Fire in the North Sky (Saatuja Sanoja)

Beyond the Border, Wales International Storytelling Festival, July 6 2014
St Donat’s Castle, Vale of Glamorgan

Nick Hennessey (storyteller, vocals)
 Anna-Kaisa Liedes (vocals) 
Kristiina Ilmonen (wind instruments, percussion, vocals) 
Timo Väänänen (kantele, pyngyr, vocals)

Naomi Wilds (Producer)

Paula Crutchlow (Creative Advisor)


Fire in the North Sky
Photo: David Tiernan

As you walk towards St Donat’s Castle across a grassy field in the promise of a summer’s day, the sea sparkling to the south, the scene is set for a voyage to previously unknown, even unheard-of places. There are stories from many lands told at Beyond the Border, linking Wales to the wider world. This year, one of the themes of the biennial storytelling festival was a focus on the mythic tales of Scandinavia, including the epic poetry of Finland which is collectively known as The Kalevala.

Over the years since the festival was first held in 1993, music has increasingly played a part. UK storyteller and musician Nick Hennessy has worked with Finnish musicians Timo Väänänen, Anna-Kaisa Liedes and Kristiina Ilmonen to create a performance piece which draws on the book of The Kalevala compiled by Elias Lönnrot in 1849, and also wax cylinder recordings of some of the old singers of this material. For, as Nick told us in the pre-performance talk, this work does not come from a storytelling tradition, but rather from one of poem-singing, in a strict metre akin to that used by Longfellow in his poem ‘Hiawatha’. Translation into English from the Finnish, in which the emphasis falls on the first syllable of the word, has turned the poem into a narrative, but in Fire in the North Sky the song once more takes centre stage.

Lönnrot spent decades gathering material from the Karelian districts – enough to fill seven books! From where we sit in Western Europe we see these northern lands as part of Scandinavia, but they have as much if not more in common with Russia than with Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and their language is unlike the other Scandinavian tongues, having a closer connection with Hungarian. The stories of The Kalevala are an attempt to answer for Finnish people the question ‘Who are we?’ So, as Nick told us, the underlying culture is what matters; the stories serve as a gateway into exploring the source, to which there are many routes. Indeed, he said that:


As performers we aim to do it differently each time.


The ‘set’ for Fire in the North Sky is simple – a number of old photographs, blown up large: a beautiful girl standing in front of a house with a log-store, staring intently outwards; a man holding the hands of another in what might be an act of healing; a woman squatting in the middle of a room, hands over her eyes, witnessed by others around the walls… These pictures create a strong atmosphere in anticipation of the drama. We are immediately drawn in, invited to drink a toast in liquorice liqueur or lingonberry juice, invited by Nick to drink to finding the path from back there to here as he poses the questions:


Who knows the songs to bind us? Who knows how songs conjoin us? Where do the songs come from?


The episodic drama which then unfolds, variously spoken, sung, played, is one which can be put together differently each time it is performed. The thread passes between the four performers seamlessly and apparently symbiotically. They conjure up the landscape of the Karelian lands; we hear the birds singing, creatures stirring in the woods and, out to sea, the ice breaking as the seasons turn. And in this landscape are the mythic stories, the old tales which are to Finland what the Mabinogion is to Wales. Archetypal figures people the stories. One of them, the hero Väinämöinen, is evoked by deep throat singing. There is a creation myth and a search for a spell to mend the prow of a boat. We are taken through fire and ice and find ourselves in the crescendo of a bear hunt, wondering who is the hunter, who the hunted.

Then the doors of the hall are flung open to the afternoon sun radiating behind the walls of St Donat’s Castle and we are back in Wales, blinking in the bright light and catching our breath as the story pauses for the interval. We have been held entranced, and there is a link between music of the kantele, Finland’s national instrument, and the trance state. One of the main characters in The Kalevala is the kantele player and here this is Timo. In the pre-performance talk he described taking an eight-bar musical phrase from a wax cylinder recording and learning to treat it as his own, improvising around it in a way which can be trance-inducing. This is not, as Timo describes it, trance as a personal ‘trip’, but one with a communal purpose, to connect people, and this is a major element in The Kalevala, the desire to reach out to the other.

For the second half of the performance there are different pictures on stage, landscapes of birch woods and the sea ice, preparing us for the story of the smith Ilmarinen who travels on the wind and forges the Sampo, a magical mill which grinds gold, salt and grain. We also hear of another epic hero, Lemminkainen, who dies and is finally restored to life only with the help of one the smallest of creatures, a bee.

Using their voices in myriad ways, and a panoply of percussion as well as traditional Finnish instruments, the four performers weave a spell which captivated the capacity audience who had queued long in the heat of the day in order to secure seats for the journey.

In conversation with Nick and Timo afterwards they told me of their plans to take this work further, with a Finnish tour and then more performances in the UK in the Autumn of 2015. These first performances reflect many years study by Nick, Timo, Anna-Kaisa and Kristiina individually, which has brought them to a point where they can explore new paths in an intuitive way, improvising while remaining true to the roots of the stories. It is in this way that the old oral tradition which underlies The Kalevala is reinstated and reinvented for our time and can play a part in bringing people together once again.