Interview with Finnish bluesman Lauri "Arno" Ankerman -- traditional roots blues, but mainly with his version

"The blues is a very deep, and also many-faceted style of music that can be traced to almost everything (lyrically, melodically or as a feeling) ..."

Lauri Ankerman: Vanhat Juuret, Uudet Näkymät

Lauri "Arno" Ankerman started playing at an early age, first violin, then other instruments. Guitar since he was 15. His main guitars nowadays are a 1931 National Duolian, in open G and Michael Messer Blues resonator, in open G for slide, a (Finnish) Noso 1950’s and a Busker Cannon resonator for standard tuning. He has always listened to blues. It is a part of his identity. Lauri started to get interested in the way people all around the world adapt blues music to their lives, and found out a lot about different music that are somehow related to the blues. He found similar feelings and techniques in Indian music, Portugese fado, Greek rebetika, West African music and Finnish tango and so on. Then (as a Finn) he started to research his roots, the Finnish national epos the Kalevala, is a long book, written in poem form. Then he found out about Finnish sleigh songs, that were popular in Finland at end of 1800-century, up to 1930-40.

The structure of a typical sleigh song is a phrase being repeated, and then a counter-phrase added. Just like blues. Sleigh songs use a lot of flattened thirds and fifths. The chord structures are sometimes three-chord ones, often one or two. Like delta blues. Songs are about boasting about own sexual or monetary or “bad boy” capabilities, or about sorrow and loss, or about women. He decided to mix sleigh songs with the blues in his own music. He performs as a solo performer or with an acoustic band. He plays traditional blues sometimes, but mainly with his version of the blues. He plays resonators and acoustic guitars, both with and without slide. Nowadays he have made two albums of his own blues. Lauri and his band (Lauri “Arno” Ankerman & the Ankermen) play gigs around Finland. He also hosts a radio show about the history of the blues and has lectured about the blues. He worked with Kari Nieminen of Versoul guitars (who builds guitars for ZZ Top, Stones, The Who) and together they developed the “Rattlenator”. A world’s first acoustic mechanical distortion effect for acoustic resonator guitars.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues for me is an opportunity to express the deepest feelings I have. All the lyrics I write are somehow meaningful to me. Some songs are very funny, and make me feel good. Some deal with deep emotional issues, such as losing my father to cancer or being away from my loved ones when I have to play a lot of gigs. Sometimes a wordless humming is SO emotional, as is slide guitar, that it gives me chills. Such song is my own “Iso musta käärme” (Big Black Snake) that tells about the feeling you get when you have been touring a lot and find it hard to stay at home after being on the road. The snake is a mental one The lure of the road. Or “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” which for me is one of the most beautiful songs humankind has ever produced. Because the blues is a very deep, and also many-faceted style of music that can be traced to almost everything (lyrically, melodically or as a feeling) I’d say that the blues is everything to me. And not all of the blues is sad. There are a lot of joyful, religious or even very dirty and sexy blues. So the blues for me is embedded in everything. Blues is life, life is Blues.

How has the Roots Folk music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Finnish folk music has followed me all my life, so it is part of me. Likewise the American roots music and deep delta blues. Growing up and listening and playing both music all my life has kind of joined them together in my head. All folk music (regardless of the origin) share remarkable similarities in the topics people sing about. So wherever I go, or whoever I meet the knowledge of Folk music suggests we all share the same concerns, the same feelings, the same joys and sorrows. So basically we are all one.

"Nowadays the blues tends to be a bit paralysed to 'looking backwards'. If I exaggerate, it almost feels like every blues song SHOULD begin with 'I woke up this morning…' I think a lot of today’s blues is not so interesting because it tries to replicate old blues. Or the way it 'should be played." 

How do you describe Lauri “Arno” Ankerman sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Our sound is very hard to pinpoint. We do not sound like anybody else, because we are the sum total of ourselves. Change something and you change everything. That being said, the sound is simple, yet heavy, and we love to mess around different music styles. It is okay in our books to play in four-four time and change to a waltz in choruses. We do not limit ourselves or force anything. We just let the music carry us.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams and recording time which you’d like to share with us?

