Back in Helsinki, in my early days there, two of my friends decided I needed to get a better idea of Finland. So they took me to their friend’s club in Kallio. Kallio, for the initiated, is a mixture of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain in Berlin. More of the former and less of the latter, at least where we went to. The club itself hadn’t been around for ages, but the regulars had. Like any self-respecting Finn they were into music. Unlike most Finns, who tend to veer towards heavy metal but will appreciate good music no matter what genre it is, these friends were into Blues.
I hadn’t listened to Blues since I’d left Hungary. And even then I was no expert. My obsession with New Orleans was still a few years into the future. And I was just learning about music in Finland. Not the commercial stuff everyone knew (which I still had to ask friends about, because other than what was played on music tv, and unless it was classical, or popular and featured in whatever music magazine I happened to pick up for my travels, I had no clue). I was learning about the old classics: Raul Badding Somerjoki, Tuomari Nurmio, Musta Paraati, Honey B & The T-Bones. As an aside, it’s a helluva way to impress Finnish friends. Nobody expects you to know them, not as a foreigner. Even if you can’t speak Finnish. The mere fact that you know of these guys is already a miracle. That you actually took time to have someone translate the words for you is akin to ecstasy.
I have to admit that I don’t have any recollection who played that night. We just ended up there because I’d been asking my friend some questions for research and mentioned music. He excused himself to talk to his girlfriend and came back asking if I had any plans for that night. I said no, and he told me he and his girlfriend were taking me with them. Their friend was playing. A few months later she was responsible for introducing me to one of my alltime favorite Finnish bands when she told me to come by her place of work the following Thursday. “There’s a band playing I have a feeling you’ll really like.” Honey B & The T-Bones. But back to that Kallio club.
Like I said, I can’t for the life of me remember who was playing. That wasn’t the important part. The important part came when someone jumped into the taxi we’d ordered just as we were about to grab it. My friends shrugged and headed back inside for another drink at the bar. We ended up staying past closing time. A lock-in. Not one I had to blag like the time in England when I used my American accent to “experience one.” This was a group of friends using the instruments the band had left to be picked up the following afternoon for a jam session. The owner was on guitar, the bouncer was playing the bongo drums sitting on the edge of the stage, my friend was manning the mic, while her boyfriend was cheering everyone on, the way I remembered the congregation at the black Baptist Church in Jersey affirming the preacher’s sermon. It really did have that spiritual vibe of honest participation, feeling the community spirit, coming together as one. I was a long way from reconnecting with New Orleans, though I’d mentioned it in a story, but at that moment I knew exactly what New Orleans was.
It didn’t matter that they were singing in Finnish, same way it hadn’t mattered that my mom and I had been the only white people at that church in Jersey (we’d heard singing and went inside. Of course once they found out we were European they were even more curious about us. Back then people loved you just for that. And being French. The whole Statue of Liberty thing). What mattered, the only thing that mattered, was sharing this moment.
“See Dzsulie,” my friend said to me when his girlfriend paused onstage. “This is the real deal, the real Kallio. None of that commercial music stuff.”
Raw. That’s what it was.
“Somerjoki,” my friend said. “Valot. Means the lights. We grew up with this stuff.”
They were huddled together on the stage, conferring about something. The owner came over to my friend, so I went to tell his girlfriend how beautiful it all was.
“So beautiful that we’re so drunk we forgot the words,” she told me, laughing. “We’re trying to find out.”
We met several times after that night, before everyone ended up going their separate ways. But that’s what I remember the most when I think about them, the music, the spirit. The lights.