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Coffee and Cigarettes in Helsinki #4: The Real Voice of Helsinki
by Juliette Roques
2008-04-11 08:31:25
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Listening to the melody gently drawing you in, on such songs as “Stars and Just for Tonight”, a hauntingly beautiful song, for which Manna wrote the lyrics, the allure of her music is easy to understand. Both songs, taken from her latest album Sister, evoke a longing and yet at the same time a certain serenity, making you want to hear it again and again, recreating that magical feeling of being gently carried away by the melody to a place that speaks neither of fear nor disappointment, reminiscent perhaps of a time and space far away that is safe and private.

It is music that recalls the ‘60s with a modern twist, a fact Manna brings back to her love for the old and appreciation for the new. ‘I actually should be more efficient in finding new music because it’s more like I’m happy with my old friends,’ she states laughingly as somewhere in the café a chair scrapes across the floor.

‘Sometimes I bump into new music and I love it and I start listening to it but if I would have to generalize, I would say that the most interesting music for me has been done already, the roots of it. Obviously people have new ideas, fresh points of view and creativity and that’s the whole point of making new stuff but those are the artists I grew up with and which obviously are my influences because that’s how I build my whole ideas.’

Manna has chosen Café Kafka, as our meeting point, considering that it is quiet, ‘a good place to talk’ and frequently interviews are done there. Entering, I can immediately see why. Efficient use of space, which in one way or another always seems to be associated with Scandinavian (dare I saw Swedish) design in what could easily pass for a 1930’s setting, allowing customers to sit and relax, have a tea, sandwich or coffee while someone else is standing in line, enquiring about shows or getting tickets.

It’s a throwback to other times when the country was still young, finding its footsteps, shaping its newfound identity against two neighboring countries it probably didn’t always like and trying to figure out what was becoming of it; an oasis of time travel in an otherwise modern environment. Small signs on street corners, point to the way most tourist attractions can be found but there is nothing ostentatious, the sites are imbedded into the scenery, a mixture of old and of new, not screaming ‘look at me’ but blending in, a bit like the music, softly calling out, enticing you gently.

Inside it is cozy and warm. If I would be here on my own, I’d most likely be dozing off. Sitting inside, drinking coffee, it is possible – if one ignores all the cell phones and imagines a slightly different fashion – if one closes one’s eyes, to imagine this in a 1930s setting.

The German writer Klaus Mann, exiled a year after his visit to Finland, was toying around with making this country his home. Or so legend says. In the end he became a vagabond, roaming the earth with alternate bases set up in Paris - Amsterdam, New York and intermittently Pacific Palisades when visiting his parents.

It is perhaps hard to imagine his summer road trip through Finland and the rest of Scandinavia on this winter afternoon, sitting inside watching people as they hurry by, passing deftly through the snow. Even the sounds in the café seem to be muffled, as if somehow, this place had decided to throw a cocoon over its people, those who come regularly and those, who like I, just happen to drop by, on a visit perhaps or hoping to find more.

In a way this is like being in a song, The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” despite or perhaps precisely because of a certain wholesomeness about this January afternoon; the innocence and purity of the composition being Lou Reed’s reason for giving the vocals to his drummer Moe Tucker.

Much like Manna’s music, “After Hours” evokes the desire to be in another world, promising that despite logical perception, this very wish might just happen, if you listen some more. And when you do heed its call everything will be fine. Despite naming this as her favorite, when asked which three songs to her define the ‘60s, Manna is quick to stress that it is an impossible task, as ‘there are at least 38 of them.’

* * *

They say opulence creates snobbism, that Venice, a city so beautiful it pierces your heart with its beauty, has the worst inhabitants on the planet and let’s not even speak about Paris, city of dreams, place that you either fall head over heels in love with or hate with a passion for the rest of your life after merely one visit. As Manna puts it, ‘it’s as if the cultural pride and the self-esteem of loving their language is often misinterpreted as arrogance, not wanting to speak other languages so it’s the perspective from where you look at it . . . it’s not the easiest town for tourists.’

‘No,’ I agree and immediately rise to the city’s defense, betraying with words more than by manner, my Parisian roots. ‘But it’s always worth a visit I tell them.’ And Manna agrees with me straight away. ‘Oh definitely.’

