at but the selection is much bigger than the website suggests.
Looking back at what I've written, I see I've mentioned a lot of funny Finnish names. Don't let that put you off. It isn't necessary to have heard of any of these people to enjoy the Tangomarkkinat. The next one is 6 - 10 July 2005. It doesn't matter if you don't speak Finnish. Arrange accommodation through - they speak excellent English. Just enjoy the music and the dancing. You might even find the partner of your dreams. You'll certainly have fun looking. I intend to be there. I hope to see Ailamari Vehviläinen become Tango Queen. Nähdään sitten! (See you there!)