The first thing that pops in my mind is when I met Boo Boo Davis. He came to Finland and I was asked to open the show for him. A great honour.  After the soundcheck Boo Boo came to me and told me he really liked the way I used my voice. At this point I was overwhelmed. I felt like giggling and jumping up and down. After all Boo Boo is one of the last links we have to the old Delta bluesmen. And he liked me. He then noticed my three-stringed cigar box. “Oh, you’ve got one of those. That’s how I learned how to play, you know. My daddy made me one but I could not play it, so daddy’s friend Elmore James taught me how to play it”. I was floored as you can imagine. I sat at the man’s feet for an hour, listening him telling stories. As I said to him afterwards:  My own grandfather is dead, but now I have a new one. When recording an album there was a song I mentioned earlier, Iso Musta Käärme, that we had some trouble to record. It is a long song, and there’s just me and my harmonica player Mikko Koivisto playing on the song apart from rattlesnake effect provided by Ari Heikkilä. We record everything live. No overdubs, ever. So we sat face to face, breathing the song in and out. It is a slow song and we play very little on it. Very close to a delta moan like “Dark was the night…”. We tried the song for a couple of times and our recording engineer said to us “I really don’t understand what you are after on that one”. I said that when we do it right, he understands. And so everything fell into place on the next take and the engineer came out of his booth with wide eyes. “Okay. Now I understand. It is a VERY scary and big snake”.
One of my favourite gig memories is the night me and my bass player were playing a duo gig for a few people. After the gig was over, I was feeling kind of low. We played very well but to an almost empty house (later it turned out that one of the people that were there was a music critic who really praised the gig and our commitment to play). My bass player noticed I was down, and said to me: What you need is a guerrilla-gig. So we took our instruments, drove to the other side of the town and walked into a bar. “We came here to play for you if you want to hear us”. Boy, we had fun. We ended up signing autographs and posing for  pictures that night. But the greatest thing was to see how people reacted to a sudden invasion of acoustic blues in Finnish. The crowd fell silent. Eyes locked to us, swaying with the music. Listening. Enjoying. A truly great night. There has been a lot of people who have told me that my music has touched them, and those memories are very dear to me. As are all the people who have helped me, played with me, believed in me and taken part in my music.

"I hope more people would still go to see live music. And that restaurants, bars and cafes gave up their sound systems and cd-players and hired real musicians." (Photo: Laurie & Boo Boo Davis)

Which is the moment that you change your music most? How difficult is to used Finnish lyrics to your music?

My music is constantly changing. I do not make a conscious choice anymore about the type of music I am making. When I was younger I tended to think music in types of genres. Now I just write songs that feel natural at the moment. Sometimes they sound like roots blues, sometimes there comes a rhumba or Finnish folk music or whatever. And when the songs are distilled through my abilities to play them and the vision of my co-musicians, the result is something that sounds like US, not anyone else. Real, honest, emotionally charged. So maybe I should say that the biggest change in my music is the result of meeting the right people and playing with them. I do not feel my music is mine alone, it is the sum of all those who have created it with me. At the moment the greatest influence is my duo partner Satu Lankinen, just because we share the same feel and have grown together musically so we are able to read each other, and trust our own vision of the music. And have great fun while doing it.  And when you play with someone you connect with, you do not necessarily even talk about what you should play and how. The music takes over, like a huge wave, and carries you both to new shores, somewhere nobody has ever been to yet. To be able to make the first footprints in the sand of a distant shore, that’s what I’m talking about.

