Olli AhvenlahtiBorn: August 6th, 1949, Helsinki (Finland)
As an adolescent, Olli soon got involved in Helsinki’s jazz scene: “While in high school, I had some friends… guys who were three or four years older than me, who were interested the new jazz protagonists – the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We sat in somebody’s basement and listened to their records. It sort of woke me up, introducing me to these modern jazz records which were not in my father’s collection. By the time I graduated from secondary school in ’68, I had already been playing in some bands. Because I was doing well at school, it was only natural that I would go to university to get an academic grade. I chose English philology. Simultaneously, I continued studying the piano at the conservatoire with teachers such as Clara Grenman and Jaakko Somero. Meanwhile, I had moved to Helsinki’s city centre, where there was an active jazz club life. I became more and more involved in that.”
Gradually, Olli’s English studies moved to the background further and further in favour of music. One man was more instrumental in this development than others: jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Esko Linnavalli (1941-1991). “It was all Esko’s fault”, Ahvenlahti smiles. “He dragged me into the business. I met him at some jazz club towards the end of the 1960s. He was the best arranger and band leader in Finland at that time. Having spent some years in Sweden, he was more advanced in his approach than others – certainly more modern than guys such as Toivo Kärki and Jaakko Salo, the old generation of studio arrangers in popular music. Frankly, I feel he was the only able arranger in Finland back then. It was only after a while that Esko and I discovered we got on really well. He was the funniest guy I ever knew. His cynical humour appealed to me. We started hanging out together, having endless conversations about the piano and modern jazz. Around that same time, Esko started making these really big arrangements for Finnish pop stars. Up to that point, he had usually played the piano on the recording sessions himself, but now that the bands he worked with had become so extended, he needed to stand up in front of them as a conductor. Since Esko knew my skills and we were friends, he chose me as his replacement at the piano. That is how it all started”.
“All of a sudden, I found myself working extensively as a pianist not only in record studios, but in radio and the television centre as well. There were sessions everywhere – and Esko always managed to get me in. I was making really good money. Therefore, I figured, that if I am going to be an English teacher, I might have to move to some provincial town, far away from the sessions and jazz scene in Helsinki… and the money would not be that good. With a diploma from the music academy, I could perhaps be a church organist – and the salary would be equally poor, so what the hell? I liked working as a session musician and I discovered I was really good at it – so why not choose it as my profession? I decided to quit my studies, even if it meant not obtaining any diploma. In 1974-’75, I left the Sibelius Academy and the University of Helsinki, where I had also been studying musicology for some time. If it had been up to me, I would have stopped earlier, but, for my parents’ sake, I allowed it to drag on for some more years. Shortly after leaving the conservatoire, in ’75, I spent one autumn in Boston to study the piano at the Berklee College of Music. Gary Burton was one of my teachers there. I would have liked to stay longer, but due to personal reasons I had to come back to Helsinki.”
In the mid-1970s, Otto Donner’s record label Love Records offered Olli Ahvenlahti the opportunity to record two solo albums, ‘Bandstand’ (1975) and ‘The Poet’ (1976). “It was Otto who suggested to me that I should make a record”, Ahvenlahti explains. “While studio work took up most of my time, I had still been playing extensively in the Helsinki jazz circuit… and Otto felt I deserved an opportunity. For ‘Bandstand’, I worked with Måns Groundstroem, a bass player who occasionally did some producing jobs for Love Records. I wrote the pieces for the album myself. We recorded it in Stockholm. At that time, I was really fond of the Fender Rhodes piano. I had bought my first one in ’72 or ’73. I wanted to combine a traditional acoustic jazz approach, with saxophones and flugelhorn and all, with the slight rock elements and electricity of the Fender piano. Releasing such an album amounted to making a personal statement… it was not really about selling records. Love Records had 1,000 copies printed of each of my albums, and neither of them sold more than a couple of hundred. Jazz was my passion, like it was Esko Linnavalli’s passion as well, but our daily bread had to come from our studio work on pop and Schlager. It was the only way to make a living. Funnily, many years later, I did make some money with my solo work. In 2001, a British producer took one of the pieces of my second album ‘The Poet’ (this piece was ‘Grandma’s rocking chair’ – ed.) and made a DJ version of it. The single record did well in the UK, and later onwards in Finland too”.
