To me, the sound of a fiddle and accordion together is exemplary of folk dance music. So many European-based cultures have dance music traditions that feature these two instruments, from the Roma, Italians and French, to the English, Irish and Scottish, to Quebecois and Cajun in North America, and of course the Scandinavians. Finnish accordionist Teija Niku and Finnish-American fiddler Sara Pajunen, performing as Aallotar, continue to explore their shared musical and cultural histories on Ameriikan Laulu, their second collaboration following their 2014 debut In Transit. I’ve been hoping these two would renew their musical partnership, and this album satisfies my appetite for more from them.
I’ve seen Pajunen play at dances, concerts and several house concerts since I first encountered her in 2011 as a member of the Finnish-American duo Kaivama. One of those house concerts was with Niku on Aallotar’s first American tour. The two are delightful people, and talented and dedicated musicians. I very much enjoyed Aallotar’s first recording, and I think Ameriikan Laulu is even better.
It’s a short program of eight pieces, about what would fit comfortably on a vinyl LP. The album is available only on CD, but it would sound wonderful on vinyl! It’s a mix of traditional tunes and others written by either Niku or Pajunen, and a combination of tunes and songs.
“Metsäkukkia” is a charming traditional folk song about forest flowers and the seasons, set to a melancholy waltz tune, its lyrics translated by Pajunen and sung by the two in English and Finnish. The two sing an unaccompanied duet in Finnish as the traditional “Tuudittele Tuuli” begins, then add first fiddle and finally accordion as they continue, Pajunen translating the first verse into English, then singing the second verse, first in Finnish then English. It’s a sad song of a woman longing for the wind to blow her away to sea, presumably because her lover has left over that same sea.
The title track, and the first, is an engaging song in Finnish about those left behind by their loved ones who have emigrated to America. It’s the best example on this disc of the kind of close-harmony singing that to me exemplifies Finnish folk music, which I find exhilarating. They’ve paired it with old movie footage of folk dancers in this video.
The tunes are just as engaging. “Joulukuu” is a lovely romantic waltz that would grace the end of any night of dancing; Pajunen’s modern “Octone” moves from pensive to dramatic with the fiddler’s creative use of double-stops. I think my favorite is “Tallari,” a traditional tune that starts with a droning introduction by Niku while Pajunen’s pizzicato teasingly flits across the fretboard, before moving gently into a sprightly dance tune.
Throughout, this music is sharply observed and deeply felt. Pajunen and Niku are deeply immersed in this tradition and in both sides of the immigration stories that inform so much of the music. You can hear it in every bar of this music that is infused with joy but edged with sorrow.
(Nordic Notes, 2018)