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Song, Bread, Friendship: Exploring Finnish Heritage in Minnesota

by Connie Vandermay

People sit in chairs in a dimly lit gallery, watching a performance being projected on the wall.
Photo Credit: Connie Vandermay
A group of people watch a livestream featuring Kardemimmit in the New York Mills Cultural Center. Photo by Connie Vandermay.

Over the course of seven days and nine time zones, Finnish band Kardemimmit joined Minnesota's New York Mills community in celebrating its Scandinavian heritage.

With opportunity, bits and pieces of the past slip to another generation. Arts Midwest Folkefest, a performing arts residency program that brings international musicians to Midwestern communities, is one such opportunity.

Located in central Minnesota, New York Mills and its neighboring community, Menahga, have deep ties to the Finnish culture brought by immigrants who came to the area 135 years ago.

In March 2021, New York Mills and Menahga partnered to host a week-long residency featuring Kardemimmit, an all-women Finnish folk ensemble including Anna Wegelius, Maija Pokela, Jutta Rahmel, and Leeni Wegelius.

“Folkefest is a unique opportunity to simultaneously celebrate our local Finnish heritage and provide a window to contemporary Finnish culture,” said Betsy Roder, director of the nationally recognized New York Mills Cultural Center.

It quickly became apparent that when communities with a shared history reconnect, fun and inspiration abound.

A student in a surgical mask sits amongst other students, and is holding and observing a kantele, the Finnish national musical instrument.
Photo Credit: Connie Vandermay
A student examines a kantele, the Finnish national instrument, during a workshop at her school. Photo by Connie Vandermay

Connecting across 135 years

Kardemimmit was set to tour to Minnesota in March 2020, but travel restrictions and shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic put the program on hold. During the following months, Arts Midwest worked with our partners in New York Mills to pivot the activities to a digital residency.

Throughout the residency, Kardemimmit worked with teachers to provide workshops for New York Mills and Menahga junior high and high school students, including conversations with band members who shared insights about their lives in Finland and hosted a transatlantic sing-a-long.

“We hope that the participants got the feeling of community and togetherness,” shared Kardemimmit member Anna Wegelius.

The workshops sparked a new interest in many students. Some were inspired to learn how to play the kantele — Finland’s national instrument and the primary instrument played by Kardemimmit — while others expressed interest in visiting Finland and seeing the places the ensemble talked about.

“The kids are obviously the best part, and the hardest part right now is just the feeling of missing out from our actual occupation, playing in the same room with the audience. You can still sense and see the energy of the participants via video call, though, even if it’s not quite the same as being in the school gym with them,” said Anna Wegelius.

“They were so good at singing that at first I thought it was a recorded video,” said sixth-grade student Aubree Salo after watching Kardemimmit perform.

A student is standing and smiling, watching a virtual performance streaming from a laptop that's propped on a chair on a stage.
Photo Credit: Connie Vandermay
A student connects with Kardemimmit during a virtual workshop. Photo by Connie Vandermay

A hands-on experience at a virtual residency

Despite the virtual nature of Folkefest, students still gained hands-on experiences with Finnish culture and traditions.

Folkefest provided local schools with two kanteles, and Salolampi Finnish Language Village in northern Minnesota loaned 15. New York Mills music teacher Rebecca Imsande introduced the instrument to her students and was impressed with how quickly they caught on.

“In a 25-minute class period, students learned the basics of how to hold the instrument to playing basic notes and chords,” Imsande said. “I’m excited to keep using the instruments with my students this year. We’re finding that they make it easier to teach chord structure when compared to other instruments.”

Later, a workshop for local high school students focused on making Pulla, a traditional Finnish cardamom bread. Dr. Amy Tervola Hultberg, Dean of the Salolampi Finnish Language Village, taught the unit.

“We live our lives for our tongues,” Hultberg said. “How is it that when we taste things, we think of people, places, things, experiences? How do we keep those flavors, those ideas, and those parts of our lives alive, even if people start to pass away or even if people say it’s too hard?”

Hultberg has spent years trying to figure out the best way to pass on heritage. She believes that it takes two steps: break down the barriers that stop a person from trying and simplify old traditions to merge with our current lives.

With this philosophy in mind, Grandma’s all-day pulla bread became Amy’s one-bowl, 15-minute, Pulla bread.

“This isn’t the bread to be angry with; you have to be gentle with this bread,” said high school Senior Grace Mindermann as she braided her second loaf. “It’s really hard to braid bread,” she added with a laugh.

International exchange student Abril Giro’ Canas said that the entire year has been about experiencing cultures outside of her home country of Spain. She was excited for the opportunity to try Pulla bread. “I learned how I really like this bread. It is very good. I now know how to do a Finnish bread.”

“You may make cardamom bread; you may not make cardamom bread. Not everyone makes that. Find who you are. Find your heritage,” Hultberg said at the close of the class. “Find foods of your people, of your background… and make those. Be empowered. Be bold. And make and try and adapt things that make your life lovely and support your passion.”

Three people in protective masks stand together in a kitchen, focused on braiding bread dough.
Photo Credit: Connie Vandermay
Dr. Amy Tervola Hultberg demonstrates how to braid Pulla bread. Photo by Connie Vandermay.

A 2:00 a.m. performance

Kardemimmit did not log off without performing a complete set — a feat that spanned eight time zones, welcomed hundreds of viewers across the United States and beyond, and was broadcast to a small audience in the Cultural Center.

“We are so grateful that they were willing to perform at 2:00 a.m. in Finland to accommodate our 7:00 p.m. concert time in Minnesota,” said Roder.

“Things went fairly well,” said Anna Wegelius in an interview following the show. “Our sound engineer, Samuli Volanto, planned how we could broadcast good quality sounds on YouTube and Facebook, which is not so simple.”

While it may not have been simple, it was successful. “It was such a treat to interact with the ensemble in real-time during the concert,” said Betsy Roder. “The ethereal sounds of Kardemimmit’s harmonic voices and kanteles floated beautifully in the Cultural Center’s open gallery space as we watched the live stream projection of the ensemble playing from their cozy Finnish farmhouse.”

Anna Wegelius added: “We are not far apart from each other, other than on the map.”

Arts Midwest was proud to partner with the New York Mills Cultural Center to bring Folkefest to central Minnesota. Arts Midwest Folkefest was produced by Arts Midwest with generous support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and in partnership with Minnesota State Arts Board.