Meanwhile, Ahvenlahti’s studio work was taking on a new dimension. The pianist gradually turned into an arranger. One of his first commissions as an orchestrator and producer was with folk singer Reijo Frank, with whom he did the album ‘Toveruudella’ in 1974. In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Ahvenlahti also wrote arrangements for the likes of Paula Koivuniemi, Markku Aro, Seija Simola, Eino Valtanen, Vicky Rosti, and Markku Blomqvist. His longest lasting working relationship, however, was with actor and singer Vesa-Matti Loiri.
“I sort of inherited Vesa-Matti from Esko Linnavalli”, he explains. “Esko had been Vesa-Matti’s pianist and arranger until ’74, but as he was so busy here in Helsinki arranging and recording studio work, he found himself unable to continue touring with him. That is why he gave Vesku, as he is nicknamed, to me. Vesa-Matti was ok with that. As for arranging, of course I had the classical background, but pop music is really a different language. Writing a jazzy arrangement for a small or bigger band is something which exclusively classically trained musicians know nothing about. I learned writing arrangements simply by doing it – and by working with Esko, him teaching me. He was a mentor for me in so many ways. With Vesa-Matti Loiri, I did the first LP in 1977 (called ‘Vesku helismaasta’ – ed.). We ended up working closely together for fifteen years, recording over a dozen of albums and doing concert tours all over Finland.”
“The nice thing of working with Vesku is his versatility”, Ahvenlahti continues. “Being an actor, he likes to do comical characters on stage. The best-known of these is his creation of Jean-Pierre Kusela, a kind of theatrical French singer. If he did Kusela, he wore a special suit and heavy make-up. I dressed up behind the piano as well. In 1986, we had a massive hit with ‘Naurava kulkuri’, a cover of an American song, in which Vesku starts telling a story but bursts into laughter, finding himself unable to stop for the remainder of the song. On the other hand, Vesa-Matti can be very introverted. In ’85, I composed and arranged a jazz album for him with poems of Hermann Hesse, called ‘Lasihelmipeli’. At that time, Vesku was into theosophy and Buddhism. He wondered if I could write music to fifteen of Hesse’s poems. It was really difficult, because there is no rhyme in it… so I had to devise a system to get the story out and at the same time make sense musically. There were electric guitars and big drums… really avant-garde. We did two long tours with this music.”
In jazz music, Olli Ahvenlahti continued being involved in several interesting projects. Most high profile on the credits list is perhaps doing a TV concert with jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie in 1976. “There was a Bahá’í conference taking place here in Helsinki”, Ahvenlahti recalls. “Dizzy was an adherent to the Bahá’í Faith and that was why he attended this meeting. A jazz guy in YLE radio got wind of this and contacted Dizzy’s manager. They were willing to do a studio jazz concert for television. A band of Finnish musicians was booked to accompany him. I was at the piano. We were given the titles of the tunes Dizzy wanted to play, so we could prepare. We spent an afternoon rehearsing with him, doing the studio concert in the evening. It turned out he was really funny, laid-back, and easy to work with. It is a nice memory.”
Apart from this one-off gig, Ahvenlahti was in several local jazz groups for many years. When Esko Linnavalli founded the UMO Jazz Orchestra in 1975, Ahvenlahti became a member right away. He stayed in this big band for seven years. Moreover, simultaneously, he was in Pekka Pohjola’s fusion band ‘The Group’, with which he did one studio album and several tours in Scandinavia and West Germany. For both ensembles, Ahvenlahti wrote part of the repertoire. With Linnavalli, he was involved in two Finnish entries to the Nordring Radio Festival of Popular Music (Oslo 1978 & Helsinki 1980). In the 1980s, Olli did three more solo albums: ‘Based on a novel’ (1981), ‘Tämä on ensimmäinen päiva’ (with the so-called Olli Ahvenlahti Ensemble, 1983), and ‘The way you walk’ (1986).
