Guide to SKOPJE

Kimmo Pohjonen – A fearless musical adventurer


As Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar, so is Finnish musician Kimmo Pohjonen to the accordion: a conceptualist and master improviser who has boldly taken his instrument beyond what has previously been thought possible.


Certain instruments have yet to place themselves beyond how the public and most musicians perceive them, but that hasn’t stopped some musicians from distinguishing themselves by taking a different path with them. As Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar, so is Finnish musician Kimmo Pohjonen to the accordion: a conceptualist and master improviser who has boldly taken his instrument beyond what has previously been thought possible. The use of electronics in any genre is potentially the most exciting development for the music in decades. It has given musicians—jazz, improvising or otherwise—a new set of tools to mold and shape sound, and they are using them to re-contextualize their music within a nervous and evasive 21st century. With the use of electronics, Pohjonen has turned his five-row chromatic accordion into a mean machine.

A fearless musical adventurer, Pohjonen is a man of many projects, and most of them coexist simultaneously. Many of those projects reside only in live settings and surpass his recorded output. Between 1999 and 2013, Pohjonen has been involved in several different projects with diverse concepts and collaborators, from collaborating with the renowned Kronos Quartet on Uniko  and his KTU trio, with King Crimson alum, drummer Pat Mastelotto and Warr guitarist Trey Gunn, to his project with Finnish farmers, Earth Machine Music, Kluster, with right-hand man, sampling expert Samuli Kosminen and Murhaballadeja / Murder Ballads, with singer Heikki Laitinen. These established him as one of Europe’s most talented accordionists, improvisers and composers. His delicate relationship to the accordion is like basketball player LeBron James’ relationship to a 10-foot-high basket: amazing things happen.


In 2002 Pohjonen performed in Skopje fo the first time at the Skopje Jazz Festival, a performance that is still talked about. This year he will perform at the Offest festival which will also feature a documentary about him, by Finnish Director Kimmo Koskela,Soundbreaker, which traces the 35-year career of this unique artist and musical pirate.

How did Soundbreaker come about?

It was a German producer who contacted Finnish director Kimmo Koskela, a while ago, to make a film documentary about me. I knew Koskela from a film project before and he asked my opinion; I replied that I was not interested in a documentary about me. At the time I was 39 years old and I told him that documentaries consisted of talking heads and most of the documentaries deal with old or dead people. I didn’t see any reason for making a documentary about me. Then he began persuading me and we had many meetings, where he asked me what I would like to do. I said that I would be interested in some sort of a music movie or feature film. We started the script but we never got funding. But we began shooting and, in the end, I agreed to make a documentary. At last we had something for funders. That is in short how we ended doing the documentary.

The film portrays that in the beginning you had difficulties with accepting the accordion. Can you talk about your relationship with this instrument?

It’s really different now. I started playing in the ’70s, when I lived in the countryside. In the village, only the adults were playing accordion and it was music for grownups. Nobody from my generation played accordion. I got it from my father and I played in a local group consisting of older people. I played folk tunes and it was kind of nice, but very uncool. I didn’t dare tell my friends that I played accordion because it was so uncool. At the time, I was more interested in sports and hanging out with friends so, in a way, it was a compulsory thing; I was pleasing my father.

But somehow I continued, and at the age of 15, 16, I thought that I could be a musician and I moved to Helsinki, where I began studying classical music. At that time, I saw myself as a performer playing classical music. Later, I got back to folk music when they had folk music department at Sibelius Academy, and the whole time during my studies, my relationship with the instrument was a bit strange. I didn’t feel I was myself when I studied classical or folk music. I began playing harmonica, bandoneon, and various other instruments. I even gave up the accordion because I couldn’t feel the instrument.

Kimmo Pohjonen em Estarreja, Portugal. 29 de Junho 2012

“I didn’t dare tell my friends that I played accordion because it was so uncool.”

Later, at the end of my studies in the late ’90s, somebody asked me to do a solo concert and prior to that I had studied African thumb piano, bandoneon and pump organ. But then I realized that my main instrument was the accordion, which I had been playing since I was 10 years old. I had to find out what would please me. Then I started to dabble with electronic effects, microphones, effects and loops, and that was a huge moment for me—when I realized that I was standing in front of a soundworld where I could create anything through improvisation, without notes, without writing anything on paper.

How do people react to your unorthodox approach to the accordion, with all of those alterations?

It all began when I was rehearsing at school, when people began talking about misusing this and misusing that: “He is hiding behind effects and loops.” But I didn’t care at all. I had one rule: I wanted to please myself and nobody else. Regardless of what people say, I will do what I want even if I have to do only one concert a year—only if it pleases me 110 percent. In a way, there was a lot of frustration during the first concert, as there were a lot of things to be done, but the audience’s response was immediate.

