Saturday, July 15, 2006

Tangomarkkinat 2006

I received my copy of "Tango Illusion" a few days before I was due to depart. It was much thinner than usual and was printed on poorer quality paper. Furthermore, the list of members was missing. I liked seeing my name there. It was the only Anglo-Saxon name in a long list of Finnish and Swedish names; and I appeared alongside such dignitaries as Tarja Halonen and Mira Kunnasluoto.

Although I had planned to fly Ryanair, the saving wasn't nearly as big as promised. Furthermore, I would have had to fly from Stanstead and if I was going to spend several hours and a lot of money travelling from one end of a country to the other, I would rather that country was Finland. So I booked an SAS flight, changing at Copenhagen.

The first problem arose when the flight to Copenhagen was delayed. In fact it was delayed so much that I would have missed the connection to Helsinki, so SAS put me on a flight to Stockholm. When I got there I discovered that because of this, and another unrelated cockup, there were 16 people too many on the flight to Helsinki. Volunteers were called for: would anyone be prepared to fly to Turku instead, and receive a free train transfer to Helsinki and a 300 euro travel voucher? I noticed that there was a flight to Tampere in about an hour. Could I go there instead? Yes I could, but not on that flight, which was full. I would have to wait for the next flight to Tampere, in five hours time.

The paperwork took nearly an hour to complete. Perhaps they thought that, as I had changed my itinerary twice in one day, I was a fugitive from justice trying to cover my tracks. I wondered where my luggage was, and what would happen when it was time to return home. Perhaps the SAS computer would think: "well, he never went to Helsinki, so he won't be coming back from there". But there’s no point in fretting about it.

I had time to get a train into Stockholm, mooch around for a bit, and try the Swedish beer. On the plane I sat next to a very nice lady whose name was Satu. She was a cat judge, and had been judging a cat competition in Gdansk. She had also delivered an American Curl kitten to a German couple. Satu means fairytale in Finnish; she seemed surprised that I knew this.

I stayed at the Omena Hotel. This has no receptionist and no keys. You have to punch in a code at the door to get in. You then pass through two internal doors, both needing the code, before you get to your own door. Tampere is an old industrial town with a number of factory chimneys and a barrage in the river. As this is a tango blog I will pass over the industrial archaeology, pausing only to mention that the local delicacy is blood sausage, which is served with a dab of lingonberry jam and a glass of milk. I paid 1.70 euros for mine. I was reminded of those nomadic peoples who bleed their animals, thus getting animal protein without killing their beasts, and mix the blood with milk. Perhaps this delicacy goes right back to the Lapps.

There are a number of dance places in Tampere, and I selected the Hämeensilta, purely because it was nearest to the hotel (in the same street, in fact). It is on the 7th floor, and you can look out over Tampere. It opens at 19:00 but I was the only customer and after two hours I had got fed up with drinking beer and looking at Tampere rooftops and went out. When I came back at 22:00 the place was in full swing. A Naistentanssit was held that evening and at first I didn't get many offers. One of my partners said it was because I wasn't known, and they didn't get many foreigners there. But soon the invitations came thick and fast and I hardly had the opportunity to sit down. I met Seija, whose interests were dancing and marathon running. She said that when she was at school German was compulsory, and those few who learned English only studied it for two years. Now English is taught from age 8. This would explain why very few Finns my age speak English, whereas nearly all youngsters are fluent.

Next day, 5th July, I went by train to Seinäjoki. The weather was extremely hot and sticky, so I got a taxi to Seija's house (this is Seija the landlady, the same one I stayed with last year; not the same Seija I had been smooching with the night before). The house was full of her relatives: I think there was a brother and his wife and children and a daughter with husband and baby. I was introduced to all of them, and don't remember a single one of their names. They were all going to the brother's summer cottage, so I would have the house to myself until Seija's son came home on leave from the Army. Just in time I rescued my briefcase, which the brother had put in the boot of his car along with his own luggage. It contained my passport, money, camera, and return tickets.

That evening was the show "The silver screen dances and plays". Seija had bought a ticket for me, and I was in the front row. The show involved clips from old Finnish films, which the performers (Ailamari Vehviläinen, Mira Kunnasluoto, Erkki Räsänen, and Rami Rafael) then re-enacted. One of the films was Yövartija vain (Just a Nightwatchman) of 1940, and featured La Cumparsita. For Me and My Girl is now a song for macho lumberjacks. After the show I sent a rose to Ailamari via the doorman and hung about for a bit outside, but I didn't get to see her. No dancing that day, but there was tango karaoke in one of the bars. I ran into Hilve there.

