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Young Finnish Fiddlers Burst Onto Folk Circuit

The group JPP pumps danceable energy into centuries-old songs

IN their native Finland, they are young heroes, drawing thousands of happy-hoofing, midsummer music lovers to week-long folk festivals. In Ireland, their record sales make them seem like long-lost cousins of the Clancy Brothers. But while JPP may not have taken your town by storm already, it could be just a matter of time.

On paper, the Little Folk Musicians of Jarvela (JPP) appear to be a rather shy group of Finnish fiddlers, accompanied by a stand-up bass and a foot-pedal organ, or harmonium. But in concert, lead fiddler Arto Jarvela, his uncle Maun Jarvela, composer Timo Alakotila, and various other brothers and neighbors who make up JPP show they have a flair for the flamboyant.

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And the music they play is not just technically adept; it is incredibly danceable - if you know how to polka.

At a recent show here at Johnny D's nightclub, during a decidedly non-Nordic heat wave, JPP set toes to tapping with everything from the more traditional waltzes, mazurkas, and reels to blues tunes and tangos.

As if they were aware of Scandinavian music's unearned reputation for being as unemotional as a plate of salt-dried fish, Arto and the boys ripped into every song with gusto.

On stage, JPP puts youthful energy into fiddling around with traditional forms, preserving and poking fun at the music of their fathers' fathers' fathers.

Changing rhythm and key, JPP's four fiddles wove complex harmonies that twisted and turned like an endless country road. The effect was oddly soothing, perhaps because after all that wandering, JPP always returned to the sweet melody the band started with.

During peppy tunes, including one called "Tango for Marsha," audience members sought out impromptu dance-floor space in between tables.

In slower pieces, such as Hintrikki Peltoniemi's "Funeral March," the small college-age crowd listened in rapt, somber silence.

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While the music scene in neighboring Sweden tends to be a carbon-copy of American pop, evidenced by such English-singing acts as Roxette and ABBA, Finland has gone back to its roots.

Folk groups like JPP, along with accordion virtuoso Maria Kalaniemi, the all-women vocal quartet Varttina, and the experimental Ottopasuuna, have climbed the Finnish national charts in the past decade and gathered quite a dedicated following by breathing new life into age-old music.

Much of the energy in this budding Finnish folk movement can be traced to the tiny village of Kaustinen in the middle of the country. Since the early 1970s, folk musicians from around the nation have converged on the town to compete in the annual Kaustinen Folk Music Festival and to attend the state-run folk-music institute.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the strength of Finnish folk is the number of classically trained musicians who have given up their cushy jobs in the symphony to play folk, most likely because it pays better.

JPP's recent tour was a modest affair, a week of concerts from Maine to New York City. But the group is taking a lengthier tour next year, with concerts in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and more scheduled all the way up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Winnipeg.

For those who love ethnic music and have a smidgen of curiosity, JPP has just released a recording called "Kaustinen Rhapsody" on the Green Linnet record label.

The group's delightful 1992 album, "Devil's Polska," is also available on Green Linnet, offering much of the same spirit of adventure that has put JPP at the vanguard of the Scandinavian folk-music scene.

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