By Wif Stenger, July 2009, updated August 2009
Extreme accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen presented his Earth Machine Music in Finland and Australia this summer. This epic work, performed with local farmers and their machinery, perfectly captures Pohjonen's musical spirit: improvisational, restless, brawny, quirky and always ready for a good laugh.
"Earth Machine Music is always a hilarious experience," Kimmo Pohjonen says. "I go to each town a few days in advance to rehearse with the locals. I have to get to know the farmers ahead of time, to gain their trust. It always amazes me how open-minded they are – and it's always fun."
He took the stage for Earth Machine Music at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in west-central Finland on July 16 with an ensemble that included several farmers and their tractors, as well as a live pig called Outi. He performed the piece again – complete with live and recorded farm sounds – at the Queensland Music Festival in Australia from July 25 to 31. He also appeared there on August 2 in a concert entitled The Big Finnish.
Another quintessential Pohjonen project is Accordion Wrestling, a playful reinvention of a forgotten Finnish tradition combining martial arts and music. Premiering next April, it also forms part of a multimedia extravaganza called Battle 2011, to be performed that year in Turku, southwestern Finland, as part of the city's European Capital of Culture programme.
Frequently called "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion", Pohjonen expands the realm of his music with wordless vocals and an artillery of electronics. Now he is bringing this tradition-laden instrument kicking and screaming into the 2010s.
Pohjonen's look is as startling as his sound. He often wears metal studs on his head and a leather skirt designed by Finnish artist Marita Liulia, what he calls "kind of an Asian Kalevala-influenced outfit," alluding to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.
"The visuals, including the lighting, are very important," he says. "You have to offer people more than just what's on the CD to make it worth coming to a concert."
Pohjonen stands with one kilted leg in the avant-garde concert hall and the other in the mud of rural life. Reached by phone in early July, he was chopping wood at a cabin in eastern Finland – between a recital with the Proton String Quartet in Portugal and shows in Russia and the Czech Republic with the power trio KTU (pronounced "K 2").
"Of course music is only one part of life," he says. "Being here in the forest and playing with my kids is totally different from touring. I have to have another life; my head can't take it otherwise."
Pohjonen grew up playing Finnish folk music, inspired by his father, "my first accordion hero! Then I got into Tex-Mex and Cajun players like Flaco Jiminez and Queen Ida, and then the great Argentinean bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla. I even went to Buenos Aires to learn how to play his tango nuevo – marvellous, radical stuff. I haven't listened to any accordion music for the last 15 years, though – have any good tips?"
Vestiges of his folky past still pop up now and then. "As an encore after our last KTU show in Russia, I played a traditional Finnish polka solo. It was amazing to see 1,000 people, these serious, heavy King Crimson dudes, all totally into it."
KTU has attracted the highest profile of his myriad projects in recent years, partly because his collaborators are members of prog-rock giant King Crimson.
"Those guys always call me a crazy bastard Finn," he says, "but then again they've been playing for years with Robert Fripp, who's not the easiest personality either. If they can work with him, they can work with anybody!"
The group's second album, Quiver, offers a natural hybrid of crunch, button-popping and art-rock. The disc is gradually being released in various countries, out this month in Spain and Portugal.
Another sign that Pohjonen has secured his place in the top echelon of the world's cross-genre musicians is his ongoing collaboration with the US-based Kronos Quartet.
"The album we recorded together in New York, Uniko, is now in post-production in Iceland with Björk's producer Valgeir Sigurdsson," he says. "The CD should be out in February and I'll play with the quartet in March at Carnegie Hall with percussionist Samuli Kosminen." The latter is Pohjonen's long-time partner in the duo Kluster and a sometime member of KTU.
Kluster, in turn, have collaborated on an album with performance artist Ville Walo (not to be confused with the star of Finnish love-metal band HIM). He and Pohjonen launch another venture this winter, inspired by a chance encounter.
"I was complaining that my accordion bellows were always breaking," recalls Pohjonen. "A guy who made them up in Lapland contacted me. He said, ‘Send me your instrument and I'll put a decent one on it.' He did – an extra-long, strong one that lasted more than two years. So I ordered more, and we became good friends.
"He had a barn full of hundreds of old bellows, from the 1920s up to the present day. He was thinking of burning them, but I asked him to give them to me. He said OK – and then he passed away last year. I realised that these old bellows would be perfect for a duo project with Ville. So we'll premiere that in Hämeenlinna [in southern Finland] in December."
Before that, on August 27, Pohjonen unveiled yet another new band at the Viapori Jazz Festival on Helsinki's Suomenlinna fortress island: a trio called K3.
Pohjonen's array of projects seems dizzying, but he takes it all calmly. Though he turned 45 in August, he plays and tours with the ferocity of someone half that age. And despite his myriad collaborators, the person that goads him into inventing and tackling the biggest challenges is Kimmo Pohjonen himself.
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