Also important is the instrumentation. If you use the same instruments everybody else uses, you have to work that much harder to produce something original. But take a folk instrument (the bowed lyre for example) and place it in different musical context and suddenly miracles start to happen. New roads open up in the middle of deep forests. That kind of stuff. Magic. I do not find using Finnish language difficult. It is myn own language, and so it is very close to me. I might find difficult translating some phrases used in English music that Finnish people would not generally use, but why bother. I just use natural Finnish phrases. The rhythm of my writing is the rhythm of speech and all my texts have to sound natural to a Finnish-speaker.  I want to sound like I am talking naturally when I sing, not like poetry (although I want to use good rhymes all the time too). So at the same time it is both very easy and a bit challenging. Sorry, no easy answers to this one.

What were the reasons that you started the Folk/Roots researches and Finnish folk instruments experiments?

I guess just that the music sounded good to me and I liked the sound of folk instruments and I wanted to use them in my own music. And as far as I know nobody else does it in this field of music. I do not remember starting. The first songs I remember hearing as a child were Finnish folk songs and my father’s blues albums. I just got interested in it even as a child and just went deeper and deeper.

"The Finnish folk music has followed me all my life, so it is part of me. Likewise the American roots music and deep delta blues. Growing up and listening and playing both music all my life has kind of joined them together in my head." (Photo: Lauri & Satu Lankinen)

How started the thought of accordion to your band's instrumentation? What touched (emotionally) you?

I have been blessed with amazing musical partners, and Satu Lankinen who plays the accordion, overtone flute and bowed lyre is an incredible musician. She studies in the Finnish Sibelius Academy to be Master of Music, and is an amazing multi-instrumentalist. A few years ago I played a few gigs in a band called Mojakka that plays the music of Finnish-American songwriter Hiski Salomaa and met Satu, who also plays in Mojakka. We clicked musically and personally instantly, and it was obvious I wanted Satu in my band to play the accordion and bowed lyre, but she lived in another city at the time. When she moved to Helsinki, it did not take long to have her in my band. And when I heard the sound of the overtone flute…. Oh well…. Shivers down my spine. I guess what hits me the most is the combined tone of accordion and guitar, or bowed lyre and the slide guitar in a blues-like format. The sounds go together amazingly well and take the music to a bit different place than it would otherwise go. I feel the music is deeper, and in more connection to your heart and guts. Primal music, soulful music. The music of the unconsciousness. Heart music. And the slide and bowed lyre together.. I had a vision in my head about that. The bowed lyre sounds a bit like a harsh violin. Kind of wild and rough-throated. A wailing banshee in a way. And I thought it should complement the slide guitar’s shimmering sounds perfectly. And it did. A match made in Heaven. Now it has gotten to the point where it is starting to get a bit difficult to hear which notes are the bowed lyre, or my guitar, or my voice. It all mixes together. And the sound is just so great.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Obviously I would not be here without my grandparents and parents.  But strictly musically speaking the people from Lauri “Arno” Ankerman and the Ankermen have made the most difference to my music. Mikko Koivisto, Veika Pohto, Sonja Korkman, Jere Perkiökangas and Jenna Pietilä (and of course Satu Lankinen) have all contributed amazingly to this musically. As well as blues greats I have had the opportunity to meet and play with. But at the end of the day I feel the most important aquaintances are not musical. The people who have been there for you through thick and thin, the people you love, the people you are in the inner circle of your life. So, this is a bit private and personal subject. I think I have to say the people I have (and do) love, and who love me back. It is as simple as that.  At the end of the day it’s not about the notes you have played, not about the songs you have sung. It’s about having people you love near you, and be there for them the same way they are there for you. To take care of your loved ones. The best advice.. That’s a big question. Probably “trust yourself” Or something along those lines anyway.

