Front Porch

It’s Not Just Gary Heffern Anymore! The Finnish Music Scene in San Diego

Finlander Gary Heffern (second from left), along with Penetrators bandmates Chris Davies, Chris Sullivan, and Dan McLean in the late 1970s. Photo by Harold Gee.


The author’s uncle Hiski Salomaa, who is considered to be the “Woody Guthrie of Finland”

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius


Old Finnish men in winter.

It’s tough growing up Finnish-American. When the other kids had relatives named John and Jane and Fred and Nancy, mine had names like Kirsikka and Minttu and Einer and Hannes. Since Finland is one of Europe’s smaller countries, there aren’t a whole lot of Finns skating around. Finns are also a very diasporic people. So the few Finns that there are, are thinly spread around the globe. In the U.S., most of the Finnish population settled in upper Michigan, where it snows, not in sunny San Diego, California.

For the longest time, the only other Finn I’d met in San Diego was Gary Heffern, lead singer of the Penetrators. But I was just a teenage P-fan and Gary was already a local rock star. So our conversations about Finnish culture were kept to a minimum. For those interested in Gary’s own very Finnish tale, watch the film Sweet Kisses from Mommy: The Gary Heffern Story.

Gary continues to be the San Diego Finnish community’s greatest pop-culture export. After the Penetrators, who still do regular reunion shows, Gary has done poetry readings with Jim Carroll, John Doe, Henry Rollins, and Nina Hagen. He’s worked with a who’s-who of American popular music: Peter Case, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Peter Buck of REM, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, and the Walkabouts. Along with the Penetrators, Heffern received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 San Diego Music Awards.

So, there I was, trying to explain to my friends why I had a short-tailed cousin named Kukka, when I learned about my Aunt Aini Saari, who was a stage performer and singer in the early 20th century. What’s more, Aunt Aini was married to Hiski Salomaa, dubbed the “Woody Guthrie of Finland.” This was all very quaint and charming until I went online to learn that Uncle Hiski is pulling in nearly 500,000 views per YouTube video, 60 years after his death. Take that, American garage bands!!! With a famous, musical uncle in my family tree, I figured it was time to start retracing my Finnish roots.

In 2017, Finland, or Suomi, is celebrating 100 years of independence. (NOTE: “Finland” is Swedish and “Suomi” is Finnish) Geographically grounded between Sweden and Russia, and once infused with Asiatic blood by the Mongols, the Finns are perennial underdogs. Much like the Irish, Finns are known for their festive carousing on one hand and melancholy on the other. CBS’s 60 Minutes once dubbed Finland a nation of introverts in its special “Tango Finlandia.” However, newer studies have concluded Finns to be one of the “happiest” peoples on earth. Also (let’s blame it on the Finnish sauna), Finns have been dubbed some of the planet’s “friskiest”! Another reason to book your vacation now!

Finland is also known for hockey, Nokia, and, lest we forget, Santa Claus. Much of Finnish culture is based on woodworking. Both my father and grandfather were carpenters. Finnish aesthetics are clean and elegant, uncluttered, streamlined, and purposeful, much like a fast pair of skates. Most Americans have seen this in Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in Saint Louis.

Musically, composer Jean Sibelius is Finland’s national treasure. (Sorry Uncle Hiski!) His prolific collection of symphonies, opera, tone poems, and written publications not only defined the Finnish character for the outer world but also helped bring the country together one hundred years ago when Finland was declaring its independence. His focus on nature and the Finnish countryside further articulated the Finnish aesthetic and its emphasis on elegant lines that bend and dance to the contours of Finland’s national landscape and character.

A young country, Finland looks musically to both its historically remote, Nordic folk traditions and the contemporary international pop scene. Kantele player, singer, and storyteller Ida Elina, one of Finland’s premier musicians, demonstrated this in her recent concert at San Diego’s Balboa Park. Simultaneously playing a 40-stringed Kantele, bantering with the audience, and singing, Ida Elina performed a full serving of Finnish folk songs, Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” and American pop, including (wait for it) Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

Rock and jazz guitarist Olli Hirvonen, who played Dizzy’s in March with his band New Helsinki, won the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival’s SOCAR Electric Guitar Competition and has released two albums. Juror and jazz legend John McLaughlin called Olli “a big talent.” According to San Diego Union-Tribune’s music critic George Varga: “His fluid technique, pinpoint articulation and ability to deftly pivot between various jazz styles suggests he is the heir apparent.”

