Maria Kalaniemi: Bellow songs with feeling

Read our feature interview with Maria Kalaniemi, a versatile, multiple-award-winning accordionist, who considers herself a soul musician. 

”My musical university was the radio”, Maria Kalaniemi recalls.

The accordionist speaks vividly, with a voice full of passion. She looks back on her bilingual Finnish-Swedish youth in Espoo, where she spent her evenings compiling songs she heard on the radio to cassette tapes.

”They were a mishmash of everything: Romanian folk music, rock tunes like Roadrunner by (rock band) Hurriganes, old Finnish accordion and schlager music… I loved it all!”

Kalaniemi didn’t care about what musical style or genre the songs represented. The soul and the feeling of the music were far more important things. And they are a force that has steered her way of making art ever since.

”When I was studying classical music in a music institute, I felt a bit weird because of my passionate relation to rock music. But actually versatility has been a real gift.”

A renaissance accordionist on four decades

”Gifted” is a word one can truly apply on Maria Kalaniemi. Her professional career started rather rapidly in 1983, when she won the first Golden Accordion competition and began her folk music studies at Sibelius Academy.

Now, 35 years later, she’s a doctor of music and a long term instrument pedagogue, who has performed with numerous bands, released nearly twenty records and played on many more. Kalaniemi has also collaborated with the best folk musicians in the North, such as the late accordion master Lars Hollmer and the key harp virtuoso Johan Hedin from Sweden, or the Finnish folk music pianist Timo Alakotila – to name a few.

Her latest merit was to be nominated as a member of the Royal Swedish Music Academy. This was thanks to Kalaniemi’s lifelong work of renewing the accordion on the both sides of the Gulf of Bothnia. She’s also been teaching at the Swedish academy for years.

Other Finnish members of the Academy include composer Kaija Saariaho and conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki. Kalaniemi is the first nominated Finnish musician who has her roots especially in folk music.

When I was studying classical music in a music institute, I felt a bit weird because of my passionate relation to rock music. But actually versatility has been a real gift.

The peculiar accordion

The accordion has a peculiar history in Finland. The instrument arrived to Finland in the mid-1800’s and in the beginning of the new century the common people embraced it as a primary accompanist for different festivities. On the other hand the accordion’s sound was considered too rough for the highbrow society, and it was for instance banned from churches for a while.

Despite this reputation one can almost consider the accordion as the founding instrument of Finnish popular culture. It was featured in countless popular recordings and films until the 1960’s, when its position was challenged by rock and roll music.

This led to a division in the tradition: on one hand the instrument got a new life in different classical music institutions, and Finland has educated several gifted art accordionists since the 1960’s. The popular tradition however started popping up in its own events, such as the Sata-Häme Soi festival and the Golden Accordion contest. Both aspects of the accordion have now lived in prosperity for decades and developed a set of different styles, rules and schools.

Combining two traditions

Maria Kalaniemi has her foot in both traditions. When she was nine, her Finnish-Swedish grandmother Astrid, who happened to be a part-time accordionist herself, took her to an instrument store and bought a five row. Astrid took her granddaughter to instrument classes for several years.

In addition to her grandmother Kalaniemi also thanks her teachers for keeping her eyes open and letting her motivation grow. 

”I’ve been very lucky to have all these great teachers. It’s thanks to their permissive and supportive spirit this became my profession. That attitude is something I want to pass on in my own teaching as well.” 

I saw the emotional reaction my family had when hearing Finnish schlager and accordion tunes, and that made a magical impression.

The joy of playing together was adopted from Espoo music institute.

”I got a chance to learn in a folk music study group led by a local folk band. This kind of teaching was something totally new at the time. I met new people, we had a great team spirit and we laughed and fooled around with music. It was great counterbalance to rehearsing my homework tunes alone.” 

After graduating from high school Kalaniemi applied for the folk music department at Sibelius Academy and got accepted. In the early 1980’s folk music was also something unheard-of at a music academy: Kalaniemi’s class was the first one.

”If there wouldn’t have been a folk music department, I would’ve most likely applied for the classical accordion instead”, she says.

Photo: Pentti Hokkanen

The singing, feeling accordion

Kalaniemi has become such a revered player not only because of her versatility, but for her original playing style. Her melismatic, ruminative playing is highly distinctive and flows onward like a gentle creek or a breeze in the trees.  It has been compared to the passionate vocal style of the Portuguese fado singing.

Kalaniemi herself calls her compositions ”bellow songs”. She makes them through ”painting sceneries of feeling.”

She returns to the idea of that the premise in making music is a feeling.

”It’s something I understood as a child already. I saw the emotional reaction my family had when hearing Finnish schlager and accordion tunes, and that made a magical impression. I came to realize that this is my soul music – the kind of tradition I will carry in my heart for the rest of my life.”

Kalaniemi has lent her soulful playing to several projects also this summer. She did a handful of shows with harmoniumist Eero Grundström, who teamed up with her last year to release the critically acclaimed album Svalan. Fiddler Marianne Maans is another old colleague, with whom Kalaniemi played in honor of their 30 years of collaborating. Her most recent project is MoD, a duo with singer-songwriter Désirée Saarela, who just released its debut record.

Maria Kalaniemi sounds as avid as ever when she talks about her latest and upcoming works. It’s not just the feeling, it’s also the curiosity to that keeps her going.

”It’s crucial for me as an artist to have the freedom to play and do whatever I want. My relation to tradition is loving and caring, but the point with tradition is that it can also be renewed. And that’s my goal: to embrace the diversity of music. To embrace the ability to play everything from roots music to schlager and avant-garde.”


Maria Kalaniemi & Eero Grundström: Svalan

(2017 Åkerö)