From minorities to nation’s favourites

Following our 2018 grant call, Kone Foundation has awarded 26 million euros in grants to bold initiatives in research and art. In all, 277 individuals, organizations or work groups will receive funding. Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies Simo Muir and doctoral student Miritza Lundberg are both our new bold makers. Their project brings together a group of both researchers and musicians.

Jewish musicians played a pioneering role in bringing continental popular music to Finland. Many Roma musicians are now icons of the Finnish tango and dance music scene. Docent Simo Muir and doctoral student Miritza Lundberg are studying how musicians with minority backgrounds became mainstream.

Simo Muir: “Many Jewish and Roma musicians broke into the Finnish music scene and went mainstream in the decades between Finland’s gaining independence and the 1960s. We are interested in examining the role of these musicians, and their influence on Finnish music culture.

The Jews and Roma are both members of a diaspora spanning national frontiers. They have long experience of preserving their own culture while living among other peoples. Finland was a challenging environment for such musicians, since Jews only obtained full civil rights in 1918, and the Roma had to fight for fundamental rights, such as the possibility of renting homes.

My research focuses on Jewish performers of light music in Helsinki and Turku during the 1920s. I also focus on the Yiddish language revue performances of Jac Weinstein in Helsinki. Weinstein’s couplets are a humorous take on the struggles of the Jewish community to adapt to Finnish society.

Lorin Sklamberg, the soloist with the Klezmatics, a Klezmer band from New York, has produced a Helsinki Yiddish cabaret album, by reconstructing Weinstein’s Yiddish couplets in collaboration with Jewish and Roma musicians. This is a continuation of musical cooperation between the two minorities, since it is known that, at least in central Europe during previous centuries, Jewish and Roma musicians played together at occasions such as weddings.

Miritza Lundberg: “If someone had asked me to research this area five years ago, I would have refused because many of the subjects were my close relatives. I wondered about the possibility of retaining my objectivity. However, I feel that if I do not record their experiences, then no one else will. The research is a race against time, since many of the musicians are elderly.

As part of the project, we are organizing the Kansani (My People) music day, in which we will engage in discussions with professional musicians on Roma children’s opportunities to study music. This is hugely inspiring, since I know that the children are ambitious and want to succeed in their studies. I have also seen how important support is for children during their development into musicians.”

Heljä Franssila