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Growing up in Helsinki in the '70s and '80s: Sir Spliff Richard
by Juliette Roques
2008-04-04 09:16:44
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It is a cold winter evening that’s really still afternoon on the day that we set out on our first cultural tour of Helsinki. The mission is simple enough, yet, perhaps complicated in its execution. Show us a place we can go to, a place that you like, so we can begin to get a feel for the city. We, that is all the people new here, Finnish or foreign, speaking Finnish to varying degrees, knowing Finland for a variety of reasons The place can be touristy, it can be remote or it can be a bench in the park, a bend by the road, as long as it is meaningful, as long as it signifies some connection between you and the city to yourself or to others.

mikko_hentunen_400Mikko Hentunen, a.k.a. Sir Spliff Richard, has chosen Vanha Markkai in Vantaa, which, according to Hentunen ‘along with Espoo, Helsinki and Kauniainan should be united to the Greater Helsinki area anyway’ as ‘the four cities are using the same infrastructure.’ True to statement, Vantaa is easily reached by train, though we, the photographer and I decide to go there by car, taking in some sights along the way.

The place not only ‘still serves cheap beer’ as Hentunen assures us but also displays people of all shapes and sizes and walks of life. One look inside immediately defies the common notion of a Finnish nation peopled with healthy, strapping sauna-going individuals held abroad. The Punjabi owner behind the bar as much a stranger to the Finnish stereotype as African music in the concept of Finnish music, more commonly associated with Goth and metal. Yet both are true for Hentunen, who while playing guitar for Mad Ice, an African musician, whose MySpace profile defines his music as Afrobeat, is working on his fourth self-produced album, which he promises will be soft-jazz.

Known to the public as Sir Spliff, a name he has chosen himself, Hentunen has self-produced three previous albums, The Artist Known As Spliff Richard (1998), Spliff Richard (2001) and Soft In The Middle (2005) available on Red Balloon Records, which Hentunen refers to as his middle-age thing; an album which showcases his love for country and jazz and brings to mind a New Orleans bar where musicians and customers alike reminisce, bask in the glow of memories long gone, which is especially true when listening to the slow sounds of Nowhere Bound, with its sad longing lyrics and gentle country twang in its melody, as far removed from the tundra of Finland as the Punjabi owner behind the bar at Vanha Markkai, where Hentunen suggests we meet.

Having grown up in these parts, other than the music coming from the speakers at Vanha Markkai (more reminiscent of 80s soft pop than anything else) this, to Hentunen is home and in many ways mirrors his personality, a place without any pretense, displaying, a great versatility, where the booze is cheap and the conversation flows easily and lightly in a relaxed atmosphere, where you can ask any question under the sun and not be laughed at because of it. And where, during the course of our interview, a middle-aged man approaches our photographer asking her if she could take some pictures of him and his girlfriend for a small recompense.

Hentunen is no stranger to music or the working class environment having grown up in both. With three self-produced albums under his belt and a fourth on the way, playing for Mad Ice and taking care of his newborn son is keeping him on his toes, which is just how he likes things. A self-professed Alice Cooper fan, he is no stranger to the effect music can have on the human psyche, and is thrilled to state that his newborn son ‘already has the fingers of a bona fide guitar player.

‘Where we grew up, was just a normal working class environment,’ he explains, reminiscing about a childhood spent in the 70s when music was everything and development as was known in the States, was a foreign concept. ‘The first burger place came here in 1979,’ Hentunen states, ‘before that, there was nothing. Music was what kept us busy and interested.’

Hentunen started getting serious about music at the age of 6, a time which coincided with his move back to Finland from Sweden, where his parents had migrated for work. Being a budding musician in the later half of the mid-70s, came down to what was played on the radio and your parents as well as their friends, before moving on to the music of your peers. Between Elvis Presley, Paul Simon and his dad’s best friend, an avid jazz fan, who introduced him to Count Basie, music he still appreciates and listens to today, ‘a young boy’s musical conscious was quickly formed for the future’.

Though both parents were supportive, the environment did its own in nourishing a budding musician’s interest and development. Graduating from the Glockenspiel to guitar, Hentunen also credits his teachers at his elementary school in Hakunila with nourishing and encouraging what he has become today. Hentunen describes his childhood neighborhood as ‘one of the many suburbs for workers from the countryside, one hilltop with 10,000 people and one pub, Hideaway,’ adding that the pub in question was much like Vanha Markka, no frills, no pretense and a lot of music. His comment, perhaps fueled by the atmosphere in the corner booth we have claimed for ourselves, and the Punjabi owner doubling as bartender for the afternoon, brings to mind biographies of musicians growing up in Britain during the sixties and seventies, music breaking up the monotony of an ever-pervading grayness.