"Music and songs is an effective way to express your views and to gather people together. Not many people quote long passages from books together, but we all can (and do) sing together. Whether it is the National Anthem, a political folk song (Think about the impact Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan made) or a good blues or whatever. It connects. It joins people together. It unites. And I do hope it unites us all for the good of all people." (Photo: Lauri & Satu Lankinen)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Nowadays the blues tends to be a bit paralysed to “looking backwards”. If I exaggerate, it almost feels like every blues song SHOULD begin with “I woke up this morning…” I think a lot of today’s blues is not so interesting because it tries to replicate old blues. Or the way it “should” be played. Mostly I miss the importance of the SONG. I do not like long guitar solos or long jamming. It is fun to play that way, but as a performance it does nothing for me. In old blues the song comes first. Obviously before electric guitars there was less of a chance to play long solos, but electricity is not bad in itself. I miss the times when the blues was played to dancers and to communicate with the listeners. On our gigs people DO come with dancing partners, and it is great to be able to play both to people who want to listen to the lyrics and the playing, and to the people who want to dance and enjoy the music that way. As a performer it makes me feel very good indeed to be able to make people enjoy themselves in so many ways.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I hope more people would still go to see live music. And that restaurants, bars and cafes gave up their sound systems and cd-players and hired real musicians.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Finland. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

I think we are currently living the most exciting days in the field of Finnish blues. Blues has been very popular in Finland, but nowadays more people are tuning in. I feel a rise in interest towards “handmade music”. Probably this is due to the fact that people are getting bored with computerized hits and machine-like dance music mega-stars. At least I hope so.

"Mostly I miss the importance of the SONG. I do not like long guitar solos or long jamming. It is fun to play that way, but as a performance it does nothing for me. In old blues the song comes first."

What are the ties that connect the Blues with Fado, Rebetika, African music and Finnish Tango & sleigh songs?

Oh boy… This is a huge can of worms to open. Basically all these music genres deal with same type of lyrical themes. All of the above deal with pain, loss, sorrow and on the other hand boasting one’s sexual prowess. The list goes on and on. I believe that all of these mentioned musics, being music of the people, deal with the basic feelings us humans feel worthy to sing about. And often when you feel sad, you DO want to hear happy and funny music, and vice versa. This applies to blues as much as it does to sleigh songs, Rebetika and so on. As some tango researcher from Argentina said: Finnnish tango represents "symbols of crushed hopes". The more I have researched the folk music styles of the world, the more I tand to draw parallels between the different styles. It is not as much a matter of rhythms and melodies, but the whole FEELING behind the notes. As we western people share a similar history as far as musical harmony goes, we tend to think minor keys as sorrowful and major keys as happy. Similarly flattened fifths and thirds have the same kind of effect to the tension of the song no matter the music in which this technique is used. So the same kinds of things do seem to pop up all over the world. As some wise man said: “Everybody has the blues”. I truly believe this to be the case. Some people just don’t call it the blues.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Oh, I laugh very easily. But the latest thing to deeply touch me is our road crew, two professionals who have recently joined our touring personnel just because they love what we do. Their trust and love has deeply touched me. As does the trust I get from my band. These people who are willing to participate this one man’s dream and give to it all their expertise and willpower. Thank you all. I love you.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

It would be easy to list all the bluesmen I’d love to meet, but really I just would like to take a time machine to when my father was still alive and go fishing with him for a day.

"The blues for me is embedded in everything. Blues is life, life is Blues."

Why the sound of resonator guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of “Rattlenator”?

The resonator guitar is a very vocal guitar. You can manipulate the sound so that it almost sounds like a medieval lute or you can make it sing and cry or to make it swear like a drunken sailor. Resonators are also very durable and sing like angels when played with a slide. The “Rattlenator” is world’s first mechanical distortion effect for an acoustic resonator. I helped Versoul Guitars design it from prototype to a finished item you can order and fit in your resonator in a few moments without modifying the guitar. It is basically a brush made from small metal balls that brushes against the resonator cone and produces a snare mat-kind of organic resonance. You can switch the effect on or off easily by turning a knob on your resonator’s cover plate. I use mine especially when playing solo, because it is almost like a snare played with brushes echoing every note I play. If you want to hear it in action, there is a demo clip on my Youtube channel, and you can order one from Versoul Guitars’ website. Versoul is a high end Finnish guitar maker that makes custom guitars for The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, The Who and many more artists. Versoul makes also very fine electric and acoustic resonators.

