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August 5, 2006

Finland's Rajaton needs only voices

Georgia Straight (Canada):

Rajaton’s Jussi Chydenius used to be on the Helsinki city council, but he didn’t like it very much. “The only reason why I wanted to get involved with politics is because I have lived my whole life here, and I really like this city,” he explains, in lightly accented English, from his home in the Finnish capital. “I had this really naive thought that I would like to try to help things around here, not knowing anything about politics. So I was, of course, quite shocked when I was elected, and then I had to start from zero and learn how things worked. It’s not like people ask you, ‘How would you like this to be done?’ and then it’s done.”

He laughs, and adds that once his term of office was over he was appointed to Helsinki’s cultural board, a position that’s much more in keeping with his artistic tendencies. “It’s a field that I know something about,” he says. “And there, I think it’s easier to make a difference.”

In or out of office, Chydenius needn’t worry: he’s already made a difference, simply by convening the first great a cappella band of the 21st century. Vocal ensembles, although common in the classical world, are an oddity in pop; most are cutesy novelty acts with little musical substance. But this Finnish sextet combines exquisite artistry with the ability to function equally well in both popular and serious music—which is all the more surprising when you consider that Chydenius, who writes a good part of Rajaton’s material, has no formal training in composition or arranging.

“I used to play drums in a rock band, but because I didn’t know how to play guitar, I couldn’t write for that group,” he notes. “I wanted to write music, but the only instrument I knew other than drums was choral music, and so I just started to write these pieces for voice. And it was really helpful for me that this group was formed, because I had the opportunity to make all the mistakes that I was going to make because I didn’t have any training. I could try something, and if it didn’t work, I could just do it again until it did.”

Chydenius allows that Rajaton enjoyed some early success because the aforementioned rock band, Don Huonot, was one of Finland’s most accomplished. “I was fairly well known here, and also Essi [Wuorela], our first soprano, she had a solo career in the mid-’90s, so she was also quite well known,” he explains. “So when we first started, people were curious what this was about. But it was also helpful that we were the first group doing what we did—and in the past three years there have been other vocal groups that have been really successful too, so you could say that we started something here in Finland.”

Whether the Baltic craze for unaccompanied singing will ever catch on in North America is another matter. But even if it doesn’t, listeners (at Christ Church Cathedral on Monday and Tuesday [August 7 and 8] at 5 p.m., plus a free 1 p.m. concert at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Tuesday [August 8]) will still find much to enjoy in Rajaton’s crystalline harmonies, inventive beat-boxing, and solid bass lines—so much that they’ll never notice the absence of “real” instruments. In fact, Chydenius notes that the members of Rajaton have pretty much given up playing drums, piano, guitar, and other such prosaic devices. “I’m not sure if it’s because our music is so fulfilling,” he concedes modestly, “but it sure takes up our time.”

Posted by acapnews at August 5, 2006 12:08 AM