By second and third grade Hentunen, encouraged by his teacher, was strumming away on a guitar, an older kid acting as mentor by teaching him some chords. Yet the person who really turned things around for the young boy was Nikke Karpin, a teacher who not only encouraged musical experimentation by having a synthesizer in the classroom but also got his students used to performing by putting on recitals twice a year. Hentunen and his classmates’ active participation ensured a ‘feeling for performance throughout grades 3-7.’

There were also church concerts where Hentunen one day discovered something perhaps more important than God. Now stretching his musical knowledge to violin, the young Hentunen, while playing Mozart, ‘forgot a theme’ and rather than panicking and running off the stage, decided to use his imagination - a move, which led him to the realization of, "I can improvise." Though he is quick to state that this is a retrospective thought and didn’t manifest itself in so many words back then, the realization spurned him on to new action, trying out different avenues, which eventually led to his present-day career.

Some instruments however turned out to be more acceptable than others for a young boy as Hentunen was soon to find out, His peers, not taking kindly to his interest in playing the violin, expressed their opinion in merciless teasing, for his choice of musical instrument, dropping his violin into a trashcan and once even ‘chased me up on a roof’.

This, meaning the area with all that it implies, working class environment, lack of fancy malls and restaurants, is where Hentunen feels at home, where he was brought up, where he considers his roots to be. It wasn’t all an idealistic dream of innocent childhood where everyone was equal and your neighbors and friends had no more than you had. At age 6 he realized that the world was not black and white and that there were in fact many shades of gray. But the brunt of it, hit him at 14 when, coming out of an environment where everyone came from and had the same social level and status, he was exposed to the realization that ‘some people have money, cars, VCRs.’ An issue, which was also close to him as Hentunen’s father, a Social Democrat, was active in politics throughout the 70s.

Growing up in Finland in those days, Hentunen states ‘everybody was poor, there was no fashion to speak of, and all of Finland was like that.’ Perhaps explaining why music has had and still has such a powerful effect on and in Finnish contemporary society. Not total deprivation as such but a uniformity that stretches as far as the eye can see and that can nourish anything from love of music to the desire to get out and try life somewhere else, a fact, which is not true for Hentunen, who has always preferred this environment to a place in the city or in the country. Though he lived in the center of Helsinki for six years, he is quick to state that it was never really his scene as, ‘I was never good at socializing unless we have something in common.’ Instead he preferred to concentrate on his music and brief public full-on public exposure in the shape of Tättädää, what Hentunen refers to as ‘a beer show not unlike the shows on Moon TV.’

What makes this environment different from a childhood spent in America or in Britain, despite its similar themes, is the geographical closeness to Russia, what Hentunen refers to as ‘a constant fear of Big Brother Russia’. A looming presence, also felt in the air, as well as manifesting itself in physical form with toy shops, for instance, consisting of ‘one half European goods and the other half [being] Soviet stuff.’ Yet, Hentunen states, this was so much a part of everyday life that these issues only really come up in hindsight. Perhaps, the uninitiated might think, in an attempt to explain Finland and what it was like living in this particular corner of the world to a foreigner who has either grown up in what constitutes the epitome of the capital world, a completely communist environment or so far from it all that even the possibility of a nuclear attack by the Cold War powers would not interfere with his or her daily routine but never someone who has grown up wedged between both worlds.

‘There was one radio station with a rock program that I listened to. For more raw new stuff there never seemed to be enough airplay before radio city 96.2 FM in the mid 80's,’ Hentunen states, explaining that for real music Finnish youths tuned in to Dutch radio. Yet, unlike many British and American counterparts in the 70s, Hentunen’s parents were happy to witness their son’s involvement in music because it ‘[kept me] away from sports.’ An activity Hentunen never liked much in the first place. Which perhaps all explains a career that spans from a love for jazz and the violin to a beer show on national TV, graduation from sound school in the late 90s, leading to sounds for TV ads, and flash animations on the internet.

All of which may or may not explain his involvement with Mad Ice, whose music in Hentunen’s words, is ‘European pop with Swahili lyrics’ being quick, however to add that, ‘we don’t want to be an ethnic band. Mad Ice is a big star in Africa. Now we’re trying to push it [the music] to white kids. It’s a mixture of Chilli Peppers and some African stuff.’ Hentunen also adds that ‘a lot of white musicians are scared of playing this music but they shouldn’t be’. ‘There has not been a significant change to speak of in the past ten years where African music is concerned. There is still not a big market for it [admittedly] but that’s a blessing.’ There might soon however be changes in the making as some record companies are beginning to develop and show an interest in African music.

Despite all that Hentunen does not see his music as reflective of Helsinki society either via its melodies or the lyrics. Although, he says that the lyrics are the hardest part of the song, he is quick to add that the music is ‘more about the people and places,’ that it is not focused on one environment but instead reflects ‘made-up stuff.’

See more of Hentunen at: Redballoonrecords.com

Or under SirRichardAudio on YouTube.com

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Riku2011-02-06 05:09:21
Dyyd, I still think R the best with your pick!
-Fandy-cide 4-ever-

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