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Question: Who's Nuts for a Tango?

Answer * Finland, where an entire culture has sprung up around the Latin American dance. Finns say it's the perfect fit for the nation's collective character.

November 17, 2000|ELIZABETH MOULTON | REUTERS

HELSINKI, Finland — As the dark and dreary winter descends, Finns will be keeping each other warm by dancing the tango in pavilions and bars throughout the country.

For a people often perceived as reserved and shy, the sensuous tango seems an unlikely national pastime, but it enjoys huge popularity, and business is booming. As in its Latin American birthplace of Argentina, the tango in Finland is not just about strutting on the dance floor but embraces a whole musical culture where composers and singers are celebrities.

For the past 16 years tango king and queen singers have been chosen every July at a contest in the northern town of Seinajoki, bringing fame and wealth to its winners with record deals and more than 20 gigs a month during their reign.

"Before I was crowned tango queen I was a psychiatric nurse and music was just a hobby," Eija Kantola, a singer crowned in 1992, told Reuters. "Now music is my profession, and I feel like I practice some degree of psychiatric nursing at my gigs."

Like her, most "Tango Royals" end up leaving their jobs to pursue singing careers and never look back.

The annual tango event, whose creators came up with the idea in a midsummer sauna, is one of the largest festivals in Finland and last year brought more than 120,000 visitors to Seinajoki, a town of 30,000 inhabitants.

The competition, which begins with 1,500 hopefuls who are narrowed down through elimination rounds, is the center of the tango business in this nordic country of 5 million people.

"Last summer we made 15 million markka ($2.1 million) in the five days of events related to the festival and competition," said Reijo Pitkakoski, head of Tango Markkinat Ltd. and commonly known as "Mr. Tango."

Finns' love of the tango stems from its melancholic character, its use of metaphors of nature--integral aspects of Finnish culture--and its role as a handy excuse for passion between the sexes. The Finnish tango differs from the tango in other countries with its use of nature to describe feelings of love and passion, said Pirjo Kukkonen, a University of Helsinki professor and student of tango folklore.

Arja Koriseva, 1989 tango queen and still a popular singer, explained: "We're very melancholic but also boisterous, and there is a lot of nostalgia attached to the tango for many people. A lot of older people see it as a window to their youth."

"The tango is so Finnish. It's so strong, and it understands this country's people. Finns ponder some of life's major questions through the tango," said Eeva Kuuskoski, a former government official, at a tango concert.

Despite the differences between the tango in Finland, where it is especially popular in small towns and rural areas, and the more traditional Latin America version, Argentina signaled its acceptance of the Finnish brand when Buenos Aires officials suggested that their city and Seinajoki be regarded as tango capitals of the world.

"Finns are emotional in their own way. They just don't show it on the outside, which is reflected in Finnish tango music and the tango culture as compared to that of Argentina," Petri Hervanto, the 1999 tango king, said.

The tango is one of the most passionate of Latin American dances and musical genres, and the Finnish adaptation has embraced its more melancholy aspects and has become musically simplified along the way.

Finland's love affair with the tango began in 1913 and heated up in the 1920s and '30s when Argentine and German tangos were first played in Finland. It took on its distinct Finnish characteristics after World War II.

In the 1960s and '70s the Finnish tango was on the verge of dying, drowned out by other musical genres, but it has experienced a revival since the 1980s that continues today.

Late this month jazz musician Jukka Perko will release tango interpretations on his new album, making him the first Finn to record under the U.S. Blue Note label, the oldest jazz label in the world. But the most popular scenario for the tango beat still remains on dance floors and at concerts throughout Finland.

"Audiences really demand singers perform tango songs at their gigs," said tango queen Kantola. "In the old days, bands who didn't play tangos ran the risk of getting punched in the face."

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