Taking a sip of my coffee, I think about this common ground that we have, Manna having left the French capital when she was four but still visiting her family and the scenario being more or less the same for me. It is true that there is a certain self-assuredness in the Parisian mentality that translates into day-to-day action that is –perhaps refreshingly – lacking in the every day interaction in Helsinki. ‘ I can really enjoy the self-respect and the knowledge of self-worth you can get over there,’ Manna remarks remembering Paris.

Of course this isn’t to make a comparison between Paris and Helsinki, that wouldn’t be fair, a teenager against an established older, much wiser person, whose wrinkles show up in the fading facades of its most famous buildings, other edifices mercilessly torn down.

‘For me it’s more about the whole vibe and the feeling,’ Manna says still speaking of Paris. ‘I love the feeling over there. I love this certain confidence that can be misunderstood as arrogance. For me it’s something so Parisian and French, it makes me feel all warm and nice and cozy when I go there. I love the fact . . . obviously this is a generalization and not everyone is like this . . . but I love the fact that the lady who sells your baguette is like Coco Chanel . . you know the attitude, you know what I’m talking about,’ she adds as I nod lost for a moment in my own recollections.

‘Here in Finland we tend to be more apologetic about ourselves, the general self-esteem is perhaps lower. That’s perhaps not Helsinki,’ she adds. ‘Finnish culture is a bit more introverted but like I said I hate generalizations, people are unique, obviously, . . . and it’s a question of individual personality. But on the whole I guess we are learning all the time, there is a lot of culture, a lot has changed in the past 10 years. We have a lot of good theatre for example,’ she adds citing Ylioppilasteatteri and Kellariteatteri as two worth visiting. The first, especially, founded in 1926, is known for its experimental performances and quality amateur theatre.

There is scope for the new generation in all manners of fcreativity. Manna goes on to say that things are developing at rapid speed in all fields. ‘Good music and art in general, clothes designers, young, new, talented. Everything is growing. Before you used to go away to shop and now I’m really happy about what’s on offer here.’ She cites Paola Suhonen, the real name behind Ivana Helsinki, as one of the brand new designers making it big throughout Europe, mentioning the designer’s show in Paris as an example of Finnish ideas spreading abroad.

There are things in Helsinki that will, forever remain timeless. The islands around the city, such as Uunisaari, most of which ‘are only five minutes away by boat, but make you feel like you are somewhere else’; Seurasaari, with its old buildings reminiscent of a small town somewhere in New England; even the old market hall in Hakaniemi, with its variety of foods, souvenirs and various items of design, so perfect for people watching on a lazy morning or afternoon, all of which Manna suggests, are worth seeing.

‘It’s brilliant,’ Manna enthuses when the old market hall is mentioned seeing perhaps pictures of little old ladies with bread baskets making their way through the aisles. There is of course also the new, Kallio with its famously vibrant nightlife and alternative culture, which as Manna points out, is, ‘for younger culture,’ describing the district as ‘vivid and alive.’

And mixing the old with the new are of course Esplanadi and Bulevardi, which Manna suggests are ‘great for walking around.’ Not forgetting the museums and art galleries, Kiasma and Krista Mikkola’s art gallery being just two examples amidst a choice of many. A special treat in the summer, Manna suggests, is Café Engel with its open-air cinema, where drinks and blankets are on offer during various movie screenings.

There are plenty of things that among the recent design and overall modernity bring back the 1920s and 30s. Like Café Kafka and Helsinki Cathedral, the harbor and its market, both of which Manna also suggests, these are sites mentioned during Klaus Mann’s travels, a cultural more than an intellectual expedition, though what wasn’t in the days when youth culture had just come into being and those who had money and just finished school, were free to roam the earth, alternating between staying with friends and spending some time in inns and hotels.

A little like now, a lot like now in fact. And it is this, perhaps more than anything else, connecting with people who discovered the city shortly after the country declared independence, knowing that these discoveries were considerable recent facts, that help shape the city of Helsinki, its hidden charms and gems.

A discovery to which Manna’s music provides the perfect soundtrack, though she herself would choose ‘old punk rock from the 80s because that kind of shows the whole beginning of music, the punk culture. And rap music, Finnish rap music because I do believe, urban culture is very important, kind of like the real voice.’

Folk / Alternative / Rock artist Manna, whose music has been described as ‘beautiful and yet not kitschy at all’ acts as guide on a tour of Helsinki that guarantees a full program for your entire stay. Get your ideas here, click on to Manna’s website for more information and let the music inspire you as you walk around town.

See Manna’s website at: www.myspace.com/mannamariam

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