You apparently have been using several self-made and improvised musical instruments (Rumbu-kone, Cigar-box & Diddley). Would you describe and explain them a little bit?
I have a lot of homemade instruments I use. I have the Rumpu-kone (drum machine) which is a wooden box from a drawer that I found in a garbage bin; miked with a piezo mic I got used for 5 euros. I was looking for a stomp box that would produce also acoustic sound and found nothing on the internet. I went to a local music store to check out a commercially produced stomp box, which cost about 150 euros. I thought to myself that it really cannot be that expensive to amplify the sound of a foot stomping the ground, so I decided I will make one myself. So I got the box, the piezo and four plastic doorstoppers (from a hardware store) and screwed the stoppers to each corner of the box for legs and duct-taped the piezo mic on the bottom of the box cover. Total euros spent: 9€. We have played a staggering amount of gigs and made two albums using that box. If you listen to any of my albums or live songs from Youtube or Spotify or whatever, that’s the only bass drum we ever use. I also use a three-stringed cigar box guitar (tuned FCF) and miked with a piezo pickup. I use it both live onstage and on my latest album. Since a cigarbox guitar is quite quiet I often play it at home when my children have gone to bed so I do not wake them up.
My Diddley Cue is a billiard cue stuck through an olive oil can. I love a diddley bow, that means a one-stringed guitar. If a song’s melody does not sound good played on just one string, it probably is not that good a melody. I call my diddley “the lie detector” and often write songs with it. I also use a four-stringed guitar made from two Saab hubcaps and an old Höfner guitar pickup and two broomsticks. It is tuned DGBD. I only play slide on that one. It has no frets. I have not recorded with this one yet, but if you want to hear how it sounds, there is a live clip on my Youtube channel where I play it. (Pallogrillimies electric version) All my homemade guitars I mentioned above are made by Tenho Klimenko Guitars. (Tenho is my neighbour and glad to make me made to measure instruments. You can check him out in the Facebook and order one for yourself too)

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What is your BLUES DREAM? Happiness is…

For me it definitely is easier the older I get. I think that it is so mainly because the older I get, the less I fear what people might think about what I do. When I was younger I was more influenced by other peoples’ ideas. Nowadays I just do what I feel comes naturally. And of course the more you play, the more you know about playing. On the other hand it is very challenging to play just the right notes in just the right way, and not to overplay.  My blues dream is to be alive and playing with my children and grandchildren when I am 90 years old. And THAT is happiness. Family and music.

What is the impact of Blues and Folk Roots music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

This I had to really think about a lot. At first I thought the connection is a bit thin, but the more I thought about it the more I realized the impact in fact is really strong. In fact me and Satu spent a whole evening (and a bottle of rum) talking about this. The music is an universal language, and some Folk and Blues and Roots songs have survived so many years and are still playing people’s heads and in the radio and make an impact on music today. Take Hiski Salomaa for instance. You probably have never heard of him if you’re not Finnish, but he was a Finnish-American singer and songwriter from the thirties whose songs are still being played in the radio and covered by new bands, so the message he wrote into his songs is obviously a valid one. Some of his songs are very political and are being sung even today. And that goes for folk songs too. As a Finn, there are songs all of us Finns know, that have molded the mental and musical landscape for all of us.  It’s like you have a certain mindset or a feeling and you can find a song that everybody knows that connects with that feeling. So yes, I think there is a deep connection where the folk and blues roots music hits a nerve. And given that we live in an age of turmoil, I think the size of the impact is growing. Music and songs is an effective way to express your views and to gather people together. Not many people quote long passages from books together, but we all can (and do) sing together. Whether it is the National Anthem, a political folk song (Think about the impact Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan made) or a good blues or whatever. It connects. It joins people together. It unites. And I do hope it unites us all for the good of all people. We are all the same. All I’m saying is the answer is blowing in the wind (and see what I mean, now the song is playing in your head).

Lauri Ankerman - official website

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