Examining and refreshing gender roles

The global rise of feminism is evident on today’s folk music scene as well. Journalist Tove Djupsjöbacka reminds us that the goal is to strive for equality for all genders.

Tove Djupsjöbacka

With the rise of feminism being one of the central cultural phenomena of our times, the status of women has been a topic of increasing discussion in music as well. The uneven distribution of male and female performers, for example, has been discussed at festivals and at events such as the international world music export event WOMEX. In Finland, there has been a strong trend to publicly address gender inequality through art.

One of the most significant cultural achievements of 2018 has to be credited to Amanda Kauranne and her working group. Together, they produced a series of four feminist folk music concerts and one of them, titled Pornoa [Porn], will be performed at this year’s Etno-Espa. The concerts sought to examine different taboos and to provoke discussion through daring art. The group studied historical materials and reflected on topics such as the female aggression and sexuality. Many traditional topics are still eerily current in today’s world. Hearing a song that lists miscarriage-inducing herbs, one cannot help thinking about the current push to tighten abortion legislation in Western countries.

For Kauranne, one of the initial triggers that started the whole project was the list of master folk musicians. The title of master musician, awarded each year the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, is one of the highest recognitions that can be received by a folk musician in Finland. The titles have been awarded since 1970 and up until today, just 13 out of 145 titles have gone to women – out of these, five for singers and the rest for instrumentalists.

Singing has traditionally been the most visible form of women’s music making. Instruments have often been easier for men to pick up in agrarian societies where women have been fully occupied looking after their children as well as the entire household. Even some of our singing tradition has been falsely credited to men – women’s significance in our runo singing tradition has often been intentionally ignored.

However, our current era of contemporary folk music is ruled by strong female singers. Female vocalists can be found at Etno-Espa performing in several groups, such as Okra Playground, Hertta, Slack Bird, VIMMA, Aija Puurtinen & Brooklyn Ensemble, Tintura, Kaminá and Áššu. The female duo Zäpämmät, which will perform at the end of the festival, also carries a message about women’s and girls’ stories and rights.

Female instrumentalists have had significantly fewer role models to look up to, especially in the case of certain instruments. Our high-profile female instrumentalists such as accordionists Maria Kalaniemi, Johanna Juhola and this year’s Etno-Espa performer Teija Niku, or bassist Sara Puljula have been important role models for many. Young people growing up in the 2010s, however, are fortunate in being able to see female musicians playing instruments such as violin, harmonium, saxophone, bass or percussion.

While feminism is on the rise in contemporary folk music, we also have to remind ourselves that the goal is not to strengthen the status of women alone. All genders can use feminism to liberate themselves of certain norms or to develop their own role into a more multidimensional direction.

The scene is slowly starting to witness more examinations of the role of men as well, as seen in the collaboration of the ensemble Sväng and the Finnish male choir flagship, YL Male Voice Choir, earlier this year.

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Etno-Espa’s top picks

VPPJ! Pornoa 4 August at 4 pm
Zäpämmät 13 August at 4 pm