Next morning I went into the market square and bought a litre of strawberries, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper. On the letters page was a poem about strawberries by 12 year old Maiju Ojanperä. Headline news was that both Mira Kunnasluoto and Marita Taavitsainen have split from their partners, but have found new ones. Sorry lads, you appear to have missed the boat there. But you want them to be happy, don't you? Don't say that the best tangos arise from loneliness, misery, and tear-stained pillows. It is also rumoured that Ailamari Vehviläinen might compete next year. I hope she does - she has the sort of talent the world can't afford to lose. No cat show was advertised this year. I asked about it at the enquiry office, but they didn't know anything. So it seems that I won't be able to boast that I know a famous Finnish cat judge. I bought a pass, which was even crappier than last year - a sort of plasticised paper.

A tango seminar was held in the theatre. I particularly wanted to go because Eila Pienimäki, who had a string of hits in the 1960's, was taking part. On the way I noticed the name "Lemminkäinen" in brass letters in the pavement. I suppose it has always been there, but I hadn't noticed it before. Why was it there? Was it believed that the hero was buried here? Is Seinäjoki one of the villages mentioned in the Kalevala?

There was not a single village
Where he did not find ten homesteads.
There was not a single homestead
Where he did not find ten maidens.
There was not a single maiden,
None among the mothers' daughters,
By whose side he did not stretch him:
In whose arms he did not nestle.

The seminar dealt with the poetry and history of tango. I could understand it at first but the language soon got very difficult and academic. All I could do was gaze at Eila Pienimäki with a mixture of lust and admiration. I was able to speak to her afterwards and she signed a CD insert for me. She said I ought to find a "special someone".

Eila Pienimäki then and now

I thought I would check out the Treffibaari, or "dating bar". On the way I caught sight of a familiar figure from last year: tall, blonde hair piled up on top of her head, plunging neckline, skirt barely covering her buttocks - Irja! She was on her mobile but broke off to greet me and say "see you in the Tangokatu tonight". I was surprised, and very flattered, that she remembered me.

The Treffibaari was no different from any other bar. It was full of Finns drinking in silence. There was a hand-written advertisement: "Drink Jallukola and make your partner more beautiful". Another bar was advertising itself as a "tango-free zone". Non-tango entertainment provided by Anna Eriksson and some people I hadn't heard of. But why would tango-haters come to Seinäjoki during the Tangomarkkinat? And tango-hating locals already have 360 tango-free days a year.

The opening ceremony was at 17:00 hours. The Seinäjoki Railwaymen's Brass Band marched through the streets playing La Cumparsita in march time. You will recall that Geraldo Matos Rodriguez originally wrote it as a march and it was only when Roberto Firpo got hold of it that it became a tango. From time to time the band stopped (I mean stopped marching, not stopped playing), and children danced ballroom tango while Kati Fors, last year's Tango Queen, supplied the vocals. I noticed a twelve year old boy who seemed to be dancing with his mother. But when they got close to me I saw that she was pretty much the same age as him. It seemed to be an example of the "lamb dressed as mutton" effect that you often see at ballroom venues. Put a twelve year old boy in a dinner jacket and dicky bow and he looks cute: a twelve year old girl in a ballgown and full makeup immediately ages 30 years. At a children's competition in Blackpool once, I noticed a girl, 9 going on 43, wearing a sequin-studded gown and lounging in her chair, sipping something that presumably wasn't gin and tonic but she was clearly pretending it was.

Public dancing started at 18:00. The TV programme "Kesäillan valssi" was being recorded and the Tangokatu was packed. I soon found a partner, a very pretty blonde whose name was Sinikka. "Didn't Toivo Kärki write Tango for Sinikka?" I asked. She seemed pleased I knew, and held me just a bit closer. It seems to be worth boning up on the local culture. She stayed with me during the whole of the recording, and the cameraman filmed us several times. I don’t know if we ever ended up on screen, as the show was not due to be broadcast until after I had left Finland.

After the recording I renewed my acquaintance with some old partners (I mean old in the sense that I had danced with them before, not . . . oh, you know what I mean): Irja, Pirkko, and the championship dancer Irma. Irma hadn’t been at last year’s Tangomarkkinat, but she said she remembered me from 2004. The American dance teacher Richard Gimmi said he would meet me, but I would have to wait for him to approach me, because he had my mugshot and I didn’t have his. I met Ilona, a very nice lively lady. She was wearing a miniskirt and no tights, and I was wearing shorts, so I was very aware of her legs. She didn't seem to mind though, as we danced together several times.

