A R T I S T S P O T L I G H T
Johanna Juhola’s work to date has revolutionized our common perception of the accordion as a musical instrument. Her peers have named her an accordion superhero, a pearl of world music and a daring reinventor of tango music as we know it. Her highly original output and collaborative work with top names from the classical, jazz and electronic music scene has sealed her reputation as a groundbreaking and genre-transcending visionary.
Johanna is well-known on the Finnish music scene through her influential involvement with bands such as Tango-orkesteri Unto, Las Chicas del Tango, Troka and Spontaani Vire, duo collaborations with Timo Alakotila, Pekka Kuusisto and Milla Viljamaa, music for theatre, circus, film and television as well as at the helm of her own projects, she maintains an impressively busy work schedule; an indefatigable explorer of her instrument's potential.
Q: Dancing to Finnish folk music first introduced you to the accordion. How old were you and what drew you to playing the instrument?
JJ: Finnish folk dance was my hobby since I was 3 years old. We always had live accordion music in the rehearsals and I thought that the accordion was a very exciting mechanical machine with the moving bellows and buttons. I started on piano at the age of six and I got my first accordion when I was 9. I studied classical music in music school for many years and only later was drawn back to folk music again. When I was a teenager I was inspired by composer Timo Alakotila and musician Maria Kalaniemi and many other folk music bands that were considered new and innovative at that time.
Q: How would you describe Finnish Folk music?
JJ: There are many different kinds of Finnish folk music. Right now in the Finnish folk music scene, there is both looking back to archives and old melodies as well as combining folk music with other music styles and composing new music. As an instrumentalist I’m most familiar with instrumental dance-type folk music; meaning waltz, schottis, polska, polka, jenkka, menuetti etc. Typical instruments for this kind of music used to be fiddles, harmonium, kantele, clarinet, double bass and accordion and nowadays guitar, mandolin, piano, saxophone or any other instrument. The most successful Finnish folk music artists are unique and finding their own way to use traditional elements in their music.
Q: Is there a traditional Finnish style of accordion?
JJ: In Finland we use both diatonic accordions, chromatic 5-row and piano accordions with free and standard bass. Many ”diatonic” accordionists have custom accordions specially made for them with 2, 3 or 5 rows and they have the chromatic notes on the extra row as well as extra chords on the bass side.
I guess until the 80s free bass was not used in folk music, but Maria Kalaniemi started using it and after that it has been common to use both free and standard bass in folk music. Free bass is used more by educated folk musicians and standard bass is popular amongst amateur accordionists. I play mostly free bass in my own compositions. My accordions are custom made instruments by Pigini. I have also played diatonic accordions, because that’s part of folk music accordionists education in The Art University / Sibelius Academy.
Q: You just released a new album with pianist Timo Alakotila called Amicum. The album features compositions by you and Alakotila that are inspired by tango and tinged with folk music. What is your composition process like?
JJ: I like to compose based on stories, images or ambiences I imagine in my head. I’m a very visual person and images help me to create music. It’s a bit like composing for a film or theatre piece that doesn’t exist, but in the end, everything happens on the terms of the music. When I was younger, I used to compose based on folk music rhythm types, but using images and stories as a source of compositional inspiration lead me to compose more freely, ignoring certain rhythm types. Nowadays I like combine these two things and I enjoy composing for example Schottish rhythm-type so that it will become some kind of short story and hopefully create some images in the listeners mind.
I mostly compose by playing accordion, sometimes I have piano or harmonium as starting point but anyway, I like to compose by playing and improvising.
Q: How do you approach playing tango music on the free bass accordion? Are there specific registers, articulations, split melodies on the right and left hand that you use in your arrangements?
JJ: I use both Argentinian and Finnish tango as an example when arranging tango for accordion. The bandoneon register refers to the Argentine tango and the musette register to the Finnish tango. I also take influences from both tango cultures for the melodic decoration and phrasing. The unison on the treble and bass sides is more reminiscent of Argentinian tango. My background in classical and folk music is also part of my tango playing. I believe I am so much at home in the world of tango that there is no need to stick strictly to its stylistic features, but can freely mix influences and have fun musically in this way. Improvising and reacting to Timo's playing also defines my playing style on the Amicum album.
Q: I notice that you have a MIDI system on one of your instruments, do you use MIDI in your compositions or performances?
JJ: I’m using midi for playing samples or different synth sounds combined with acoustic accordion sound. Right now I’m using midi in concerts with Johanna Juhola Trio. It’s a small band and using effects, samples and synths makes it sound bigger. I am particularly interested in bringing ”storytelling" to music through different sounds and samples.
Q: Do you have any practice routines or rituals?
JJ: I'm always rehearsing for something, whether it's a performance, a recording or a new repertoire. Since I mainly play my own music or music that I arrange for myself, much of the practice is actually creating or arranging music, and the technical practice happens sort of on the side.
Q: Who are 3 musicians you recommend we listen to?
JJ: Right now we are listening to accordionists Teija Niku: Momentarily and Tuulikki Bartosik: Playscapes. Their music is wonderfully peaceful and evocative of landscapes and images. Singer Aili Järvelä is an incredible singer-songwriter and her new album Älä pelkää (Don't be afraid) has just been released. The songs are in Finnish, but I'm sure the emotions will still be conveyed.
Q: What is the best piece of advice that you've received about playing the music/accordion?
JJ: Maria Kalaniemi has said that the bellows is the soul of the accordion. Through her I have learned detailed, melodic, lyrical use of the bellows.
Q: Anything else you'd like our readers to know?
JJ: Currently in progress:
I've just returned home from the Shetland Folk Festival, where I performed with Johanna Juhola Trio and Lena Jonsson & Johanna Juhola Duo. My next solo album is currently in post-production and will be released in November. I´m also composing music for two different stage works, one combining poetry and music and the other a dance piece.