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Arto Järvelä: In Time-Honored Finnish Style
Peter Marten

It is no exaggeration to call Arto Järvelä one of Finland's most prolific folk musicians. He is best known as a founding member of JPP, a prominent fiddle ensemble that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2002.

However, JPP commitments have not prevented the fourth-generation fiddler from participating in numerous other groups and projects. From 1986 to 1989 he was part of Tallari, the resident group at the Folk Art Center in Kaustinen, Finland, which is home to the annual week-long Kaustinen Folk Music Festival. He has collaborated with Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and Finnish-Americans like fiddler Erik Hokkanen and accordionist Kip Peltoniemi, to name just a few of his musical friendships.

Many friends contributed accompaniment on Järvelä's first solo album, Polska Differente (1994), which displayed his versatility not only as a fiddler, but also as a composer, mandolinist and nyckelharpist. His second solo disc, Arto Järvelä Plays Fiddle (1999), is exactly what the name implies: just him, his fiddle, and over twenty traditional Finnish tunes.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To start with, remember we are in Finland, a country known not only for its fiddlers, but also for its success in a sport that fits its northern climate perfectly: ice hockey.

Tell us about your ice hockey career.

Well, that was short. I lost a quarter of my front teeth. I tried to eat the puck; it was too fast. I was playing just for fun. Then when I was thirteen, I wanted to go to Hämeenlinna [the nearest city] to play for the club there, but my daddy wouldn't let me go. He thought that it was better to play violin than play with the puck, so no NHL career.

What led him to that decision?

Well, it's the family tradition. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all played the traditional music of Kaustinen on the fiddle. I was born in Parola, near Hämeenlinna. But starting when I was four years old I visited my grandparents in Kaustinen every summer. I heard a lot of music there and eventually started to play myself. My grandpa Johannes bought me my first fiddle from the local hardware store in 1969.

Was the fiddle your first instrument?

Not exactly. I started with drums and electric bass when I was about ten, in the family band with my brother Jouni and my daddy Aarne, as well as [future JPP keyboardist] Timo Alakotila and his daddy Toivo. I started to play violin seriously when I was thirteen years old. When I was fifteen, in 1980, I went to the Kaustinen College of Music [actually what North Americans would call a high school] and studied there with my uncle, Mauno Järvelä. That's also where JPP started.

How did JPP begin?

There was a youth club dance company in Kaustinen called Kruusaus, and we [Arto and his second cousins Juha and Jarmo Varila] started to accompany their folk dances. At that time I was playing pump organ and the Varila brothers were fiddling. After two years I was educated enough on the fiddle that I wanted to play it in the band, so we asked Timo Alakotila to come play the harmonium [pump organ] and my brother Jouni became the first JPP bassist. [Fiddles, pump organ and double bass represent a traditional Kaustinen combination.] In 1982 we went to a band competition at a folk festival in Mäntsälä as Järvelän Pikkupelimannit ["the Little Folk Musicians of Järvelä," later to become known by the more pronounceable abbreviation JPP. (By the way, they won the competition.)]. That's when we started so it's twenty years ago.

Your uncle Mauno later became a member of the group. How did he fit into the picture?

Mauno was already sitting in with us sometimes, and the group he was in, Kankaan Pelimannit, disbanded about the same time we started. In 1985 he got a grant from the government to make his own album, and he wanted to do the album with us.

What made JPP different from all the other groups that were around at that time?

It was the music and the arrangements. It began with the local wedding and dance music, the old music from the region, but we started to play music from different parts of Finland and then we were open to a lot of influences from Sweden, too. We also started to compose our own material.

The sound is the same as it has been for a hundred years. Double bass is the newest instrument in the band, historically, because that landed in Kaustinen in the 1950s. It's new music, but with the traditional band sound. Even when we are playing quite modern music, you can hear the style of the old masters in the bowing and comp. It's a kind of heritage that comes from inside us somehow.


[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Spring 2003 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Peter Marten is a journalist and translator based in Helsinki, Finland.]

Photo: ©Jouko Lehtola