In 1977, Olli Ahvenlahti became a household name for television viewers across Finland. Private TV channel MTV offered him his own weekly television show, ‘Toivotaan toivotaan’, which ran for five years. “‘Toivotaan toivotaan’ was the Finnish cover version of ‘Che sarà’ by José Feliciano”, Olli explains. “Literally translated, the Finnish title means ‘Let’s wish’. The concept of the show was people sending postcards, submitting the titles of their favourite songs. I chose a set of songs. Popular Finnish artists would join me and my octet every week. My job also involved writing all of the arrangements. Though the show did not go out at primetime, but on Sunday afternoons, it was hugely popular. The times were different back then. In those days, we only had two TV channels in Finland – state-run YLE and private company MTV… so you could not really miss it. Many people tuned in. In the years after ‘Toivotaan toivotaan’ stopped in ’82, I hosted several more music shows for YLE and MTV.”
In 1990, after having been freelance for all his career, Olli Ahvenlahti was suddenly given the opportunity to join YLE as the staff conductor for the TV department. “At some point in ’89, I received a phone call”, Ahvenlahti recalls. “It was one of the guys heading YLE. He explained to me that Ossi Runne was retiring and that they needed a successor. It was funny how this came about. We were just having a pause with Vesa-Matti Loiri’s tours, since Vesku had been offered the main part in a Dostojevski play in the Helsinki City Theatre. As he accepted, it involved cancelling three months of gigs, enabling Vesa-Matti to stay in town to do the rehearsals and performances. It was in this three month gap that I was given this phone call. It was a watershed moment, because it would involve giving up working with Vesa-Matti Loiri after fifteen years. After all, Vesku was under contract with the rival MTV network. Nevertheless, I decided to go for it. It was exciting… I had never really thought of myself as a conductor. True, I had been following classes with two classical conductors to find out about the basics, which I needed to conduct orchestras in recording sessions… but big television orchestras are a completely different thing.”
Even in the days of Ossi Runne, YLE had never had a standing radio or television orchestra, instead relying on freelance musicians to form any sort of small or big band for each given TV show that needed orchestral backing. Part of Ahvenlahti’s duties was to compile and conduct these bands. He also hosted several television shows for many years, most notably ‘Kapellimestarin vieraat’, ‘Lauantai-illan huumaa’, and ‘Neljän tuulen tiellä’, talk shows with guests from the entertainment business and a ten to twelve piece live band. Moreover, he also conducted and wrote most of the orchestrations for all Finnish Eurovision pre-selections between 1990 and 1998, subsequently conducting the winning entry in the international Eurovision final. Though his job did not really involve any producing work, he was responsible for several jazz programs for YLE, including a pan-European jazz night.
Eventually, Ahvenlahti stayed on at YLE for twelve years (1990-2002). “In 2002, the function of staff conductor was done away with altogether”, he explains. “The writing had been on the wall for several years. First, there was the Eurovision Song Contest, in which the live band was no longer an integral part from 1999 onwards. It was clear that things were moving in that direction. In Finland, several smaller private television channels had sprung up, meaning competition for YLE was becoming tougher and tougher. Managers were re-organising all departments and there were huge budget cuts. YLE decided to buy more programmes from independent production companies and get rid of much of their own staff. Time and again, we heard the argument that music had become too expensive. The irony was… the new Head of the Entertainment Department was someone without a background in music. However, he loved drama, investing enormous sums in weird new television series which failed to catch on with Finnish television audiences. In the end, the entire YLE TV1 Entertainment Department was faded out and I lost my job.”
“Having said that, it was not an entirely negative development from my point of view”, Ahvenlahti continues. “I enjoyed my job at YLE, but, over time, I had increasingly felt stuck in a nine-to-five routine. I did not have the opportunity to play jazz as often as I wanted. There were some interesting offers from the jazz circuit which I had to decline, because I could not commit myself. Away from YLE, I just did some night work in theatre now and again. I also wrote a couple of film soundtracks for director Ere Kokkonen, with whom I had been working closely in the world of theatre (one of these Kokkonen films was the comedy ‘Vääpeli Körmy-Taisteluni’, 1994 – ed.). About a year after leaving YLE, Kokkonen offered me the job of permanent conductor at his theatre, the Helsinki Comedy Theatre. I was part of a group of fifteen people: writers, actors, and musicians. I was the musical director of all shows which were performed. We mainly did traditional revue… I was an old hand at comedy, because I had been doing just that with Vesa-Matti Loiri. In the end, I stayed with the Helsinki Comedy Theatre for four years, between 2004 and 2008.”
