Some folk ensembles are so steeped in tradition that their performances become a tiresome ethnographic slog. Other groups, in their eagerness to embrace a “fusion” of one kind or another, leave behind the elements—often it’s the odd and intricate rhythms—that made the music interesting in the first place.
The Polka Chicks, in their sparkling debut performance at the Cedar Cultural Center, charted a middle course, turbo-charging their fiddle-and-accordion material with lightning technique while suffusing it with a sense of fun that was further enhanced by sweet vocal harmonies and droll, self-depreciating on-stage patter.
I first heard the duo a few years ago at the Nisswa-Stämman and was immediately taken by their approach. Their talent and technique put many of the other festival performers in the shade, yet their happy-go-lucky melancholy on stage was perhaps more appealing yet. It seemed as if the duo (Kukka Lehto on the fiddle and Teija Niku on the accordion) were confidently engaged in an unending struggle to overcome their stage fright—and more broadly speaking, to establish their place in the world of music as two young female performers who had the talent, but also the Moxie, to thrive in that often unforgiving environment. Their music was sprightly and lovely and strange (and they were, too), but I began to wonder if I was in the presence of that famous and elusive Finnish quality of sisu.
Back when the Finns were battling the Russians during WWII, Time magazine defined sisu as “a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.” I think, though I know nothing of the Finnish language, that sisu also entails a degree of devil-may-care acceptance—a warm embrace of the wreck of human life, often accompanied by the warmth of aquavit. I would put sisu on the same spice rack as the Spanish duende, the French ennui, and the Italian sprezzatura, in the same way that cumin, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and thyme sit side by side on the shelf, though they have nothing to do with one another.
In any case, the Polka Chicks are far more charming than World War II. Yet there’s a hard-edged sadness to their music, too. They’ve been performing together since 2004. Among the traditional lyrics they chose to offer us are these:
When I was just a child,
My mother used to foretell, “A rambler and boys’ cheater you will be.”
I’ve shown her I need no one—my heart is buried in the forest,
and I’m happy as long as I’ve got my fiddle and a drop of liquor.
The evening was made more interesting by the addition of the talented local duo Kaivama. Fiddler Sara Pajunen told the audience, “I came from classical; Jonathan came from rock.” And that pretty much tells the story. The duo possesses almost none of the rooted Old World feeling of the Polka Chicks. In particular, Rundman’s exaggerated prancing and facial grimaces on guitar seem less suited to a Finnish folk performance than to a display of American air-guitar.
But that’s merely cosmetic. Song by song, Kaivama’s set was engaging. The opening ballad was haunting, and other tunes, if they seemed more “by-the-note,” were nevertheless entirely pleasant to soak up.
All the same, I was happy when the Polka Chicks returned for a second act.
“I feel stronger,” Kukka had said, seemingly ad lib, when Kaivama first joined them on stage. Perhaps she meant, “I feel LOUDER.” The expanded sound gave “legs” to the evening, though I’m sure many in the audience left the Cedar enthralled by the peculiarly haunting and energetic sound of the Polka Chicks themselves.