Interview with Markku Ounaskari
Review to Kuàra
A journey to the deepest musical roots of Finland: that’s the idea behind the new musical project of Finnish drummer Markku Ounaskari. Released by the prestigious label ECM, “Kuàra” is the recipient of 2010 Emma Awards, the Finnish equivalent of American Grammy Award as best jazz album of the year. An important acknowledgement achieved also thanks to the precious support of musicians such as pianist Samuli Mikkonen and Norwegian trumpeter Per Jørgensen. A fascinating and evocative musical adventure as told by the leader Ounaskari.
Jazz Convention: Let’s start with the meaning of the word that name the album: Kuàra.
Markku Ounaskari: Kuára is an Udmurtian word meaning sound.
JC: How come the idea of this journey back to the roots of Finnish music?
MO: Both Samuli and me, for many years have been interested in our folk music. I have also played quite a lot in different folk music projects. At the moment I play with Sinikka Langeland “Starflowers” project, also released for ECM, and I´m also collaborating with Swedish singer Lena Willemark. In general, I think that in European jazz the most important influence has been our different folk roots. Starting from 60´s it’s been a new way to find our own unique sound apart from American musicians. I find Karelian, Vepsian and Udmurtian music very familiar and close to me. We Finnish people are a mixture of Scandinavian and Slavic, eastern culture. For me this Slavic, very melancholic, but not depressive music, is very beautiful. Their simple melodies gives us a natural and inspirational base to improvise. And definitely we feel this music very deeply inside us.
JC: Among the pieces are Vepsian, Udmurtian and Karelian folk songs. Can you explain us where do this music come from historically and geographically?
MO: For Finnish people, Karelia has always been a very important source of looking for our cultural roots. It’s been the place to get inspiration from for many Finnish artists, from composer Jean Sibelius to painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Karelia and Vepsä are on the east border and they’re now, partly in Russian territory as well. Udmurtia is located much further east. It’s close to Ural mountains in Siberia. Udmurtian people are also our relative nation. The language they speak is very similar to ours. The music in these places has always been mainly vocal music based on poems and laments and it has a very unique folk sound.
JC: Which were the social or religious activities in which this music was played?
MO: The music has almost always had a religious purpose, pagan in this case. People prayed by singing and asking for a better future to their Gods. The pieces that we play are: a recruit song, two wedding songs, which are lament songs since the mother is loosing her daughter, and one lullaby.
JC: Which were the instruments originally related to this music?
MO: The typical instruments were kantele, a 5 string instrument, and a shaman drum. But mainly it was only vocal music.
JC: What kind of musical research did you do to accomplish this project and which have your sources been?
MO: Like I told earlier, me and Samuli have a long history with folk music. So, we have found this material during many years of research from early authentic recordings and from different archives and music libraries.
JC: The journey goes back until its Russians roots, underlined by the presence of a composition by Mironisitsky, a Russian liturgic composer and a Russian psalm. What’s the connection between Finnish and Russian music?
MO: Also this is due to the Slavic side of our culture. Saint Petersburg was very connected with Finnish people for centuries. We have been under Russian power for 100 years. A good example is my family roots: my father is half Russian. So, I have grown listening to Orthodox music and living the Orthodox culture as well.
JC: As a drummer, what’s the rhythmic aspect in this music that fascinated you most?
MO: Maybe its exactly the lack of a steady rhythm or beat. I´m very interested in finding more horizontal way to play. On the other hand, the typical rhythms, when they exist, are very often 5/8 or 7/8 odd meter beats, which are also very interesting.
JC: Playing the only harmonic instrument, the pianist Samuli Mikkonen has certainly played an important role in the arrangements. How has the process been developed from the original pieces?
MO: We have chosen all the pieces together with Samuli. The arrangements have also been done together. Of course, since Samuli has all the harmony in his hands, he uses the liberty to improvise with the harmony on the spot as well. But, also we wanted to have the tunes as open as possible. Basically we just use the beautiful melodies and then the rest, how we play it, who plays it, what happens before, what happens after, is very open. In the concert, we always play very different versions. I would say 90% of the music is totally improvised.
JC: Norwegian trumpeter Per Jørgensen played an important role in this album performing with suggestive vocalized notes on his instrument and evocative vocals. How decisive have the presence of this veteran musician been for the recording?
MO: Per is really a unique Master. We were really happy to have him with us. His focus to the music and living the moment is unbelievable. When we perform in a concert he really can get very deep into the music.
JC: ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher is well known for paying close attention to every musical details in his productions. What have his contribution to this project been in terms of musical directives or advices?
MO: I have worked with Manfred Eicher three times and it has always been a real privilege. He has absolutely an unbelievable sense of wholeness in the music. Sometimes he might point out some smaller detail that he would like to change and sometimes he just lets us find our way. And when it comes to make the sequence for the Cd, I think he is just magical.
JC: How do this Cd represent a step ahead in your music, compared to your previous works?
MO: I don’t know… I have never made very clear plans. I just try to do the musical idea that I have as well as possible, and not think if it is a step backward or forward. I think the most important thing is trying to find your own sound and personality inside you, and then just try to follow that.
JC: Projects in your next future?
MO: Now we are doing concerts with Kuára, mainly playing the music we have recorded. We have concerts in Europe and USA. Then we will start to plan for the next CD. I’m also playing in Sinikka Langeland´s new not yet released ECM Cd, and I am performing with her. This Autumn I will record for ECM again with Lars Anders Tomter and Sinikka Langeland. I´m also playing with Finnish piano player Iro Haarla, who just released her new CD for ECM, and we will make some concerts in Europe as well.