After leaving YLE, Olli Ahvenlahti has been able to indulge in a host of freelance projects on stage and in the studio. “After 2002, I started being really interested again in what was going on in modern jazz. I did gigs here and there and I really enjoyed that. I also did a couple of studio projects as an arranger, though these commissions have become few and far between, as the recording business has changed so profoundly since the 1980s. After turning freelance again in ’08, I have been working less, though I still do accept offers to do projects here and there. In the summer season, there are festivals, including jazz gigs. I have also kept working as a piano accompanist for singers. In 2015, I did a theatre tour across Finland with two singers, doing a show about Tapio Rautavaara, who won an Olympic gold medal at the javelin in London in ’48, but who was an actor and popular entertainer at the same time. It is the kind of work that I have done all my life. I am good at it and singers trust me at what I am doing… and most importantly, it is a job that I still enjoy doing a lot.”
Olli Ahvenlahti in the Eurovision Song Contest
Ahvenlahti: “I had been the pianist or keyboard player in the orchestra which Ossi put together for the Finnish heats many times in the 1970s and 1980s. Besides, I composed a song which competed in the 1980 Finnish selection, ‘Päättymätön laulu’. Irina Milan performed it. In Eurovision terms, it was a really different song. That year, YLE had invited Otto Donner, me, and several guys from jazz circles who usually did not compete to represent Finland in the contest... just to get songs from another angle. I was happy to try... yeah, why not? I had been watching the show from 1963 onwards, when ‘Dansevise’ won it for Denmark. I never looked down upon the contest. I have always thought about music in a 180 degrees way... 180 degrees at its minimum! Some of the jazz critics wrote some nasty things about me in the 1970s and 1980s because I was doing light entertainment as well. To their mind, by doing shit music I showed that I was not devoted enough to real jazz. Some of these guys are – thank God – dead already... while music never dies!”
In 1987, when Runne was still conducting for Finland in the contest, the Finnish selection programme was won by Vicky Rosti performing ‘Sata salamaa’, composed by Petri Laaksonen. Laaksonen asked Olli Ahvenlahti to take care of the orchestration: “Petri is a friend of mine, with whom I have been working a lot over the years. He is a good songwriter. He also wrote ‘Eläköön elämä’ and came close to representing Finland on a couple of more occasions. I wrote the initial arrangement for ‘Sata salamaa’, which was played in the Eurovision Song Contest, but when they did a studio recording of the song, Kassu Halonen slightly adapted it. He thought my arrangement was too jazzy and therefore he made a version which was more simple and straightforward. Which of the two arrangements is better? That is up to others to judge, but I do not think many people will notice the differences in the first place. Kassu’s version is not that far away from what I came up with”.
When Olli Ahvenlahti took over conducting for Finland in the Eurovision Song Contest from Ossi Runne, did he choose a different approach than his predecessor? Ahvenlahti: “Yes, in some ways I did. I felt we needed a different band for the Finnish heats. Ossi liked working with strings and a relatively small rhythm section, whereas I chose leaving out the string group altogether and using synthesizers instead. In the rhythm group, I had two guitarists instead of one, and also two percussionists. Then there was a seven or eight piece brass group and three backing vocalists. In all, my Eurovision band usually consisted of some sixteen pieces”.
But there was more: “Another thing was... Ossi seldom wrote the arrangements himself. He was an excellent trumpet player and conductor, but writing arrangements for a big band was not really his thing. Instead, he preferred to hand-pick the arrangers for each of the songs participating in the Finnish selection. When I started doing Eurovision, I wrote many of the arrangements myself... in fact, as a rule, I did the arrangements for almost all songs of which the composers did not have a preference for one arranger or the other. YLE production preferred me to take care of this job, as it saved them some good money and the result would pretty much have been the same anyway, whoever did it. I usually had a meeting with the different songwriting teams, asking them what they wanted from the band: ‘How do you want it to sound?’ So I based the arrangements on their ideas. The bit of the Eurovision job which was the hardest and perhaps also most fun was picking the songs for the Finnish heats. Each year, there were at least 350 cassettes to listen to, submitted by professional songwriters as well as amateurs. There would be a group of five to seven YLE staff members with me to judge each song. It took us days to go through all of them.”
