It must be admitted that Finnish tango has hitherto not been regarded as a particularly contemporary genre of music. If you’ve ever seen a band perform traditional tango, humppa or jenkka, there’s a fairly good chance it was on a boat to Sweden played by a trio of bored musicians using electric instruments, as very old and/or drunk people shuffled around on the dance floor. In this case, the best things about the music – intense melancholy and bouncing rhythms – are removed, and replaced with severe alcoholism and boredom.

Happily enough, there is the possibility of hearing the songs more or less as they were played back in the heyday of Finnish popular music (1930s and 1940s). Vallilan Tango, “the old-fashioned dance orchestra for the new millennium,” is an ensemble based in eastern Helsinki. Their sound is entirely acoustic, eschewing electronic instruments in favour of more traditional ones.

“We play old Finnish dance music in a traditional manner,” says Antti Ala-Vuotunki, one of the founders of the group. There are six instruments – violin, clarinet, trumpet, accordion, tuba and drums, along with a vocalist. The sound is resolutely scratchy and raucous throughout their repertoire of 90 songs.

The singer himself, Hans Wessels, is actually Dutch, and he doesn’t speak Finnish. Well, not much, anyway. Nonetheless, he pulls off an impressively authentic performance considering he doesn’t understand what he’s singing. “The language of tango is rather archaic anyway,” he says, “it might sound a bit weird but I sing phonetically and don’t actually need to understand it.”

Sat 7 Nov
Autumn dance at Restaurant Koskenranta
Katariina Saksilaisen katu 9, Helsinki

It might not be the most obvious choice of a career for a Dutchman, though. “I came into it through Antti when they needed a singer and we thought it could be fun to have a foreigner sing in Finnish. In general it’s not like I listen to tango 24/7, but there’s a melancholy and a beauty in the music which appeals to me.”

Nick Barlow
Heli Sorjonen