Little known fact: aside from providing a traditional ambience to Finnish wrestling matches, accordion music was utilised as a cover for wrestler’s farts, Kimmo Pohjonen explains. The idiosyncratic artist hails from Finland and is renowned for his exploration and development of his much loved instrument – the accordion. Due to hit our shores this March for the WOMAD festival, Kimmo speaks with me about breaking the rules, his unique music projects and the avant-garde accordion.
Like most beloved European stories, Kimmo’s musical journey began in a small village, in the town of Viiala. The son of a father who loved the accordion, Kimmo received his very own when he was just ten years old and began playing at the local accordion club with his father (only in Europe…). Fast forward six years, he began studying music more seriously in Helsinki, which is where Kimmo began to contemplate the idea of pursuing music professionally.
After studying at the renowned Sibelius Academy for ten years, Kimmo says he was still frustrated with classical music and was on a quest to “find himself”.
“I did a solo concert,” he explains. “It was then that I said to myself that I had to do something with the accordion. Because that’s the instrument I know best.” The limitations of the traditional folk instrument didn’t bother Kimmo as he says, “I played in bands and saw guitarists use improvisation. I then went to music shops to experiment with electronic accordions. That was when I thought, ‘Hey, this is something for me.’ It encouraged me to compose music, because I felt love with this instrument. That’s the way I’ve been the last 15 years.”
With his Mohawk, billowing pants and metallic vests, performing on stages bathed in coloured lights and a fog of dry ice, Kimmo smashes the conventional image of an accordion player. Pushing the sound to extremes, in his hands the instrument can sound like a pipe organ or a full orchestra. Since the ‘90s, Kimmo has created thick avant-garde electronica through conjuring unlikely sounds, creating loops and rhythmic patterns. While embracing modern ideals, having collaborated with sampling master Samuli Kosminen and Kronos Quartet to perform original compositions in the Uniko project, Kimmo also respects accordion folk traditions – even reviving bizarre Finnish wrestling showcases from the early 1900s, where accordion was included as a musical accompaniment for wrestling matches.
“It is a very special project,” he says of the wrestling matches. “I met an accordion player that used to play music for wrestlers. It was used to keep some flavour for the sport because it was considered a cool instrument and it encouraged more women to come and watch because there were dances after the matches. It was also meant to cover the farts when the wrestlers were squeezing each other too tightly. So basically, I have resurrected the wrestling matches again in my own way. We created a show with choreographed wrestling, which can sometimes look like dancing. It’s a great and interesting project and we are travelling all around the world, even to New York.”
Through it all, Kimmo enjoys freewheeling musical exploration, from King Crimson and Frank Zappa-tinged technical epics to a whole globe of ethnic influences, through folk, classical, black noise and disturbingly primeval sounds. The resulting music is a sonic theatre, punctuated by a visual image that evokes high Gothic drama. With his experimental music Kimmo particularly enjoys live performances, explaining that energy exchange is the main focus of the concert.
“I kind of want to somehow give freedom to my audiences,” he explains. “I want them to sit down and relax and go through motions with the music. Most people have a lifestyle that is busy and ritualistic, at my concerts I want them to just come and sit down and jump into the music. It’s one deep dive into somewhere, to liberate the brain and body. And ultimately, they can decide what they want to do, if it’s to simply sit, or get up and dance. It’s a great moment when I connect with my audience.”
When asked what his favourite musical achievement is, it’s no surprise that Kimmo struggles to answer. “It’s hard to pick one project,” he laughs. “I’ve done wrestlers, drummers, dancers, strings and more! I have done so much more than I would have ever expected. I am proud that I broke free from the limitations I was taught at school. That is a big one.”
This isn’t Kimmo’s first time performing in Australia having played some years ago at the Sydney Festival and then later embarking on an “interesting” tour in the Queensland outback across three farms. “I composed music with farmers,” he says. “This will be my third time coming to Australia. I’m excited because I know that when I come it’s so different every time, so it’s great to see something new.”
If it’s not clear already, don’t be fooled into thinking this accordion player is traditional. His shows can even get a little bit crazy, he warns. “Once I broke my ankle from spinning around so much,” he begins, “but I didn’t notice it at all when I fell down. I had so much adrenalin because performing really creates a special mood. You could walk through the wall and wouldn’t hurt yourself.”
BY TAMARA VOGL