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Englishman in the land of Kaleva – Nick Hennessey interprets the Finnish national epic


A singer, songwriter and storyteller, Nick Hennessey has been performing the Kalevala in his native language for 16 years. Kuulolla! talked to him about his work and his new collaboration with Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Timo Väänänen and Kristiina Ilmonen starting on February 28th at the Helsinki Music Centre.


Taming the Kalevala

– Storytelling as performance art is not part of the mainstream culture in the UK, and arguably hasn’t been for a number of centuries, says Hennessey.

– Yet for nearly 30 years it has been undergoing a revival as the result of various conditions coming together. I have been fortunate enough to find myself part of that growing interest, with the Kalevala as my focus.

The Finnish national epic is not, as one might guess, well known in the UK. According to Hennessey, one needs stubborn perseverance and a lively imagination to study it.

– In 1998 I was lent a copy of an English version of Kalevala, and some translations of the original songs Lönnrot collected.

– Though at first reading Kalevala is difficult and unwelcoming, I was instantly struck deeply by the potent combination of the metre and the stories. Their combination has a very elemental effect on the imagination.

– Through my work with the Kalevala, I approach the deeper mysteries of live performance, which are not specific to any one culture. The relationship between the listener and the source reveals the universal power of language and landscapes.

Discovering the Kalevala led Hennessey to embark on the road of studying epic singing, which he believes to be a form of performance art shared by ancient Finns and the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures in Britain.

Two years later, in 2000, he had already won the World Championship in epic-singing performing in Espoo, Finland. His cites his commitment to the traditional art form as “the consequence and cause” of his continued fascination with the Kalevala.

Oral poetry in translation

Although he does not speak Finnish and sees himself as an outsider in Finland, Hennessey thinks there is unique value in performing the Kalevala in English. It can help popularise what would otherwise be utterly inaccessible to international audiences:

– I believe that English as a language can contribute greatly to widening appeal of Kalevala in the world. It has the capacity, if used to serve the epic sensitively and appropriately, to build a bridge between the modern world and the Karelian forests that Lönnrot gathered from.

But while something is gained in translation, something else is necessarily lost. Hennessey reminds that this is inevitable to all oral tradition, not just his work:

– Reinvention happens all the time. I think Lönnrot knew this too. The singers he collected from were spontaneous in their singing, yet he had to stop them and have them repeat it line by line so he could write it down. What he collected was different from what they sang.

– Performing the songs, too, is an act of reinvention of an original idea. The freedom of my work is that there is no set text. It is a mainly improvised activity. It is the living moment that breathes power into it, making the idea original again and again.


From Helsinki to the UK

Live audiences in Finland and beyond will soon have the opportunity to witness the reinvention of oral tradition in action.

On February 28th, Nick Hennessey will present an evening of folk music, epic singing, improvisation and storytelling together with the Sibelius Academy’s very own teachers Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Timo Väänänen and Kristiina Ilmonen.

The Tietäjät – The People Who Know the Way performance, inspired by the Kalevala and combining English and Finnish, will kick-start a long-planned collaboration between the expert folk music artists. Hennessey recalls his first encounters with the trio:

– I met Anna-Kaisa in 2000 when I first visited Finland. Kristiina I met about 5 years ago in Helsinki through my work at the Sibelius Academy.

– I knew Timo by reputation. He works with some very well respected musicians in Wales who I know. It has taken this long for the opportunity for us to perform together to arise!

– The upcoming performance is the very first of its kind. In July we will be performing at Beyond the Border International Storytelling festival in Wales. After that it is our plan to tour the work all over Finland, Scandinavia, and the UK.

Kuulolla! wishes the collaboration the best of luck, and hopes to see it live long and prosper!


Further information

Nick Hennessey
Suunta ensemble (Kristiina Ilmonen & Anna-Kaisa Liedes & Timo Väänänen)

Tietäjät - The People Who Know the Way on the Sibelius Academy event calendar


Text: Noora Mäntyranta
Photos: Nick Hennessey

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