In 1990, the Finnish pre-selection was won by vocal quartet Beat from Turku and their song ‘Fri?’. It was the first time in Eurovision history that Finland was represented by an entry in Swedish, the country’s second official language, spoken as a first language by about five percent of the population. In Zagreb, Yugoslavia, Beat failed to impress the Eurovision juries, however, tying for last place with Norway. “It was nice to try with a song in Swedish for once”, Ahvenlahti comments. “After all, we are a bilingual country. The majority of the Finnish audience did not like it, though. The song itself was ok, but nothing special. Visiting Zagreb was a nice experience. It is a beautiful town, though there was a minor earthquake a couple of days before the concert, which was a little scary.”
“It was good to meet Noel Kelehan again”, Olli continues. “I had encountered him first in 1980, when he was a member of the Irish delegation to the Nordring Festival in Helsinki. I spent some evenings with Esko Linnavalli and Noel in a local pub, having a beer and chatting away about jazz music. He was such a nice guy and a great piano player. When the production team in Zagreb decided there was no need to allow each country’s conductor his bow on camera, as had been customary for so many years, it was Noel who took the lead in uniting us. It was only logical, because he was the senior, having been around for so long in the contest. We got together for a meeting and signed a declaration. If the producer did not stand down, we would not conduct! In the end, they backed down. Something similar happened in Oslo six years later. Again, we were indignant. There are always younger generations who do not want to do things the old-fashioned way and try new ideas... wrong ideas in this case. But these were all signs of which direction the Eurovision Song Contest and television entertainment in general were going.”
On the night of the television broadcast in Zagreb, Olli Ahvenlahti had a slight practical problem, but he was helped out by a colleague: “Just three minutes before we were due to go on stage, I was trying to get my bow tie right, but something was wrong with the rubber clip. So I was like: “Oh shit, my tie is broken, what do I do now?” Then, Curt-Eric Holmquist, who was conducting for Sweden that year, suggested to me wearing his tie instead. That was a really nice gesture of him. So I went on stage and conducted our entry wearing Curt-Eric’s bow tie. I did not have any problems conducting the orchestra in Zagreb. There were no hiccups in rehearsals either. Toto Cutugno won it for Italy. This guy had a good song, but when he came there, it was fifteen seconds too long. He argued and refused to cut it down to the three minutes maximum dictated by Eurovision rules (though in the end, the Italian delegation was forced to cut the song down to three minutes to avoid disqualification – ed.). All week, he behaved as if he was the king of the contest... ‘I own this place you know’. When he won it, I remember I felt slightly annoyed.”
As a result of Cutugno’s win in 1990, the festival moved to Italy – more specifically to Rome’s Cinnecittà Studios. Finland was represented by Ile Kallio’s song ‘Hullu yö’, performed by Kaija Kärkinen. Based on the studio arrangement by Kallio himself and Jukka Hakoköngäs, Olli Ahvenlahti wrote a minimalistic orchestration which he conducted in Rome. Despite its modern approach, the Finnish performance failed to impress the European juries, picking up only six votes and a position near the bottom of the scoreboard. “Working in Cinnecittà’s Studio 5, a legendary Fellini studio, was special”, Ahvenlahti recalls. “As for the orchestra, well... the musicians were good enough, but they were not as much into Eurovision as the Irish bands I worked with later... they were good musicians, but their effort was lousy. ‘Hullu yö’ was a pop-rock song, far removed from the typical Eurovision style and, frankly, I quite liked it. Sweden’s victory with Carola Häggkvist did not come as a surprise. All week, Carola had been the star. There was a huge army of delegates and press from Sweden around her, and the attitude to the other delegations was simply: “Make way please”. But yeah, all in all, Rome was ok”.
