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Fri November 9, 2012
Music Interviews

Squeezebox Brutality: Murder Ballads From Finland

Originally published on Fri November 16, 2012 11:17 am

Murhaballadeja features a striking photo on the cover: Two beefy, big-jawed men with cruel eyes are in prison garb, shackled with heavy chains at the neck, wrists, knees and feet. Turns out they're legendary 19th century murderers from Finland. These are the kinds of characters you'll find in a collection of murder ballads from Kimmo Pohjonen.

Pohjonen is kind of a punk accordion renegade. He sports a mohawk, and his other projects mix accordion music with wrestling, or farm tools and animals. It's all songs about murder, which he says are deeply embedded in Finnish culture: "There's even a saying that if there was a wedding and three people were not killed, it wasn't a good wedding."

The Finns have a dark sense of humor, to say the least.

"These murder songs are, at the same time, they are frightening and they are also fascinating," Pohjonen tells NPR's Melissa Block. "Sometimes there is admiration towards the murders. It's a true fact that we have songs that are sung a funny way, and we're putting less fear there."

Finns like to sing these songs at great length, some closing in on 12 minutes long. That's a lot of murder. Pohjonen says he actually shortened these songs, because some of these murder ballads go on for hundreds of verses.

"Our national epic, 'Kalevala,' is something like 23,000 verses or even more," Pohjonen says. "In old days, people were singing for days and days. That's why the stories used to be really long."

Why glorify brutality and murder like this?

"I think we have beautiful, sunny days. We have sometimes very ugly days," Pohjonen says. "And, of course, murder — that's something really, really extraordinary. But as a musician, I think that it's great to make music that is beautiful. But on the other hand, I want to put something interesting about those other days to music, also. I think, for example, my music is like Finnish weather — it can be sometimes ugly and sometimes very beautiful."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We were flummoxed when this CD crossed our desks...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: It's a collection of murder ballads from Finland and the songs are, by their nature, disturbing. This goes on at great gruesome length about the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: What caught our eye was the photo on the cover, two beefy big-jawed men with cruel eyes. They're in prison garb, shackled with heavy chains at the neck, wrists, knees and feet. It turns out they're legendary 19th century murderers from Finland, the kinds of characters you'll find in these murder ballads or...

KIMMO POHJONEN: Murhaballadeja.

BLOCK: Murhaballadeja.

POHJONEN: Yes, very good.

BLOCK: That's Kimmo Pohjonen, who's kind of a punk accordion renegade. He sports a Mohawk and his other projects mix accordion music with wrestling or farm tools and animals. Now, it's all songs about murder, which he says go deep in Finnish culture.

POHJONEN: There is lots of songs about murders in every ballads, lamentations, broadside ballads, our national edict. So this is a big part of our culture. There was even a saying that if there was a wedding and three people were not killed, it wasn't a good wedding.

BLOCK: You guys really know how to celebrate over there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POHJONEN: You know, these stories, which tells these kind of horrible things, in a way, there's lots of Finnish black humor also. These murder songs are, at the same time, they are frightening and also fascinating. And sometimes there is hatred or sometimes even admiration towards the murders.

BLOCK: Well, apparently, the Finns like to sing these songs at great length. Some of these songs are closing in on 12 minutes on your album. That's a lot of murder in there.

POHJONEN: Yeah, you know, old days there was more time for people to listen to music and stop by. Actually, these songs, we are having at the CD is in a way we had to shorten them because...

BLOCK: These are shorter than the originals?

POHJONEN: Yes. You know, sometimes those can have like more than a hundred verses.

BLOCK: You're saying some of these songs would have hundreds of verses.

POHJONEN: You know, our national epic, "Kalavala" is something like 23,000 verses or even more. In old days, people were singing like for days and days. And so that's why the stories used to be really long.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're sure this is not a joke? This is an actual tradition, you're saying, in Finland?

POHJONEN: It's not a joke, no. It's true fact that we have this kind of murder songs which are sang by funny way and we're putting less fear there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You know, Kimmo, there are going to be people listening to this thinking, why glorify brutality? Why glorify murder like this?

POHJONEN: I think we have beautiful, sunny days. We have sometimes very ugly days. And, of course, murder, that's something really, really extraordinary. But as a musician, I think that it's great to make music that is beautiful. But then, on the other hand, I want to put something in it about those other days to music, also. I think, for example, my music is like Finnish weather, it can be sometimes ugly and sometimes very beautiful.

And in a way, you want to put those, both parts in the music, too.

BLOCK: Well, Kimmo Pohjonen, thank you for talking to us. This is definitely one of the strangest albums to cross our desk in a very long time.

POHJONEN: Thank you very much and have a great day there.

BLOCK: The CD is called "Murhaballadeja," Finnish murder ballads featuring Kimmo Pohjonen on accordion with singer Heikki Laitinen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.