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The Black Hills Are Alive With Finnish Music

by Charity Maness

A band performs for a school of elementary students with their backs facing the camera, arms waving in the air.
Photo Credit: Charity Maness
Okra Playground engages the audience at Hot Springs Elementary School with clapping and arm swaying.

Finnish music sensation Okra Playground brought its captivating and charming sound to South Dakota, connecting cultures through music.

Nestled in the southwestern corner of the Black Hills of South Dakota, the city of Hot Springs embraces artistry in all its forms. Known for its sandstone architecture, its steaming hot springs and its bountiful wildlife, this rural community of 3,485 was a perfect setting to host Okra Playground, a creative musical sensation from Finland.

Okra Playground was brought to the Black Hills in April 2023 by World Fest, an Arts Midwest program that tours international music ensembles to small communities in the Midwest. 

“I think bringing cultural experiences into our community showcases our similarities as human beings,” said Terry Slagel, board chair of the Chautauqua Craftsmen and Artisans of the Black Hills, one of Arts Midwest’s local partners. “I hope it makes people curious; makes them want to experience more and learn more about other cultures.” 

Engaging Youth

Okra Playground’s tour of the Midwest included stops in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Their week-long residencies in these communities included performances at local schools. Their performance at Hot Springs Elementary school delighted the students who lined the bleachers, enraptured with music many had never heard before.

“I love seeing the reactions of the children,” said Okra Playground artist Maija Kauhanen, “it’s so meaningful, the connection. We are really grateful to be here.”

Maija explained the origin of their name, Okra, not being a vegetable in Finland, but being the color of the earth, hence the group uses nature as their muse as well as their playground.

A woman holds up a large map of Finland
Photo Credit: Charity Maness
Paivi Hirvonen with Okra Playground shows the students of Hot Springs Elementary where Finland is located and highlights the beauty of their country.

Okra Playground engaged the youth in the musical experience teaching them some chorus lines as well as encouraging them to clap in time with the music and to feel the music by swaying their arms above their heads as the music flowed through them.

“It’s so nice having them come to such a small town, bringing the world to us,” said Hot Springs Schools Superintendent Dennis Fischer “It is such high quality music and exposes our children to something they may never hear on the radio or have the opportunity to see in person.”

Fischer was also excited to see the students engaged and participating.

“Sometimes you have to bend your thinking to see something different. To see the kids nodding their heads along with the music even though they were not familiar with the song… they felt the beat and were very entertained,” said Fischer.

Between songs the group explained where they were from, the instruments they played and even taught a little Finnish language lesson.

“One of the most important words you can know is Moi,” said singer and violinist Paivi Hirvonen. “Moi means hello and moi moi means good-bye,” she laughed. “How easy is that?”

Matt Fridell, President of the Custer Area Arts Council, another one of Arts Midwest’s local partners, sees programs like World Fest having a measurable impact and a lasting impression on youth.

“These types of programs affect our kids long after the day of the program by opening their minds to learning about global cultures and providing exposure to really creative people and talented musicians,” said Fridell. “Both groups that have come to us so far through World Fest have created moments in my life that I will always remember, and I think that others feel the same.”

“Music, like food, brings people together and we can all benefit from more of that.” said Martin Meyer, a board member of the Southern Hills Economic Development Company. “Providing residents with opportunities to experience music from other countries and cultures broadens our viewpoints and helps us to see the similarities within our cultural distinctions.”

It’s so nice having them come to such a small town, bringing the world to us.

Dennis Fischer, Hot Springs Schools Superintendent

Music of the Ages

True to their name, the Okra Playground members had fun performing with a variety of instruments, some with history dating back thousands of years.

Both Maija Kauhanen and Maija Pokela played the kantele, the national instrument of Finland, a centuries old Finnish stringed instrument akin to a box zither.

Päivi Hirvonen played the fiddle, yet also added to her repertoire a jouhikko or bowed lyre, a four stringed instrument with roots dating back to the 3rd millennium BC.

The more modern instruments were a keyboard and accordion played by Veikko Muikku while Oskari Lehtonen supplied percussion with an electronic drum and Sami Kujala melded with Lehtinen to keep the rhythm with the bass guitar.

All together, they played music that moved the soul with a hint of Nordic and Baltic sounds mingling with the melodies harking to the distant past of cultures intertwined.

Bridging the Generation Gap

On a trip to Pine Hills retirement community in Hot Springs, Okra Playground changed speeds to make special human connections with the seniors, leaning the power of music to transcend time and touches the soul.

Mixed by sound master extraordinaire, Mika Jokela, the music floated through the Pine Hills dining hall transforming the space into an intimate concert venue.

The audience needed little encouragement to join in the fun as their heads were bobbing and their toes were tapping to the beat of each song.

A collective sigh of excitement could be heard when Okra Playground announced they would play a polka leaving the audience asking an encore.

“I thought it was absolutely wonderful,” said Frances McDade, age 90. “I could feel the energy flowing through the room.”

Her sentiments were reiterated by many in the audience, most wishing the concert had not come to an end.

“Wasn’t that just amazing,” exclaimed 95 year old Gladys Pullins. “I just wanted to get up and dance, they were fantastic.”

A group shot of a 5 piece band and two residents of a senior center. Everyone smiles for the camera.
Photo Credit: Charity Maness
After the concert at Pine Hills retirement community the band mingled with the audience and posed for pictures, pictured here with Gladys Pullins, 95 and Frances McDade, 90.

I hope it makes people curious; makes them want to experience more and learn more about other cultures.

Terry Slagel, Chautauqua Craftsmen and Artisans of the Black Hills

Standing Room Only

There is much to be said about the word getting around in a small town as Okra Playground’s last concert was played to a standing room only crowd at the Mueller Center; the largest venue in the county.

A woman sings into a mix while a bass player plays behind her
Photo Credit: Charity Maness
Maija Kauhanen passionately performs a solo at the Community Concert in Hot Springs.

“My son heard them at his school and told me I just had to see them myself,” said Kelly Bedhar “It was amazing,” she exclaimed.

Local community volunteer Beth Spitzer agreed

“I thought it was fantastic to experience new music,” she said. “It was fun; a great cultural experience and the fact that they wove old Finnish poetry into their songs was very interesting.

One person in attendance felt the pull from home when he heard the group play.

“I understood every word,” said Jakka Huhtiniemi, of Hill City, yet born and raised in Finland. “It warmed my heart to hear music from my country.”

Events like the finale concert show what’s special about programs like World Fest, says Terry Slagel.

“We are able to experience deeper levels of understanding about one another as individuals, communities and nations through our shared appreciation of the arts. It can’t help but broaden our perspective when we are around people different from ourselves,” says Slagel.

A program of Arts Midwest, the 2023 World Fest is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. Arts Midwest is also generously supported by Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, Wisconsin Arts Board, 3M, Crane Group and individual donors and partners.