In the 1992 international Eurovision final, held in Malmö (Sweden), the Finns were confident they could do very well with a pop-rock effort, ‘Yamma yamma’ – a striking choice given the fact that rock was not part of the Eurovision idiom in the early 1990s. The song was composed by Pave Maijanen who also performed it on stage. Once again, it was not to be: Finland came twenty-third and last. “It was a huge disappointment when we lost in Malmö”, Olli Ahvenlahti comments. “I was enthusiastic about this song too. Here we had a modern Finnish pop song with a strong rhythm. I purposely kept the arrangement low key – no strings or brass… just bass, guitar, and percussion. Moreover, ‘Yamma yamma’ was a catchphrase which even people not understanding any Finnish could remember. Apparently, we were wrong. I was particularly sad for Pave Maijanen. He was given a very bad press in Finland, something he did not deserve. The festival in Malmö was well organised, but what do you expect… Melodifestivalen has always been a big thing in Sweden – perhaps too big, but at least the Swedes know how to respect the traditions of Eurovision.”
When the Eurovision Song Contest moved to Millstreet in Ireland in 1993, Finland was represented by its national pop icon, Katri Helena, who delivered a charming performance of ‘Tule luo’, a melodious composition by Matti Puurtinen. “Matti also did the arrangement”, Ahvenlahti adds. “He is a professional musician and more than capable of writing for orchestras himself, so he did not need my help there. Coming to Millstreet for Eurovision was a strange experience. It was the wrong place to hold such an international event. Somehow, the Irish must have had the idea to take the contest to the countryside. Millstreet was a small village and participants had to stay in hotels in towns quite far away. We were staying in Killarney and, each day of the Eurovision week, we were taken on a forty-five-minute bus drive along these narrow roads… and these guys drive buses like hell! The arena in Millstreet was usually used for equestrian sports. In this, the Irish had forgotten to think about some persons being allergic to horses. I was not one of them, but there were two people in the Finnish delegation who were – and, as you can imagine, they had quite a hard time.”
Finland had a particularly unhappy run in the Eurovision in the 1990s, and even Katri Helena could not really do much about it, finishing seventeenth amongst twenty-five competitors. Ahvenlahti: “Of course, we knew ‘Tule luo’ was not a Eurovision winner, but we expected a slightly better outcome than what we got. It was a good song – and specifically a good song for Katri. Like all other artists with whom I worked on a Eurovision project, she was pleasant to work with. Finland is a small country with a small music scene in which everyone knows one another. There are no big stars here. In rehearsals, Katri was very cooperative. She is not an artist to display any selfishness… it is not in her character. She has always been nice to work with – nice as hell!”
After two consecutive Finnish entries with hardly any orchestral elements in the festivals of 1991 and 1992, ‘Tule luo’ gave OIli Ahvenlahti the opportunity to conduct a lavish arrangement in which the full string and brass sections of the Irish RTÉ Concert Orchestra were involved. “The kind of orchestral approach used in ‘Tule luo’ was becoming the exception in the 1990s”, Ahvenlahti comments. “Usually, there were backing tracks to which the orchestra played along. Even when the rhythm elements were played live by the orchestra, there often was a click track on the headphones of the conductor and some of the rhythm players, indicating the correct tempo. Once you had counted the band in and the machine was rolling, there was nothing much you could do about it. Was a conductor superfluous in such a setup? Well, no, not really, because the different players in the orchestra needed someone to cue them, indicating their respective entries at the correct moment.”
Because Ireland won its own contest in Millstreet, the 1994 edition of the festival was held on the Green Island once again – though this time simply in Dublin. Finland’s representatives were CatCat, a sister duo from Tornio in Northern Finland. Their vehicle was an uncomplicated up-tempo effort, ‘Bye bye baby’, which had been the surprise winner of the Finnish pre-selection in Helsinki. Olli Ahvenlahti admits he was disappointed about the outcome. “Something in that song must have attracted the taste of the Finnish TV audience. It was a simple song, which could have been a good thing for the Eurovision Song Contest – but, in this case, it was too simple. I felt it was not a Eurovision song and, accordingly, I did not have high expectations of it doing well in Dublin”.