Kati Fors gave a performance in the Pop Village round the corner from the Tangokatu. Two blonde ladies of similar appearance were watching, and I asked the older of the two to dance. She said her name was Anja, she had come with her niece, and this was their first visit to the Tangomarkkinat. The next singer was Marita Taavitsainen, who is one of my idols. I wanted to film her, but Anja wanted to dance. I was annoyed that I wasn’t able to film Marita’s version of Paradise. This is one of Rauli Badding Somerjoki’s old hits, and I had never heard it sung by a woman. But then I thought: we admire our idols because they provide the best music; so really we should dance to it and savour the moment, and not always try to preserve everything. At one point Marita dragged her boyfriend onto the stage. There was a chorus of “aahs” from the crowd, but the poor chap looked extremely embarrassed.

Mira Kunnasluoto followed. I had been looking forward to this, as she is the first Finnish star I had developed an admiration for. I was able to speak to her afterwards and say how much I had enjoyed her performance and also her new record. She signed the insert for me. I finally left the Tangokatu at 02:30, by which time the attendance was quite sparse.

Next day was Friday. I went to the market square for breakfast, which was strawberries. I had a look at the souvenir stall. A much smaller selection than usual. The t-shirts had the same design as last year, except that the 05 had been changed to 06. No tango-specific postcards, lighters, keyfobs, etc as there were in previous years. But there was a DVD called 20 years of tango royals, and I bought that. Hilve's stall was nearby and I chatted with her for a bit, and even managed to escape without buying anything.

The weather was extremely hot and a few people were dancing to records in the Tangokatu. I saw a newspaper reporter interviewing Ilona. Soon the place started to fill up and the performers, starting with Mira Kunnasluoto, came on. I rashly danced an energetic humppa with Irja and we had to retreat to the bar to cool down with Lonkero (gin and grapefruit). Irja told me she had attended every Tangomarkkinat from the beginning and had kept videos of all the televised finals. I met Richard Gimmi at last. I already knew his partner Anja, whom I had met last year (not the same Anja who had come with her niece). They said they had been to Peru and Argentina to study Latin American dancing. I asked if they intended to enter the tango dancing competition. Anja said she was up for it, but Richard didn't fancy it. I asked Anja if she would partner me, and she said she might if we could get some practice in at the Atria Hall that evening. Unfortunately I wouldn't be able to as Arja Koriseva was scheduled to appear in the Tangokatu.

I found yet another very nice partner. She was little, only 5 foot, with waist-length blonde hair. Her name was Irja. Yes, yet another duplicate name. I thought of renaming her Aino, after the maiden in the Kalevala who was similarly tressed, but that would make me Väinämöinen, the aged white-bearded bard who took a fancy to her (she had to turn herself into a fish to get away from him).

Performers that evening included Johanna Pakonen and Saija Tuupanen. Anne Mattila made her first appearance at a Tangomarkkinat, but I was only able to stay for two numbers because she inconveniently came on in the Pop Village only a short while before Arja Koriseva was due to appear in the Tangokatu.

What can I say about Arja that I haven't said before? Every time I see her I say that this is the best thing she has ever done, and every time I tell the truth. The philosophers say that you can't improve on perfection, but Arja can, every time. And yet if I look back on old recordings I have to say that these too are the best. Her performance lasted an hour, and covered old favourites such as Golden Earrings, and numbers which I have never heard her do before, including Eila Pienimäki's old hit By the Old Gate. But the highlight was Let's Twist Again - the most exciting version I have ever heard. When she finished at about 01:30, I thought that nothing on God's earth could be better than what I had just experienced. Although it was still early, I went back to the house. I didn't even stay for Jari Sillanpää. Anything or anybody coming after Arja would be an anticlimax.

I was up bright and early and went to the square for breakfast. After due consideration, and taking everything into account, I decided on strawberries. There was definitely no cat show today. The tango competition was in the Atria Hall that morning, but I had not been able to organise a partner for it and I wasn't satisfied to just watch. I ran into little Irja in the Tangokatu and we had some nice dances together. Johanna Piipponen made an unscheduled appearance. Two men with a large video camera and a microphone approached me and asked, in English, why I liked tango so much. I came out with some platitude in the same language and was most annoyed with myself when they went away. Why hadn't I insisted on replying in Finnish? If that goes out on TV, everyone will think I can't speak Finnish. Of course, some people think that anyway.

The Church Concert was at 17:00 hours. Judita Leitaite sang, amongst other numbers, Chanson d'Amour (which was not Manhattan Transfer's hit of 1977) and Nuit d'Etoiles (not Malando's tango Noches des Estrellas). But I had really come to hear Ailamari Vehviläinen, who sang just one number: Jerusalem, which was not the unofficial English national anthem by William Blake. This was a completely new side to Ailamari, which I hadn't heard before.

