The tango is
No one but a Finns could compose, perform, dance or understand a Finnish tango that way it should be done. If the music encyclopaedia's unadorned definition of a tango is also a portrait of the Finnish character, it is difficult to fight off the tears . "The melodies are always in a minor key and the lyrics tell of an unhappy love. The Finnish dance version of the tango is slow shuffling and dreamy swaying movements, a simple shuffling to and fro in a closed grip and close bodily contact with the partner."
A proverb supports this grave image: "Even a snotty-nosed brat will become a man, but not a giggling idiot." It is true that Finns are often shy and reluctant to talk or laugh, much less touch other people. Perhaps the tango is an accepted, established way of expressing emotions, feeling the closeness of skin. Or was. The international influences pushing their way into the lives of the Finns from every direction seem to have greatly changed the picture. Now it's trendy to be open, bold and to be able to engage in small talk in cafés and nightclubs. But when one scratches the surface, does one nevertheless find the Finnish tango underneath?
The tango came to Europe from Argentina in the early years of this century. 1913 was the great year of the tango, when a downright mania for the new fashion swept the dancing world. People arranged tango dinners, drank tango vermouth, ate tango sweets, smoked tango cigarettes, walked around in tango shoes and wore tango dresses. But the fashion disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.
That's why I'm downhearted
The history of the Finnish tango is completely different. The strange, exotic rhythm slowly absorbed the deep beat of Finnishness, became itself part of the Finnish essence. The writer Mika Waltari lost his heart to the tango, as a passage in his 1928 novel The Great Illusion reveals. "The tango is absolutely the most beautiful of dances- the exoticism of our lives finds expression in it, and there is music and passion in its slow swinging steps." However, it was only after the second world war that the Finnish tango found its own form. The war separated loved ones; longing, fear and hope were part of everyday life. Many of the tango songs written in those difficult days are still on the list of most popular evergreens. That's why I'm sad when I remember you now . plaintively sighs the singer of one of the immortal tangos.
The tango can be seen as reflecting Finnishness also at a meeting place between cultures. Pirjo Kukkonen, an academic who has studied the matter, identifies numerous borrowed elements in the Finnish tango, the sounds of faraway Argentina, a German march style and the romantic longing of Russia. "It is a product of cultural fusion," she says, "but it contains a Finnish dynamic and identity. Our tango lyrics are as Finnish as could be. Nostalgic, melancholic words suit this music. They tell of momentary joy, being forgotten, consolation and new hope in metaphors drawn from the cycle of nature. They also outline a strategy for surviving everyday life. The basic rhythm, h or o time, can be interpreted as reflecting inner life, perhaps even heartbeats."
International, urbane pop music drowned out the tango in the 1970s, at the same time as the flood of people from rural areas to cities was at its peak in Finland. Dance halls closed down in nearly every village, but the tango made a comeback the following decade and the halls reopened and were again filled with dancers of every age. The Finns could not, after all, learn to live without the tango.
Nothing but tango for five days and nights
An event that is certainly unique in the world has grown from love of the tango: a festival called the "Tango Market" that is held each year in the small town of Seinäjoki in western Finland. It attracted 18,000 visitors when it was first held in 1985, but no fewer than 1.6 million watched it one television. Every year since then, both the numbers flocking to Seinäjoki and those watching the tangos on the box have grown steadily: the 1998 festival drew 118,000 visitors to the town. Since the early years, international TV, radio and the press have been giving people in many parts of the world a sense of the intensity of Finnish tango mania.
The festival is five days of tango dancing from morning to evening. The people in Seinäjoki say dancing makes for a better festival than, say, running bulls through the streets, as is done in the Spanish city of Pamplona during the famous summer festival there. At least the tango dancers have never trampled anyone to death. The crowds in the streets only add to the warmth and excitement of the atmosphere.
Part of the tradition is the selection of a new "Tango King" and "Tango Queen" each year. The title guarantees a singer a big boost to his or her career. Many other tango-related contests likewise feature on the programme. One much-travelled visitor is said to have commented that the world now had two tango cities: Buenos Aires and Seinäjoki. There are certainly two tango countries. Argentina and Finland.
Not even the biggest cities are being spared as the tango wave sweeps the country. The list of major annual festivals in the capital now includes a four-day "City Tango" happening, which took place for the first time in late May 1999. A world championship contest was part of the fun and the whole event was a big hit with the media.