Ahvenlahti wrote the orchestration for ‘Bye bye baby’ himself in the usual fashion, i.e. taking into account the wishes of the songwriting team – in this case, Kari Salli and Make Lentonen. Strikingly, the arrangement played in Dublin was much more orchestral than the instrumentation of ‘Bye bye baby’ played in the Finnish final, which had closely followed the studio recording. How come? As Olli Ahvenlahti himself does not remember, we turned to one of the producers of the studio version, Petri Alanko (a.k.a. Peter Lowland). As it turns out, Alanko’s story proves an interesting side-step in Ahvenlahti’s Eurovision career, as it shows why the stage versions of Eurovision songs towards the end of the orchestra era sometimes sounded so different when compared to the studio version. Alanko vividly remembers working on the record version of ‘Bye bye baby’:
“When my co-producer Jari Karjalainen and I accepted the request from CatCat’s record company to produce this song, we faced one big problem: the deadline. We literally only had one day before the demo had to be submitted to Finnish TV. We had worked with the girls before and they appreciated our approach. Virpi and Katja were very keen on having a certain element of energy and danceability in their songs… They were after what they jokingly used to call haddawayeurodancetechnopianoorgan. The girls liked the bouncing bass line and quickly-put-together drum programming we came up with. The songwriters, however, were also around in the studio and they were somewhat nervous about what we were doing. They wanted the arrangement to be much smoother and easier, much more schlager-ish. At one point, when one of them was complaining we were working too fast, Jari got slightly frustrated, made a phone call to the record company, and asked for their permission to throw them out. After having an ok for that, I friendlily, yet resolutely asked the guys to leave the premises for a short while, as we really wanted to have the song done as quickly as possible… which we did. Jari and I were in the audience at the Finnish finals. Olli’s band more or less copied our backing track, but after winning the final, Salli and Lentonen must have seized their opportunity when Olli asked them for their wishes. These guys genuinely believed the schlager approach stood a better chance of doing well. The international Eurovision orchestration is obviously their brainchild, with some obviously a bit off-genre Ahvenlahti elements thrown in. Jari and I were never asked for our opinion. Though I respect the choice made by the songwriters, I feel the Eurovision final version lacks the punch and energy which this song so badly needed. It was never good enough to make it into the top ten, but they could surely have picked up some more points.”
With the schlager version of ‘Bye bye baby’, Finland were stuck with a mere eleven points at the 1994 contest in Ireland. In spite of another disappointing result, Olli Ahvenlahti thinks back of his Dublin experience with a smile: “I was almost late for the concert that year. At the auditorium, I had been having a good time with Anders Berglund, the conductor for Sweden, a jazz guy like me who had become a friend. At one point, we both realized we had left our tuxedoes in the hotel. We had to go back! There was a minibus which took us, but on our way back to the theatre we got stuck in a traffic jam. We could not move an inch… and remember Sweden and Finland were the first two countries in the draw that evening! We had to make a phone call – and in a matter of minutes, a motorcycle unit of the police was there to free us. We got in just in time, but the production team was furious: “Where the fuck have you been?” So, yeah, that was the story of two bandleaders in a minibus being escorted through Dublin by Irish police.”
In the 1990s, faced with an ever-increasing number of countries from Central and Eastern Europe keen to take part in the contest, the EBU came up with a system in which the worst scoring countries of the previous year were relegated from the competition for one edition. Finland was a victim of this rule (which saw several modifications over the years until it was abolished in 2004 with the introduction of the semi-finals) in 1995 and again in 1997. In spite of having no role as a conductor in either of these Eurovision finals, Olli Ahvenlahti attended both events – this time as a commentator for Finnish television. “In ’95, I was there with Erkki Pohjanheimo, who was the Head of Light Entertainment at YLE back then. Erkki wanted to do the commentating that year and asked me to join him. He argued I had the perspective in Eurovision, as I had been participating several times. Moreover, I speak fluent English, which many people in YLE did not. I liked my new role, which was totally different from what I usually did. In ’97, I was there to do the job with Aki Sirkesalo, then a famous pop singer. We prepared ourselves well and I feel our commentary was really good. Aki tragically died in the Thailand tsunami in 2004.”
