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The only Kimmo Pohjonen in the universe turns 50

Kimmo Pohjonen 50-vuotisjuhlakonsertissaan
Kimmo Pohjonen 50-vuotisjuhlakonsertissaan Kuva: Rajoitettu käyttöoikeus, Yle Kuvapalvelu: Karl-Mikael Björklid yle live: kimmo pohjonen special

The news tells us signs of life have been found on comet 67P by the Rosetta spacecraft. Maybe some element of the state, order and rhythm of space has attached itself to music, too. What does this have to do with Kimmo Pohjonen, you ask? Lots, to me at least. The cosmic storms that are his solo concerts could underscore the climactic scene of a sci-fi epic or a show at a planetarium. Pohjonen is a survivor, a Mad Max, tearing himself about on a black stage and armed with accordion and effects, which he uses to endlessly generate new sounds that climb up the walls like so many agent Smiths in Matrix.

And yet the roots of the man who seems to have discovered this universal musical language are deep in the soil of his native country. He was born in the village of Viiala on April 16th, 1964. His father played the harmonica and took his son with him to the Viiala harmonica club and a dance band he played in. There was a time, Pohjonen tells us, when he was ashamed of his instrument. No longer.

”When I started getting more serious about playing, I had to make the transition to classical music,” Pohjonen remembers. “It was the only choice in the 70s. I moved to Helsinki, attended a music-oriented high school and saw my future as a classical musician. I was in the process of applying to the soloist department of Sibelius Academy, but decided at the last minute to switch to the then new folk music department. I saw a matinee performance they put on and it totally changed the direction of my life.”

Academic studies have not stripped Kimmo Pohjonen of his street cred. He’s been seen mangling his accordion for rock bands like Ismo Alanko Säätiö. He’s been called an agitator for organizing counter-culture events like a recent performance with Romani musicians who play in the streets of Helsinki and are considered beggars.

According to Wikipedia the contexts in which Kimmo Pohjonen’s music has been heard include ”improvisation, rock, folk music, avant garde, classical music, as well as dance and media art”. Even though these environments are very different from each other, Pohjonen always plays in his own uncompromising style. He assembles a kind of laboratory that he uses to make different atoms collide with each other, giving birth to something new and exciting. As the music critic Samuli Tiikkaja said, writing for Helsingin Sanomat, the result is both “epic and hypnotic”.

One of Kimmo Pohjonen’s greatest achievements in the field of Finnish music has been his work in creating connections between different camps that never used to communicate with each other - folk musicians and rockers, classical musicians and jazz players and even music and sports. When the vision for a performance is clear and inspiring, no one will sit around wondering what camp someone belongs in. Everyone chips in for a shared lunch.

Yes – performance. That’s the key word when talking about Pohjonen. He doesn’t do gigs or concerts. He does performances that bring together theatrical light and sound design, wardrobe, makeup and hair, and a character whose gestural language contributes and a brings a new dimension and meaning to the music. Pohjonen’s style was originally created for a piece by multimedia artist Marita Liulia, called Manipulator. That’s where the skirt, vest and combat boots come from. When Pohjonen puts on his costume, he steps into the particle collider of the stage, sweaty and unrelenting. An illusion of a different reality is born.

From Kluster to earth engines

Kimmo Pohjonen started sketching out his unique approach to music when he was preparing for a solo concert in 1996. Together with sampler and percussion player Samuli Kosminen he started the game-changing duo Kluster. Saxophonist and jazz auteur Tapani Rinne produced the duos albums Kielo (1999) and Kluster (2002).

In 21st century Pohjonen surround sound has found new places to go in KTU, with Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn, both American progressive rock musician and former members of King Crimson. They blew away rock audiences with their live shows. As a composer of classical music, Pohjonen worked with Tapiola Sinfonietta on Kalmukki and with Kronos Quartet on Uniko.

His accomplishments as a musician have brought Kimmo Pohjonen a Pro Finlandia medal, three nominations at BBC Radio 3 Music Awards and two nominations for the Nordic Council’s music prize. His career is truly international and in 2014 alone, he’s been to the USA, Mexico, Portugal, France, Germany, Poland, Romania and Estonia. It’s hard to think of another accordion player of the same caliber in the world.

Kimmo Pohjosen aution saaren musiikkia

”About eight out of every ten shows I do are abroad,” Pohjonen says. ”I don’t do a lot of harmonica festivals. I usually play at events that focus on world music, electronic music, jazz or classical. I don’t see my own music fitting in any of these genres, though. I’ve been lucky in that I ended up fitting in everywhere instead of falling through the cracks.” Pohjonen has ensembles and projects of various sizes to offer promoters.

Kimmo Pohjonen’s 50th anniversary celebrations culminated in a show at Tampere Hall on 26.9.2014. The concert offered a dissection of his multifaceted artist profile, from solo folk musician to spectacle focal point. Friends from over the years who came and performed Arto Järvelä (Pinnin pojat), Heikki Laitinen (Murhaballadit), dancers Minna Tervamäki and Reijo Kela, Helsinki Nelson wrestlers and the Rämsö motorists with their agricultural machinery. Pohjonen’s daughters Saana and Inka performed alongside their proud father.

Soundbreaker (dir. Kimmo Koskela), a documentary film about Kimmo Pohjonen, was shown in 30 countries. Distribution is spurred on by an iTunes application built around the movie, with extra content ranging from music to photos and writing. Pohjonen’s longtime manager Phillip Page, who moved to Finland from Texas decades ago after hearing Finnish progressive rock and folk music, drove the development of the app.

The newest project is a coming together of two auteurs as pohjonen alanko. But what kinds of twists and turns can we expect from the Kimmo Pohjonen story? We look to the stars to divine the future. “I’m going to concentrate on what I’ve concentrated on for the last 20 years – making music that interests me. Not what I think the audience might like.”

Text: Mika Kauhanen

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