Pioneers: JPP’s forty years of sizzling folk

Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honours and celebrates the PIONEERS of Finnish music export. These are the bands, artists and musicians who went out to the world with little help and knowledge of how the international music business works – and still managed to find audiences for their magnificent art. In the 10th and final episode of the series, we take our hats off to folk group JPP (Järvelän Pikkupelimannit), who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.

Think Nordic fiddle music is sleepy or screechy? Maybe you haven’t heard JPP then. Along with an array of Finnish folk styles, this six-man group plays waltzes as silkily as a Viennese chamber orchestra, tangos as passionately as a Buenos Aires bar band and polkas with Bohemian flair – all with a distinctive edge of their own.

The group’s sound was born in Kaustinen, western Finland’s folk hotbed, in 1982. Their update of the local pelimanni folk music is livelier than the spelmansmusik of neighbouring Sweden and Norway, explains co-founder Arto Järvelä.

“Our pelimanni sound is more accented and syncopated,” he says.

“The tango has brought in a more singing type of sound, and jazz more swing, naturally.”

“The bowings are more rhythmic and syncopated than in the Scandinavian countries,” says the band’s other main composer and arranger, Timo Alakotila. He backs up the four-fiddle front line by playing the harmonium, a hand-pumped organ that has been a distinctive element in Finnish folk since the 19th century.

Over four decades, the band has honed its unique sound through many tours of Europe and North America and released more than a dozen albums. These include collaborations with the Swedish group Väsen and singers Pentti Rasinkangas and Mollie O’Brien, whom they met the latter on one of their frequent US tours. Another US tour spawned the 2011 double album Live in Duluth, recorded in Minnesota.

JPP l-r: Timo Myllykangas, Tommi Pyykönen, Esko Järvelä, Timo Alakotila, Antti Järvelä, Arto Järvelä, Mauno Järvelä, Matti Mäkelä. Photo from Skywire sessions 2015 by Mats Vuorenjuuri

It’s a family affair

The group started as an offshoot of an established folk group, Järvelän Pelimannit, named after the Järvelä clan’s home village near Kaustinen. Some younger members of the ensemble formed a smaller outfit to accompany a folkdance group on a tour of Germany, and were quickly dubbed Järvelän pikkupelimannit, or roughly “the Little Folk Musicians of Järvelä”.

“We were young, but not small anymore!” says Järvelä with a grin. “Järvelän Pelimannit mostly plays in the old village tradition but we started to expand our repertoire to include other parts of Finland and to compose original tunes for three fiddles, harmonium and bass.”

Most of the composing and arranging is by the two founding members, Alakotila and Järvelä, along with the latter’s uncle Mauno Järvelä, who is descended from a long line of famous fiddlers.

Usually on tours we have 3-5 fiddles plus harmonium and bass. Jarmo and Juha are farmers so they have to stay home sometimes – Timo Alakotila, JPP

The group’s 1986 debut was credited to Järvelän pikkupelimannit and Mauno Järvelä and also featured other family members, who have come and gone over the years. These include Mauno’s son Esko Järvelä – who is just a year older than the band – has also often played with the band alongside his other groups such as Frigg. Two other relatives, Antti and Jouni Järvelä, have also reinforced the band on fiddle and bass, with Timo Myllykangas and Janne Virkkala also manning the bass for many years.

The fiddle line has mostly remained the same since 1988, usually including the brothers Jarmo and Juha Varila.

“Usually on tours we have 3-5 fiddles plus harmonium and bass. Jarmo and Juha are farmers so they have to stay home sometimes, so we’ve also had Matti Mäkelä and Tommi Pyykönen on fiddles. They’ve been like actual members of band for more than 30 years,” says Alakotila, who had also switched his harmonium for piano on some projects.

Growing into swing and tango

In 1988, the group shortened their name to JPP for their second album and began touring abroad regularly.

“By then I was studying at the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory and Arto was studying at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department, so our chords and harmony lines started to develop. Then the swing and tango influences came in as well, and even solos rather than just the traditional unison playing,” says Alakotila.

“Those styles have expanded our variety a lot, and nowadays they play a quite big role in JPP,” says Alakotila. “Our sound combines everything from trad tunes and tangos to swing tunes, and they all fit very well into the same concert.”

Järvelä and Alakotila now both teach in the folk department of the Sibelius Academy and are active with many other musical projects. Yet they still play with JPP at least during the summer festival season.

Our sound combines everything from trad tunes and tangos to swing tunes, and they all fit very well into the same concert – Timo Alakotila, JPP

This past July, JPP played a 40th anniversary gala at the Kaustinen Folk Festival – continuing an unbroken streak of appearing at their home festival every year since 1982.

After late-summer shows in Sweden, the group next plays the Kaamospelit Festival in Vantaa in November, followed next year by the Halkær Folk & Roots Festival in Denmark – as well as of course Kaustinen.

What, then, explains the enduring appeal of JPP over four decades?

The band has been able to keep its music fresh, suggests Alakotila, by “always finding new areas and genres to get us through, and not being forced to do tours every year. Everything happens naturally,” he says.

“We haven’t planned much; everything has mostly happened on its own,” agrees Arto Järvelä. “Over the years we’ve added more fiddle voicings to the sound, as well as more modern chord progressions.”

Symphony orchestras and bebop

In the 90s the band branched out with an ambitious five-movement suite for JPP and big band, composed by Alakotila, and also recorded an acclaimed album with the expanded JPP String Orchestra, including four women violinists.

“That sound was big and amazing!” says Alakotila. In 2004, the group played with an even more massive sound as they performed his commissioned work Moraine with the BBC Concert Orchestra at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

We’re open to everything. We’ll see if we make any more recordings, hopefully a 50th anniversary release if nothing else! – Arto Järvelä, JPP

More recently JPP have played jazz arrangements with vibraphonist Panu Savolainen and his trio Herd, including a 2020 tribute to saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker, marking his centennial with bebop and blues-infused concerts with an expanded front line of five fiddlers (see the video embedded above).

“That might be something we work on more in the future,” says Järvelä. “We’re open to everything. We’ll see if we make any more recordings, hopefully a 50th anniversary release if nothing else!”

Amateur live footage of JPP shot during Halkær Festival in Denmark 2013 (YouTube) with Tommi Pyykönen (violin), Arto Järvelä (violin), Matti Mäkelä (violin), Mauno Järvelä (violin), Timo Alakotila (harmonium) and Antti Järvelä (acoustic bass).