Finland embraced American rock ‘n’ roll early and from the 1950s onward has produced a sturdy stable of rock bands from many genres, most notably rockabilly, prog, and metal. Motley Crüe fans will remember Vince Neil’s infamous sojourn with Finland’s Hanoi Rocks. And who can forget the 1990’s Leningrad Cowboys?

San Diego’s Finnish community stays in a tight orbit around Balboa Park’s House of Finland, the Finnish Lutheran Church in Poway, and the Finnish School also in Poway. The House of Finland regularly hosts various Finnish artists who play San Diego while on tour, most recently Ida Elina. In addition, there are many local musical events and musicians.

Merja Soria plays the Kantele, the native harp of Finland. Before moving to the States, Merja was the first Finlandia Foundation performer of the year in 1996. She received a master’s degree in music at Sibelius Academy in Finland and has taught Finnish music at SDSU and USD. She has toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe. She currently teaches at her own studio, Miss Merja’s Music Room. Ms. Soria’s CD Arctic Silence is a selection of ancient Finnish songs. A song from Arctic Silence was featured in the National Geographic Television’s program “Beyond the Movie: Lord of The Rings.”

“I’m dedicated to performing the touching music of my Finnish heritage,” Merja says. “I combine Finnish folk harp and voice to sing the haunting songs of Suomi. Finnish folk poetry tells that when the first kantele was played for the first time, the sound was so beautiful that everybody started to cry. When the tears touched the water of the ocean, they turned to pearls.”

Eeva Schreck helps organize the San Diego Finnish Church choir in which she also sings. The choir usually performs at church events, celebrations, and festivals as well as occasional concerts for the public. Both an adult and children’s choir are organized through the Incarnation Finnish Lutheran Church in Poway.

Violinist Paivikki Nykter is currently performing with the San Diego Ballet and the legendary Charles McPherson. “We are premiering two of his new works “Reflection and Hope” with Charles playing saxophone, myself on violin, Cecilia Kim on cello, and Rob Thorsen on bass. I am a classically trained violinist, so this is a new experience for me to play jazz! But it’s fun!

Now based in San Diego, Paivikki still performs in Finland and the U.S. “I play in several regular chamber groups: Trio Arpavioluta (with flutist Cathy Blickenstaff and harpist Laura Vaughan), Quartet Luminoso (with clarinetist Bob Zelickman, violist Francesca Savage, and cellist Cecilia Kim), Trio Ciele (with pianist Kay Etheridge and cellist Cecilia Kim) and Duo Decorus (with cellist Cecilia Kim). I also do violin – piano recitals and different chamber groups. I play concerts at universities, colleges, libraries and churches in town. I served as an Artist in Residence at UCSD 1994-2006.

“I have also organized Valentine’s Day Soirées for Music Lovers to honor my late husband violinist János Négyesy’s legacy. He served as a violin professor at UCSD from 1979 until his death in 2013. The quarterly concerts, featuring chamber music from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, has grown to be a popular and elegant part of the musical life in San Diego. Next concert is in October.”

There are also several Finns in San Diego who simply get together to reminisce about the homeland and jam. Kimmo Savolainen is one of the organizers: “We get together and play some good old Finnish music with the few countrymen here in San Diego. We’ve played in various, mostly Finnish, events over the year, like Christmas parties, Independence Day parties, May Day parties, Midsummer parties, and birthdays.”

Wow, the Finns throw lots of parties.

Kimmo continues: “Our set list is usually a combination of Finnish and international songs, depending on the audience. But usually from the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s. It’s always great to play for an audience that recognizes some songs from the good old days back in the old country and bring some of that feeling to California. Finns are a melancholy bunch, after all.”

So what lies ahead? According to Eeva Syvanen, president of Balboa Park’s House of Finland, “We have an awesome Finland 100 multimedia Sibelius Inspiration Concert coming on October 22. It will be at the new Central Library downtown and free to the public. The artists are cellist Jussi Makkonen and pianist Nazig Azezian.” And, of course, check the San Diego Finnish community’s websites for more musical events throughout the year.

Still I must address the obvious: Why would people from one of the coldest countries in the world settle in one of the sunniest and warmest? The truth is, as stated earlier, Finns are very diasporic and get along with people wherever they go. Just ask the Sandelin family, who first settled in San Diego County in the 1940s.

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