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FINLAND'S SHOUTING MEN

Have you seen a very funny photograph of a group of men dressed as penguins serenading the crew of an ice-breaker stuck in arctic pack ice? The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) posted it on its popular website early last month, and it's been copied (often without attribution) by dozens of "humor" sites around the world.

"Take a group of men from the northern Finnish town of Oulu - population 100,000 - dress them in dark suits with black ties made from the inner tubes of car tyres," says the accompanying BBC story.

"Next, send them out on to the ice floes of the frozen Baltic and get them to shout - in choral unison - at a stranded 10,000-ton ice breaking vessel, and you have got something called Mieskuoro Huutajat.

"Otherwise known as the shouting men of Finland, it is more than a bunch of Finns getting things off their chests by upping their decibels. It is a new art form, and it is taking parts of the world by arctic storm."

Eager to learn more, we found an excellent illustrated history of the choir, which now has 30 members, on the Welcome to Finland website. Here are a few extracts:

The story of the choir began over a decade ago when a group of young men gathered around a table in a tavern in the northern city of Oulu. They got to talking about the Finnish tradition of male choirs and someone mooted the possibility of putting together one that would be very different from all the rest. Petri Sirviö took the idea so seriously that he decided to go ahead and form a choir.

The Shouters gave their first public performance in their home town on Independence Day (6 December) in 1987. They immediately became the darlings of the media, as reporters vied with each other to write articles studded with phrases like "primeval force from Oulu" and "Arctic hysteria". Thanks to the laudatory press coverage, invitations to perform were soon arriving from many other parts of Finland.

The media hullabaloo eventually died down, but not before the choir had established itself as a cult phenomenon all over Europe. In the 1990s it performed abroad more times than in Finland.

The choir usually does a couple of longer European tours each year. More travel than that is not possible, because Sirviö is the only full-time member. The other Shouters are ordinary Finnish men by day: husbands, fathers, students, rock musicians and doctors. About ten of them are founder-members.

There is something very military about the spectacle. Thirty big men march onto the stage. All are wearing old-fashioned black suits, white shirts and rubber ties. Not a single man relaxes his stern expression even the slightest as he takes his accustomed place in the choral line-up.

All very normal so far, but the listeners, even those who have heard it all, are certain to be startled as soon as the men open their mouths. That is because they do not sing; they shout. Loudly and aggressively, but also in a disciplined, rhythmic manner.

The songs have no actual melody, but contain all the more energy and attitude for that. Thus the numbers the choir presents can usually be recognised only by the lyrics. Some are patriotic Finnish ones, others folk songs from various countries. Every now and then the choir shouts an evergreen of classical music, or perhaps a children's song. The next item on the programme could well be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A film about the choir was screened in Britain at last year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival. One critic, apparently unimpressed, wrote: "Mika Ronkainen's Screaming Men (Huutajat) is an introduction to the art of shouting. The Finnish men's choir, Mieskuoro Huutajat, performs its repertoire of songs by screaming - often leaving the audience shocked and bewildered."

SAUNA AND NOKIA

We thank Kirsti, "a proud Finn" in North Vancouver, Canada, for telling us about The Shouting Men of Finland. She added: "Speaking of Finns and Finland, how about a short article on the pronunciation of things Finnish, like the ubiquitous 'sauna' and the popular 'Nokia' products. The correct pronunciation of sauna is SOW- na (as in 'pig'), rather than SAW-na that seems to be the way most non-Finns say it. Nokia, which is actually a town in Finland near the second largest city of Tampere (Tam-per-A) is pronounced 'Nook-E-ah' NOT 'NO-ki-a' as most North Americans say. Nokia started out making rubber boots!"

 

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Copyright © 2004

Eric Shackle

Story first posted March 2004

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