To many, that was the best concert at the festival. Quite soon after that I was booked for the WOMAD festival in Berlin, where there were lots of new acts and beginners, and my concert that weekend was most talked about. Suddenly, my international career started and I could leave all the other projects and bands, and I started with my own thing. It was a kind of a fairy tale, in a way. That was the beginning.

kimmo-pohjonen2What kind of experience do you want to give your audiences during your live shows?

Most people all over the world are really busy and are mostly stressed by their daily lives. They do many things and I do as many things as I can. For me, a concert is a sacred moment—to me that is a some sort of a ritual, from start to finish. And when I do a 60 or 90-minute concert, I concentrate only on the music, and I want the audience to have the same experience as I do. The audience can relax and they don’t have to clap or sing. Actually, they can do whatever they want. I enjoy being onstage and having a beautiful experience, and I would like the audiences to have that kind of possibility as well. I hear all kinds of stories after my concerts, often very interesting stories, and it is nice to hear what people go through in their thoughts during the concerts. It’s not only music.

 One of the scenes from the documentary shows you playing while a wrestling match was taking place. How did you get the idea to orchestrate the music to a wrestling match?

 In the late ’90s, at a folk festival in Finland, an older musician told me that he used to play accordion for wrestling matches. I thought it was a joke. I had never heard of this before. I went searching the files—old newspapers—and there wasn’t anything about it; nothing was filmed. For me, it was such a strange subject, and I wish I was there at the time to see an accordion player playing against a wrestling match. Then I started to interview old wrestlers and old accordionists, and I found out it was a useful combination to have an accordionist playing during a wrestling match.

I heard lots of great stories about what was happening at the times, I thought: I have to do it again. I got ten wrestlers and I used old stories, but when I’m working, everything I do has to have that feeling that what I’m doing is something new and that it hasn’t been done before. Then we created some sort of a musical performance or theater based on those old stories. It was great. It was wonderful. The work I did with the wrestlers was an example of what I like to do— pure musical projects where I only play music. This includes projects with machines or ballerinas. Those projects are another part of me and I like visual things in a manner that I feel people haven’t done before. At the moment I’m working with a ballerina—I never thought that I would ever work with a ballerina [laughing]. I like to amuse myself by doing different things and the wrestling project was really a great opportunity to get to know all those guys that I never knew existed. It’s really crazy sometimes what can be cool.

Earth Machine Music is another experience for you, consisting of farmyard sounds and machines that you trigger with your accordion.

For Earth Machine Music, I recorded sounds in the country and made music out of it. Some of the sounds are triggered by the accordion and sometimes I use those sources of sounds during the performances like driving the tractor in front of the audience and putting microphones on the engine. Using all that gear as a sound source is great and in moments like that it is very visual. The audience can actually see what those sounds are like, as well as the music composed for those sounds.

What sort of moods and ambiances did you seek to capture on EMM?

 I’m someone that was born in the countryside and for the last 20 years I’ve been living in Helsinki. I feel people are not really interested in what is happening in the countryside at the moment. Most of the time, when we hear news from the countryside, it’s either bad news or sad news. Therefore I did this project from a different angle and I did it by performing for people in the countryside. All of the concerts were done in the countryside. For example, for the concerts in England, people had to travel from the cities into the countryside where the farms were. I felt very strongly that I had to be there and work with those people, even though they didn’t have a clue what I was doing. They were very nice and open-minded, and were both willing to participate, and very grateful that someone was interested in them. Also there was a social aspect to this project.

murder balladsHow did the Murder Ballads project with Heikki Latinen come about?

Heikki Latinen is my mentor, a former teacher, and is someone who has always encouraged me to do my own thing. We got an offer from a festival to make this project about murders. In Finland, there were always songs with different angles towards murders. Of course, a murder is a horrible thing, but there is a black humor present in those songs. For example, those two guys that are featured on the front cover, I used to sing songs about them when I was younger. In a way, there was a kind of admiration for these guys.

I remember when I sang how one of them was addressing the other: “You kill this woman’s husband so I can marry that woman.” I remember when I was singing that song as a five year-old boy, there was an admiration. Therefore, when we set out to do this record, we wanted to have different angles to the subject—lamentations, different kinds of murder songs—and make a compilation out of it. Of course, making a record with a hero of mine, Hekki Latinen, means a lot to me.

 What inspires you to write new music as you simultaneously juggle various projects at the same time?

I work with sound and in my workspace I try to find new sounds through my accordions and with electronics. It is an endless world with new colors and sounds. That always keeps me busy and it gives me energy to come up with something new. At the moment, I have a new duo, but this time it’s with my daughter, who is 17. She plays drums. That is a beautiful collaboration, and I’m also working with a ballerina. It all depends on who you are working with and how you perceive that person. That also gives you ideas. These are probably the main things. And whenever I have nothing to do I always improvise, which always gives something.

Nenad Georgievski