Imagine a festival for Tango, where thousands of fans are celebrating Tango and competing in dancing and singing to crown a new tango king! This is not a Bajofondo concert in Buenos Aires (even if they can attract thousands as well), it happens every year in a small city in Finland.
After the Tangomania in France and Berlin between 1910 and the late 20ies people in Europe were confronted with Tango music, which was both fascinating and irritating. Almost immediately, local musicians played Argentinean Tangos and European compositions with lyrics in their respective languages. The time of Tango “Schlager” was born, but suddenly stopped by the second world war. After the war, Europe was flooded with American Rock’n’Roll, so Tango was almost forgotten in the public. Looking at the far north of Europe, there was one big exception: Finland.
During the war and in the post war times, renowned singers performed tangos with lyrics in Finnish . One of them was Georg Malmsten, born 1902 in Helsinki, but coming from the Swedish population in Finland. He started his career as a navy officer and studied opera singing . He mainly performed popular songs, most of them composed and arranged by himself and recorded more than 800 tunes, most of them in minor scale. His most popular Tango is “Valkea Sisar” (“White sister”; translations by Google translator ). Specially his well defined and educated voice is noticeable, so this is not a usual “Schlager”, but a serious musical masterpiece. In the instrumental part, the bandoneon has been replaced by an accordion and the rhythm is mainly produced by brute force (drums), but the main instruments (violin and wind instruments) are arranged in a nice polyphonic way, which makes the song sound familiar to tango people.
Songs in minor scale and tango style are a typical property of Finnish Tango. Some people have called Finnish tangos as “Tango on the rocks”, maybe because Finnish people have a special way to express their feelings. It seems they need the melancholy of their Tangos to melt the ice. Other people mention the special Finnish way to recognise life as miserable and hopeless. The Finnish newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat” even has organized a contest for the most melancholic song of all times in 2006. Fortunately, there was no Tango among the two winning songs . Anyway it is easy to be depressive in a country where it stays dark for 4 months and where the suicide rates are high. Maybe Finns are dancing to get rid of their depression.
The most popular Tango singer was Olavi Virta, born in 1915 in Sysmä. He was well known for almost 600 recorded songs, for being the first true Tango King and for the tragedy of dying in poverty after years of alcohol abuse. The most beautiful songs are among his first records from 1938:
Unohtomaton Koti [unforgettable home]
Vain yhtä pyydän [I ask only one]
Again, here we can listen to almost Argentinean arrangements. Finnish tangos of later origin frequently are more sounding like the European ballroom tango. As there are no free resources to listen to both songs, intros and vocal part can be prelistened (tracks 18 and 22) at Tricont  and Amazon  or even buy the CD, which I am using for DJing.
One of his later Tangos (Punatukkaiselle tytölleni – “red haired girl of mine”) can be listened to here:
Interestingly, he also recorded traditional Argentinean songs at the beginning of his career like “El Choclo” (“Tulisuudelma”) and “La Cumparsita” , for both of them he received a gold medal. Interestingly, he recorded the first as a Mambo.
Finally to mention is the song, some Fins call the inofficial national anthem, which is a Tango written by Unto Mononen, born 1930 in Muolaa. He started his carreer as a singer, but changed to composition because his voice was destroyed after a failed thyroid operation . His most important Tango “Satumaa” (“Fairytale land”) was born in 1955 but had a bad start. It was well recognised when Reijo Taipale performed it in 1962. Since then, it has been performed by numerous musicians, among them Olavi Virta, Eino Grön and even Frank Zappa  who breaks his toungue trying to read the original lyrics (if you want to try, here are the original lyrics: ).
Just by the way, I mentioned the contest for the most melancholic Finnish songs. Satumaa was nominated on place 1.
Here are the most important examples for “Satumaa”:
The version of Eino Grön is from 1973. Here we can really notice the change in the instrumental arrangement away from traditional Argentinean Tango to European Ballroom Tango.
There are numerous important Tango singers in Finland and I am really sorry not to include all of them. Finally I just want to mention Taisto Tammi and as a female singer Laila Kinnunen who was the first singer to represent her country in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961 .
So how does the Tango look like in Finland ? It is not really connected to Argentinean technique and also not as sophisticated as European Ballroom Tango. It looks more like a type of social dance without small and big sophistication, but made for and by the people. As the finnish dance hold is very close, we may characterize the Finnish Tango as a European Tango in Argentinean (close) hold.
Here some videos of the finish way of Tango:
Where can you dance Finnish Tango ? Of course at the biggest festival for Tango in Finland, the “Tangomarkkinat” in Seinäjoki, a small town 350 km north of Helsinki. The estimated number of visitors is around 120,000 which creates big problems for a small town of only 28,000 inhabitants. The festival was started as a yearly event in 1985. The highlight is a song contest for Tango singers, which is usually aired by Finnish TV stations. The winners of this contest are officially called Tango king or queen and usually win record contracts . Lots of careers have started here. There are also competitions for dancing or the best Tango composition and the best lyrics . In 2013 Kyösti Mäkimattila and Heidi Pakarinen received their crowns as Tango royals .
Finally it can be stated that Finnland is the second biggest Tango scene in the world (behind Argentina). So Finns do it their own way and this can be both amazing and very special. If you want to look at the bizarre side of the Finnish tango, please read Tango on intohimoni (or Tango is my Passion) by M. A. Numminen .
So next time you listen to a tango song with non Spanish vocals, there is a high probability of listening to a Finnish song. And this is nothing more than a very basic knowledge, an educated Tanguero/Tanguera should have !
Tango means embracing the world.