In 1996, the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Oslo, Norway. Finland’s entry was a country-folk tune called ‘Niin kaunis on taivas’ (words and music by Timo Niemi), performed by Jasmine. Once again, Olli Ahvenlahti took care of the orchestration, which he conducted himself: “Again, this was a very simple song. The girl was not at home on this huge stage in Oslo at all. Already during rehearsals, she was very nervous. The backing singers and I thought of some plan to make her feel more confident and bring about a better performance. If my memory serves me well, we thought of some signs to give to Jasmine when we accompanied her to the stage… or even on stage, but I do not remember exactly. At any rate, on the night, she made a little mistake during one of the verses and, again, we did not make it in the voting.”
In Oslo, for the third time in the 1990s, Finland came last. How much involved did Ahvenlahti feel, when a song he had orchestrated and conducted failed to make an impression on the international stage? “Well, representing Finland is a big thing for the singer, and I felt the responsibility to help as well as I could – and if things went wrong, I felt part of the losing team as well. We Finns were used to not doing well. With one disappointment following the other, we more or less felt it was our fate to do badly in Eurovision. We could not sing in English back then, and singing in Finnish is a major drawback. Moreover, we chose Finnish type of songs – and these simply do not sell in Central Europe. Nonetheless, every year, we tried our best, but it never turned out the way we were hoping for.”
In 1998, once again, the Finns tried something new – this time even something which had never been tried before on the Eurovision stage: as Adiemus’ Karl Jenkins was conquering the world with his esoteric New Age sound, Finnish songwriters Alexi Ahoniemi and Tommy Mansikka-aho had an idea of trying something in the same mood for the Eurovision Song Contest. Ahoniemi formed a group, Edea, in which soprano Marika Krook took centre-stage. The song ‘Aava’ (literally translated ‘Open landscape’), boosted by Krook’s confident performance, stormed to victory in the Finnish pre-selection programme. Ahvenlahti: “Alexi Ahoniemi deliberately created something which did not sound Finnish in any way... even the language hardly plays a role, as there are hardly any lyrics. I was quite happy with this song. Like Alexi himself, I was quite sure that we could make it into the top ten internationally. The melody in itself is pleasant and memorable. Moreover, there was something in this tune which was so different from all the others. It really stood out”.
In the international final in Birmingham, England, Finnish hopes were crushed once more, though the fifteenth place (22 points) which Edea scraped out constitutes the best result for Finland in the contest in the 1990s. “The BBC Concert Orchestra were real professionals”, Ahvenlahti recalls. “I only conducted part of them, as the orchestration only consisted of strings. All rhythm elements were on a backing track. I was not involved in writing the arrangement, as Alexi and some of the group members had taken care of that. It was unfortunate that Marika did not perform the way she had done in Helsinki. She was nervous (and also ill during the Eurovision week, ed.). At the end of the song, she was supposed to deliver a high note, but, lacking the confidence, she chose the safe way out, blending in with the background vocals. Obviously, when the results came in, we were disappointed”.
In Birmingham, Olli Ahvenlahti was not aware yet that it was to be the last time he was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest. That year, the European Broadcasting Union decided to do away with the orchestra in the competition. From 1999 onwards, live music has not been part of the festival. When asked if it was a development which was inevitable, Ahvenlahti replies: “I was not present at the EBU meetings in which these issues were discussed, but it had been obvious for some time already that the machines of change had taken over. Throughout the nineties, there had been a tendency towards using click tracks and backing tapes. Things seemed to be moving that way. This was a time in which also at YLE, new managers told us live music was too expensive. Budgets were getting smaller and smaller. When they abolished the Eurovision orchestra, those responsible also claimed it cost them too much – which is bullshit... but somehow they managed to get their way. I was dismayed when I heard of it: What the fuck, no band, ok?. I am glad to have been there at the Eurovision Song Contest in the good old days, the live music days... to have been part of an old-fashioned three-hour music show. I would not have wanted to miss that experience. Nowadays, it is a completely different programme. The focus is on the image. Back in my days, there were perhaps fifteen cameras, whilst they now use some thirty-five or forty. In a way, the music suffers. Songs have become too similar... there is not that much variation. Also, I cannot help feeling the event has grown too big. With thirty-five or even more participants, it has become an event which lasts two weeks, with semi-finals... well, commercially, it might be a successful approach, but I preferred it the old way.”
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