Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York – these are obvious places that come to mind when you think of soul music. Now you can add Helsinki to that list.
The Nordic capital has been pumping out a steady stream of quality soul in recent years, music that has even caught the ear of President Barack Obama. Not bad for a city usually associated with tap water.
Timmion Records, keeping the Nordic beat
For over a decade, local label Timmion Records has been producing soulful sounds from Helsinki, backed by label house band the Soul Investigators. The band’s soft-spoken drummer, Jukka Sarapaa, runs Timmion. He told me more about how the Finnish capital got its soul.
“People were listening to hip-hop and wanted to get samples, and from that they began to look for the original music,” says Sarapaa. And by a bizarre twist of fate, Helsinki was a great place to go searching. For some unknown – but fortuitous – reason, deleted stocks of old soul and funk 45s from the U.S. were shipped to Finland in the late ’70s and ’80s. Helsinki’s record shops proved to be a treasure trove for those exploring the genre.
“My first 45 was Lee Moses cover of the Four Tops’ 'Reach Out I’ll be There,’” Sarapaa told me. “I remember when I bought it, it was just a few bucks and there was a whole line of those in the record box.” These days that same vinyl would set a collector back hundreds of dollars.
With great soul and funk tracks at their fingertips, Sarapaa and his friends were inspired to form the Soul Investigators. “We really got excited by Booker T. & the MG’s and the Meters,” says Sarapaa. “And we wanted to make our own version of it. So we thought, let’s start a band and put out a 45.” One 45 led to another 45, and another, and that was when the idea for Timmion Records came about in 2000.
Since then, the label has been putting out a fine array of soul and funk records, with a distinct and unique sound. “It’s raw, different and unpolished,” says Sarapaa. “Finland is dark for most of the year, so there is some darkness in there, too. We don’t think about selling more records, we want to make music that blows us away. Sometimes this can be hard, but we’re not afraid to put something in the trash if we don’t like it.”
Nicole Willis, the soul ex-patriot
In the early 2000s, that sound grabbed the attention of American soul singer Nicole Willis. The Brooklyn-born artist had a few successes in the States and across Europe, but she really hit her stride when she teamed up with the Soul Investigators.
“What I really liked about the Soul Investigators,” Willis told me, “was they had a long relationship with each other as friends and had really developed their sound together. The music is very pure, very natural and very organic.”
Together, Willis and the Soul Investigators made a record that really put Helsinki on the soul map. The 2005 album, Keep Reaching Up, is a gem of a release that incorporates all elements of the soul spectrum. Its smooth vocals, tight beats and organ-fuelled grooves earned critical acclaim, and the album became the most successful release on the Timmion label. As Willis puts it, “We really hit the jackpot with that record.”
The success of the album keeps surprising her, as this year it even showed up on President Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist. “I couldn’t believe it, I started crying,” says Willis. “For us to be what we are, an independent label, it was pretty special. I was beside myself.”
The good news is that a follow-up album is due to be released later this year and that could bring Willis and the Soul Investigators to these shores. “We’ve never been to Canada”, says Sarapaa. “But hopefully we can get to play at the end of the year or early next.” Willis’s record won’t be the Soul Investigators’ only collaboration. An LP with California soul duo Myron & E is coming out this year.
Timmion Records is also putting out an album by veteran soul survivor Willie West.
Despite talking with Sarapaa, it’s still a mystery as to why soul music has had such resonance in Finland. “Maybe it’s the beat and the emotion of soul music that touches people” Sarapaa ponders. As for me, I’m just glad that a small, passionate scene has been inspired to make some very big sounds.
If you’re interested to hear the soul music that is getting Finnish feet moving, check out the soul and funk 45s mix Sarapaa has sent us, below.
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on Jun 08, 2012