I returned to the Tangokatu in time to see Saija Varjus. .She is the one who can rip your heart out by the roots with her tangos. She had me in tears with the old Presley hit You were Always on my Mind. I spoke to her afterwards and she signed a CD insert for me. She is quite scary close up: tall, muscular, wild flame-red hair, very little clothing - a bit like an Amazon queen, or perhaps Xena the Warrior Princess.

The Tango King and Queen for 2006 were Marko Lämsä and Elina Vettenranta. She was described in the papers next day as “mature” and “a veteran singer”; though at 36 she is hardly ready for her Zimmer frame just yet.

At 23:00 I made my way to the Atria Hall. In previous years it has been decorated in the traditional Finnish style with large birch branches in buckets of water. Not this year. More cost-cutting. Near the floor a long line of women waited. Opposite an equally long line of men. You had to be quick: about 30 seconds into the number, all the women had been taken.

Kaija Pohjola came on at 01:30. Her style was refined and sophisticated, not raunchy. (Though she can do raunchy as well: try the tango Polttavat huulet (Burning Lips) on her album Härmän kaipuu, for example.) I was able to speak to her afterwards, and she claimed to remember me. She signed a CD insert. She did a second set, and I eventually left at 03:00.

The next day (or rather the same day) was Sunday, and this year there was no dancing. In the afternoon a "Royal Concert" was held in the theatre. I enjoyed it, particularly Saija Varjus's spot, but it was the only event held that day apart from some tango karaoke in one of the bars. As I was coming out of the theatre, I notice a very elegantly dressed young woman. "She looks a bit like Eija Kantola" I thought to myself. That is exactly who it was. Why hadn't she been signed up for the show? More cost-cutting, I suppose.

Seija had come home, and that evening we watched some of the Tango Royals DVD. Not all of it - it is over 4 hours long. It comprises the prizewinning performances of all the Tango Royals from 1985 to 2004, and there is also a documentary on the history of the Tangomarkkinat. It is interesting to see how the stars have changed over the years: Arja Koriseva's dreamy and ethereal style at the beginning of her career; Saija Varjus looking quite refined. The biggest surprise was Marita Taavitsainen. It shows that the judges know their stuff. Who would have thought that this rather shy and timid creature would blossom into the charismatic superstar we know and love today?

On Monday morning I took the train to Helsinki. There are no live performances on Mondays at the Vanhan Kellari, only records, but I had a good time nonetheless. A Japanese party, including an older lady in a kimono, came in. It was rather reminiscent of the Japanese episode in Tango is my Passion. I managed to get a couple of dances with Hilkka, the most popular lady in the Kellari. She barely gets a chance to sit down or sip her drink. She left early, and took the trouble to say goodbye to me. She asked if I was coming again tomorrow, and expressed disappointment when I said I was returning to England. Of course this is just her way - the same friendly and ladylike way that makes her so popular - but it was flattering all the same.

The following day there was time for a quick visit to the Popenkeli record shop before going to the airport. I bought an old vinyl LP of Rauli Badding Somerjoki. My reservation on the return flight still existed, so I was able to return home.

Tangomarkkinat epilogue

Many people go to the theatre to see their idols, and some of them hang about outside the theatre hoping to meet them; but how many get emails saying “sorry I couldn’t stay to speak to you, I had to catch a train”? Truly Ailamari is one in a million!

Lemminkäinen is the name of a road maintenance firm. How disappointing.
If you are thinking of getting Eija Kantola’s new album Legendaa, beware: track 3, Sattumaa, is not the classic tango Satumaa. Notice the extra T!

If you were frustrated at not being able to download Arja Koriseva's new single and were thinking of downloading it next time you go to Finland, you will STILL be out of luck because the website doesn't like non-Finnish credit cards. You will have to get a Finnish person to do it for you. And once you've got it, don't mess about with it. I changed the file name of mine, moved it about on my computer, and now it says I haven't got a licence for it.

Seija gave me a few episodes of Tanssii tähtien kanssa, the Finnish version of Strictly Come Dancing. I didn't recognise any of the celebrities in it. Everything was very similar to the British version: the same set, the same sort of sepulchral voice announcing “The judges will now reveal their scores”; they have even found a presenter who looks a bit like Tess Daly. The style of dancing is not Finnish: it is standard international ballroom, so this is not really the place to describe it. But I will say that one of the judges said of a quickstep: “a bit too much like a humppa”. There seemed to have been a little trouble with the spelling of "quickstep", which of course is not a Finnish dance: