This Lady Doesn’t Sing the Blues!

Sara Puhjanan (Submitted Photo)

INTERVIEW WITH SARA PAJUNEN

Mark: 

I’d like to start by asking a bit about your connection to Finnish heritage. Where were you born and where did you grow up? What are your ancestral links to Finnishness?

Sara:

My grandfather was from a small village just east of Tampere. My great-grandparents were from Kuortane, Kortesjärvi, and Liminka. My father grew up in Toivola, MN with Finnish as his first language.

Mark:

As a child, were you exposed to Finnish language and culture? What are your memories of those influences?

Sara:

Growing up in Hibbing, MN, I began playing in the Singing Strings performance group at a young age. The director of the group, Helinä Pakola, is from Finland. We performed repertoire from various genres and I sang in Finnish very often as a child, but I can’t say I knew what I was singing! We brought our music all over the world, including Australia, Finland, Soviet Russia, the Clinton White House, and as the official performers for the Finnish Olympic Team.

Mark:

When did you begin your musical training?

Sara:

I began taking Suzuki piano lessons at the age of 6, but I was very restless. When my mother saw an advertisement for violin in the local paper, she thought it may be a better fit if I could stand up! 

When my family moved to Minneapolis during my high school years, I played in youth orchestras and took lessons at the University of Minnesota. I received a Bachelor’s of Music from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and then I went on to study chamber music in Helsinki at Aalto University (then Stadia). Last year I also completed a Masters of Music in Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory in Boston. I’ve also studied folk music in Finland at AK Opisto in Kaustinen and with Arto Järvelä (thanks to Finlandia Foundation), and I studied hardanger fiddle in Norway with support from the American Scandinavian Foundation. 

Mark: 

I know you once performed with Finnish American folksinger Jonathan Rundman in the duo known as Kaivama. What was behind your interest in exploring Finnish American and Finnish music with Kaivama?

Sara:

My interest in my Finnish heritage started early on in my adult life. I studied Finnish language for a summer in Jyväskylä just out of high school, and during high school I took Finnish classes at the University of Minnesota. I lived in Helsinki from 2004 to 2008, where I met many relatives and visited my ancestral places. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more interested in the United States – the factors that brought my family here to this country, the history of the industry here in Northern Minnesota and beyond, and the relationship we have with the land.

Mark:

Kaivama recorded a CD with noted Finnish fiddler Arto Järvelä. How did that connection affect your musicianship?

Sara:

I consider Arto to be my mentor when it comes to Finnish folk music. In 2010 I stayed in his home in Finland studied with him. He is so naturally committed to folk music and Finnishness and he is his own musician, which I really admire! After my studies he was generous enough to record and tour with Kaivama

Mark:

You’ve worked closely with Finnish accordionist Teija Niku and collaborated with her on a couple of albums as Aallotar. How did you meet Teija?

Sara:

Teija and I initially met when she was performing with the duo, Polka Chicks, in Minneapolis. I hosted them at my house, and a year later our two duos played together at Finn Fest in San Diego. Eventually Teija and I formed our own duo, Aallotar, and our first gig was at a festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia! We have recorded two albums together and were set to tour last year in Finland and Germany, but unfortunately those performances had to be rescheduled for 2023. Our duo will definitely continue.

Mark:

It looks like you’re currently involved in two other projects. One, Sound an Echo, is a union of your fiddling and singing with folk musician, Rachael Kilgour, one of my favorite Minnesota originals. 

Sara:

In Sound an Echo, Rachael and I have focused mostly on American folk music in English or music from the British Isles – although we have performed a Finnish song or two. Our duo is also on a bit of a hiatus, but we will have a few gigs throughout 2022.

Mark:

Another project you’re working on is Mine Songs: Sounding an Altered Landscape. What do you hope to achieve with that effort?

Sara:

My Mine Songs project is a long-term umbrella project that encompasses different media rooted in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. I have always been a musician, but my interests have always been varied as well, and this is the place for me to explore. I have had Mine Songs work in various galleries and this fall I will have a solo exhibition at the Lyric Art Center in Virginia, MN. The works – whether photographs, audiovisual art, music compositions – ask the viewer/listener to sink into the landscape in a different way, a way to allows for reflection on new ways of connecting to the earth. I have been working recently on aerial photographs of the region and will have them for sale on my website (www.sarapajunen.com). I also plan to release an album of Mine Songs work soon.

Mark:

Any plans to participate in Finn Fest 2023? It’d be great to see you and Rachael perform music together in a place full of Finns!

Sara:

Yes!  I’m renovating a house in Duluth’s hillside, which keeps me around these parts.

Mark:

What other projects are on the agenda? Where can people buy copies of your CDs?

Sara: 

In addition to my Mine Songs project, I have been slowly working on solo music for violin or hardanger d’amore. If you’re interested in CDs, drop me an email – I send them out myself. sara@sarapajunen.com 

Thank you, Mark, for asking me to reflect on my musical life!

(This interview first appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Finnish American Reporter.)

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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