Funk music continues to grow in stature in Finland.

Politicians never just listen to music for music’s sake. The medium is the message. From previous glances at Barack Obama’s iPad, it is known that he is a fan of funk music. In February 2012, when his re-election campaign Spotify playlist was unveiled, it included Keep Reachin’ Up, a track by the Finnish funk band Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators.

When one thinks of funk music, sub-Saharan Africa, New Orleans, Little Richard, Tower of Power, the first albums from The Commodores, or James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul”, are more likely to come to mind before Finland. However, Finnish musicians, like Juhani Aaltonen and Edward Vesala of Soulset fame were playing funk music as early as the 1950s. But as Tuomo Prättälä, one of the country’s leading vocalist and keyboard players, tells, “It wasn’t until bands like Eternal Erection came along in the 90s that funk in Finland got its capital F.” From that point on, the rest, as they say, is history.

Funk is not a music genre that is easy to categorise. It originated in the late 1960s when African-American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable form of music from a mixture of soul music, jazz and R&B. They became known for strong rhythmic grooves of electronic bass and drums and their bands often featured a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets and a trombone. In the US at least their image was distinctive, too: giant sideburns, collars and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters and Scamps. It was evident that something different than what had gone before was taking shape.

Although Finnish musicians were playing funk music in the 1950s, and listening to the likes of Herbie Hancock throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, there wasn’t really a big funk scene in Finland at that time; more disparate styles without a real distinctive shape. One could hear elements of the New Orleans influenced funk music in the early work of the progressive rock bands WIGWAM and Tasavallan Presidentti, who formed at the end of the 1960s and on TV in the early 1970s – the theme tune to Uuno Turhapuro, the popular series of Finnish comedy films had an obvious funk groove to it. In 1968 the formation of Soulset by Edward Vesala and Seppo Paakkunainen, was perhaps the earliest attempt to plant a distinctive Finnish flag on the funk music map. Although Soulset split in 1969, after releasing only two albums and three singles and EPs, they have continued to have an influence on the Finnish funk music scene. Ex member Juhani Aaltonen has gone on to play with UMO, who are currently the only professional orchestra in Finland specialising in jazz and new rhythm-oriented music.

Local outfit UMO have played an important role in the formation of Finnish funk.

The funky ‘90s and the birth of Funky Elephant Festival

In the early 1990s Finland was in an economic recession, but this didn’t stop bands like the Cool Sheiks from cutting their distinctive jazz grooves into a growing funk music scene. In 1991 the Cool Sheiks released their self-titled album and later collaborated with Damn the Band, the legendary Finnish hip-hop act who are believed to have released the first English hip-hop record in Finland. The Cool Sheiks release two more significant albums, Serve Cool in 1995 and Sheik Territory in 2001. In between those dates, in1999, they were voted “Band of the Year” at the first ever Funky Awards.

But if there is one band that is most associated with shaping and branding Finnish funk then it has to be Eternal Erection. Thanks to front man Sam “Rick Lover” Huber the band have become known for their energetic live gigs. Their “Finnish Forest Funk” music has dazzled audiences across the globe and even caught the attention of Conan O’Brien. It is a fusion of Afro-American soul and funk, jazz, Latin and techno. Eternal Erection have performed as a warm up band for the famous George Clinton, the principal architect of P-Funk, and shared a stage with big names including Lauri Ylönen from The Rasmus, Mike Monroe of Hanoi Rocks and Marjo Leinonen. Other important artists include Veeti & Elastic Family and Sami Saari, whose band is most associated with the ‘Suomi soul movement.’ According to Tuomo Prättälä, “This had a real Finnish sounding groove that brought the music to everyone and paved the way for other bands to grow.”

There were also a number of clubs that played funk music in the early ‘90s. These included Mokambo, Victor’s, Soda, Kerma and Nylon that provided the space for people to dance to international funk, soul, jazz and all sorts of rhythm. Sami Mannerheimo is also known as DJ Magic Sam, a “self-confessed music freak” who helped to establish Funky Amigos ry, the organisers of the Funky Elephant Festival, Funky Awards, Elephantasy and other funky music events. As the music director at Victor’s, he was inspired by bands like Heads & Bodies who performed there; he made it his business to play a wider variety of music on Friday and Saturday nights. Thursdays were “Super Bad Soul Club Night” with DJ Elukka. Other DJs associated with Victor’s included Njassa, Teo and Sami Sallantaus. When Nylon changed management in the mid-1990s and started to play more techno and house music, the Funky Elephant Festival had already started, primarily as means to keep socking funk music to those who appreciated it.

Mannerheimo and his friend Bruno Maximus, the Finnish surrealist artist, took the lead and contacted Juhani Merimaa the owner of Tavastia. The Funky Elephant Festival got off to a great start in 1994 in Helsinki’s legendary music venue with Ma Bakers Soul Factory, Paperhands, DJ Magic Sam and many others. With the exception of 1997, the festival has run every year since then and attracted many world class artists including the funk soul legend Roy Ayers and Sharon Jones & the Dap-kings. This year Martha High, of James Brown fame will grace the stage with the British band Speedometer.

Who is keeping Finland funky?

There are a number of prominent bands and musicians who are keeping Finland firmly on the funk map. Many of the younger funksters may not know about the bands and DJs who first played that music, but they have heard of Tuomo Prättälä. He is one of Finland most talented singer and keyboard players known for working with several groups and artists, including Finnish rapper Paleface. He has also performed at the Funky Elephant Festival both with his band Q-Continuum and as a solo artist. In 2007 his album My Thing was released to critical acclaim.

However, not only is Prättälä excited about his new collaboration with UMO – they will play a series of concerts in April 2013 – but he is also enthused about the future of Finnish funk music. “It’s looking good now, the younger ones coming up have been brought up on hip-hop and R&B and it seems so natural to them,” he observes. “The quality of material is also better now and it can be taken anywhere in the world. The better days are now in front of the scene.”

Prättälä is himself a huge inspiration for the newer generation of artists that he speaks of. These include Jo Stance, whose music is described as “soulful to the bone and with just the right amount of roughness around the edges” on her website. She has played both Flow Festival and Funky Elephant.

Those who are not playing funk music per se continue to be influenced by it. This is the case for many Finnish rappers, hip-hop and soul artists including Super Janne, Hannibal, ASA, Koivuniemen Herrat, Ruudolf the Natural and Paleface. When listening to Esteettinen by Finnish rap duo UG/OD, one can hear a sample from “Janet”, the famous track from the American soul and funk band The Commodores.

When imagining President Obama dancing around the Oval Office, listening to Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, one would like to think that he was sending the following message to the future funk musicians of Finland: Keep Reachin’ Up.

Gareth Rice
PHOTOS: tuomomusic.com, Stefan Bremer