Report from FinnFest 2011 in San Diego – “Catch the Finnish Wave” 20.8.2011

20.8.2011 Nikolai Sadik-Ogli

The 28th annual FinnFest celebration ( was held this year at the Town and Country Resort in San Diego from 10-14 August 2011. As indicated on their website, FinnFest is a non-profit event made possible by the donations and support of various sponsors and advertisers, including government, industry and business entities, under the guidance of FinnFest 2011 Inc., a non-profit corporation established by private persons who are “respecting the heritage of the Finnish-American past and interested in developing and promoting Finnish-American relations now and in the future.”

Every year, the festival features a tremendous variety of lectures, panel discussions, musical concerts, theatrical performances, art exhibits, dances, films, food and merchandise that demonstrate Finnish and Finnish-American history, culture, and heritage. The event also serves many practical purposes, represented by the portable passport machines, the Finnish Expatriate Parliament informational meeting, and the extensive clean tech forum and educational seminars. Additionally, this year’s event specifically featured an increased emphasis on youth-oriented programs, highlighted by the daily presence of the Moomins characters and the final night’s concert featuring Ismo Alanko Teholla and J. Karjalainen. The importance of the long-running festival, and the Finnish-American enthusiasm that makes it possible, can be read in the special message from President Tarja Halonen that opens the official festival program guide.

Understandably, many lectures concentrated on Finnish emigration and the historical situation and experiences encountered in America. Prof. Elli Hekkilä (from the Turku-based Institute of Migration) gave a concise outline of the historical patterns and statistics of Finnish migration around the world. Other lectures, such as the presentations by the Finnish Expatriate Cultural Society and the Nordic Heritage Museum, demonstrated the amount of interest that there is in Finland regarding these topics.

Conversely, American Finns are also curious about their own community’s history. Ray Halme shared his priceless family memorabilia that documented almost the entire existence and activities of the Finnish community in Hollywood, including its sometimes surprising connections to the film industry and several famous movie stars. Finlandia Foundation National Lecturer of the Year 2010-2011, Carl Rahkonen concisely outlined a thorough history of “The Finnish American Musical Journey”, which traced the story all the way through to the recently completed “Rockland” opera. Premiered in July 2011, the opera was composed by Jukka Linkola to memoirs written by the Finnish-American miner Alfred Laakso regarding a violent, almost-forgotten strike that occurred in Michigan in 1906 (

The cultural situation in Finland was also addressed directly, for example in the panel discussion about the current situation of Finnish classical music. While mostly consisting of relocated artists, clarinetist Mikko Raasakka remained based in Finland and provided important first hand information regarding the changes occurring there, such as the completion of the new Musiikkitalo and the impact of the recent elections.

Finnish history was also explored. Retired Prof. Börje Vähämäki from the University of Toronto presented a lecture, complete with singing, on “The Shamans of the Kalevala”, a fascinating reading of the epic that concentrated on its magical and incantatory aspects. Susan Välimaa’s presentation brought the epic to life through her film clips of “Samppa Uimonen – Last of the Rune Singers”. She has filmed many hours of this fascinating man from Sortavala, who conducted a regular Kalevala Forum and performed the rune poetry all over the world. Hopefully the footage will be collected into a documentary film soon. Several other lectures on the Kalevala, such as an examination of its general importance to Finland, were also on the program. Additionally, Syrene Forsman gave a thorough and colorful overview of the variety of Finnish and Finnish-Swedish national costumes.

Folke Gräsbeck presented a brief introduction to Finnish piano music, particularly by Sibelius. His lecture/performance included a world premiere of one of Sibelius’s unpublished early pieces. Alyssa Moquin’s ongoing dissertation outlining the interrelationships between various artists who knew each other and worked together intimately, such as the famous group that included Sibelius, Gallen-Kallela, and Sonck, promises to be very informative (for example, I did not know that Sibelius had made architectural sketches of the various places that he visited and stayed at). Further, Mannerheim’s journey across Asia was retraced by Estonian-Canadian Eric Enno Tamm, who gave an excellent presentation of his unforgettable experiences from the trip (

One on-site art exhibit featured art by four American artists who had studied in Finland under the Fulbright Program. Sabra Booth ( and Karen Kunc ( displayed abstract images inspired by Finnish landscapes, while Jacqulyn Gleisner’s ( works were more realistic, yet extremely colorful and impressionistic, representations of the Finlandia House and other recognizable locations. Cherie Sampson ( screened a looping five-minute video that had been filmed during the winter in Lapland. Dressed in a completely black costume which created a fantastic silhouette against the otherwise completely white landscape, the artist moved in a slowly choreographed pattern across the field, first appearing from behind some trees and then disappearing again behind the bleak horizon. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the “Art from Finland” exhibit concurrently held at Gallery 21 in Balboa Park, outside of the festival grounds and featuring Veikko Aitamurto, Seija Gerdt, Leena Hannonen, Asta Huutonen Sutton, Markku Lähdesmäki and Nischa Roman (the Park is also where the local House of Finland is located).

Additional art, including pottery by Otto Heino (who was also featured in the Gallery 21 show), was available in the Tori Marketplace. Numerous Finnish-American vendors, such as Scandinavian Inspirations and FinnStyle, featured handicrafts, foods, and novelty items. The Finland DNA Project helped people to trace their ancestry. Research and study opportunities were offered by the Finlandia University, Center for International Mobility, and the Central Ostrobothinian University of Applied Sciences, among others. Further, special menus had been prepared for all of the resort’s various restaurants, including elk stew, rye bread, salmon, and Karjalan piirakka, and even the local corner store temporarily carried Koskenkorva (a prime sponsor of the event).

All together, the weekend provided an exceptionally thorough overview and portrait of all things Finnish and Finnish-American that was able to be enjoyed by all ages from throughout North America and all over the world.