I was in Helsinki in December, at a time when the world’s attention on Finland could be boiled down to one word: raking. President Trump’s surreal, imbecilic reference to Finland’s fire prevention plan, thanks to “raking and cleaning,” triggered global sneers and jeers. Finns — with their cool, dry sense of humor — had a field day, sans rakes.
My trip was timed with my covering a fascinating new entry on the rich jazz festival scene across the Atlantic, the now six-year-old We Jazz Festival, prized for showcasing Finnish artists, among others. Its creative and logistically brave conceit: Each show during the eight-day spread takes place in a different venue or in newly invented venue variation.
Upon arrival, my jet lag was soothed by an outlandish concert by the fabulous and impish Finnish jazz maverick Mikko Innanen — a solo baritone sax set — in a large storage unit. We moved to the more “legit” quarters of the new, sonically remarkable G Livelab club, to the heady tune of the new-schooled piano trio Enemy. The next night, action moved to Suvilahti, the retooled industrial grounds that houses the major indie Flow Festival (with a head count of 84,000 this year) by summer’s virtually endless light. We Jazz held forth on several stages — featuring Dalindèo’s tribute to Krzysztof Komeda (Roman Polanski’s composer ally and Polish jazz pioneer), the dazzling young Moskus Trio from Norway and the rightly popular Finnish punk-jazz trio Mopo, featuring female baritone saxist Linda Fredriksson.
Because of its roving nature, We Jazz also makes for an auspicious introduction to the host city herself. Helsinki’s architectural landscape is modern-leaning, thanks in part to the bombing raids during WWII, a conflict which found them at first linked with the Nazis and then Russia and, later, drained of resources via reparations to the USSR, an uneasy neighbor and oppressor over the centuries. But this city at a veritable “end of the earth,” though cold and ever darker as winter descends, is magically resplendent in its own special ways.
Peaceful and meditative power spots, of recent vintage, include the must-see and must-feel modern entry to the all-important sauna culture, the Baltic-nuzzling Löyly, designed by Avanto Architects and opened in 2016. Here, in this “wood-cloaked” contemporary building, a couple of sweaty hours broken up by a dip in the frigid sea and the refreshment of the Finnish gin-based beverage known as a Long Drink does wonders for the body and soul. And don’t miss the Kamppi Chapel, aka the “silent church,” built by K2S Architects Ltd. in 2012, a remarkable womb-like oasis of calm in the harried midst of urban bustle.
For cozy kitsch, bask in the old-school Ekberg Café, but leave the laptop behind — there’s no more WiFi here than there was when it opened in 1852. For more up-to-date yet also charmingly retro kitsch, don’t miss the block partly owned by the mythic Finnish cinema heroes Aki and Mika Kaurismäki (The Man Without a Past, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Ariel, Matchstick Girl, last year’s beautiful refugee tale, The Other Side of Hope — supposedly Aki’s final film — and other glum-funny beauties).
The Finnish expats, somehow channeling Buster Keaton and Fassbinder among its cultural references and echoes, are national heroes, or antiheroes, depending on who you talk to, given that their darkly deadpanning comic Helsinki sagas don’t necessarily paint a flattering portrait of their home country. But much campy love is poured into the compound consisting of the Club Moscow, the Dubrovnik music club, the Corona pool hall, and the Andorra arthouse theater (site of a magical improvised live film performance/screening, by the Finnish trumpeter of note Verneri Pohjola and drummer Mika Kallio, to Perttu Saksa’s moving nature film Animal Image).
Visit fast, though — gentrification is coming to the block, forcing a move to whereabouts unknown. At a lunch, the subject of the classic Kaurismäki compound’s demise came up, but We Jazz founder Matti Nives sniffed, “It’s just nostalgia. Things have to change.” I asked, “So you’re not the sentimental type?” He grinned and said, “I’m sentimental about the future.”
During my visit, I wondered if I should broach the elephantine topic in the room — rake talk. But then, during a meet-and-greet reception before the long musical Saturday night/Sunday morning, I spoke, half-cheekily, with a woman about the art of raking. Riffing on the subject, which has become a ripe field for bemusement and satirical scorn — especially in California and Finland — she explained, with a very straight face, that in any given Finnish home, “There will be a liquor cabinet, then a rifle cabinet, then a rake cabinet, then shovels … and then a first aid cabinet.”
Suddenly, it was Finnish Rake Culture 101, from the deadpanning source.