Rent Romus
Saxophonist and composer Rent Romus plays the Vappu Spring Festival in Berkeley on Saturday May 2. Photo: courtesy Rent Romus
Saxophonist and composer Rent Romus plays the Vappu Spring Festival in Berkeley on Saturday May 2. Photo: courtesy Rent Romus

The determination to explore his Finnish ancestry didn’t come to Rent Romus in a sudden epiphany or a burst of inspiration. Rather, the Richmond saxophonist and composer spent years painstakingly parsing The Kalevala, a compendium of epic poetry, folklore and mythology that played an essential role in sparking Finnish national identity in the mid-19th century.

Eventually, he created a singular synthesis of postmodern jazz and traditional Finnish music in The Otherworld Cycle, an expansive suite he presents 4 p.m. Saturday as part of the Annual Vappu Spring Festival at Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall. The event, which also includes a buffet supper, a silent auction and a performance by Heikki Koskinen’s Kaleva All Stars, harkens back to a time when West Berkeley was commonly known as Finntown (more on that later).

Though Romus has Finnish ancestry on both sides of his family, he wasn’t exactly surrounded by Old World culture as a child. While growing up in the South Bay (he spent his teenage years in Milpitas) Romus “got a few customs, and a few words of Finnish,” from his mother and her family. “But she instilled in me a kind of stoic pride in being Finnish. We get the job done because that’s what we do.”

As he got older, that pride fed his curiosity about Finnish culture. A standout musician at UC Santa Cruz, where I first heard Romus in Jazz On the Line, a combo that gained national attention collaborating with the great Chicago saxophonist Chico Freeman, he eventually found his was to The Kalevala. A vast collection of songs and orally transmitted folklore compiled by Elias Lönnrot, the epic tales address themes of “creation, hunting, trading, and people navigating the natural and supernatural worlds,” Romus says. “After reading this material for years and doing in-depth analysis I started to realize how I connected to this story. I found something that rung to my core.”

Romus had started drawing on traditional Nordic music as a source of inspiration back in 1999, a direction partly inspired by travels in Northern Europe where he collaborated with musicians combining jazz and folk music. About three years ago, he decided to start composing tunes inspired by The Kalevala for his Life’s Blood Project, which features bassists Jason Hoopes and Bill Noertker, drummer/percussionist Timothy Orr, and Romus on saxophones, flutes, bells, and kantele (an autoharp-like traditional Finnish instrument).

Heikki Koskinen turned Romus on to Karelian folk music and music by the indigenous Sami people, which he references obliquely throughout The Otherworld Cycle. In a twist he can’t explain, melodies that had been floating around his head since childhood seemed to converge with the traditional sources. “I feel like there’s something odd about being six or seven and making up these tunes, and how they seem to fit in perfectly with a lot of the Finnish folk music,” Romus says.

Finnish Hall. Photo: Arden Kamille Varnel
Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall on Chestnut Street. Photo: Arden Kamille Varnel
Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall on Chestnut Street. Photo: Arden Kamille Varnel

As The Otherworld Cycle started to take shape, he realized that he needed to expand Life’s Blood to create the vast and vivid sonic world evoked by the epic verse. “I have this problem with community where I love so many musicians,” he says. “As I was writing I was thinking this needs more drums, more flutes, more strings, and cellos! I love the big bottom end, so I needed bells and vibes and a giant bass drum.”

The Vappu Spring Festival performance includes tenor Joshua Marshall, percussionists Suki O’Kane and Mark Pino, Mika Pontecorvo on flutes, cellist Shanna Sordahl, and Heikki Koskinen on recorder, trumpet and kantele. Saturday’s performance, the last Northern California presentation of the music before Romus brings the work to Los Angeles and Helsinki, is also an album release celebration for The Otherworld Cycle (Edgetone Records).

Life’s Blood also features Ron Heglin and Bob Marsh chanting a libretto that Romus created during a Tuesday night jam session at Berkeley Arts Festival performance space. He had Heikki Koskinen translate the free association poem into Finnish, which seems particularly appropriate as Koskinen helped introduce Romus to the local Finnish community.

A San Francisco recording artist, composer, and educator, Koskinen has created a rich body of music with the Kaleva All Stars. With players versed in jazz, European classical and popular Finnish music, the band plays new arrangements of traditional Finnish songs (humppas, waltzes, and jenkkas) as well as tangos, rock, pop and Latin numbers. They’ve long been a staple at Berkeley’s Vappu celebrations, a Finnish holiday that serves as both a spring welcome and a traditional day for workers and students. Derived from northern Germany’s Walpurgis Night festival, Vappu celebrations in Finland provide a buttoned-down society an opportunity to cut loose with a carnival-like atmosphere featuring traditional pastry (tippaleipä) and considerable imbibing.

The fact that Berkeley hosts the region’s main Vappu celebration speaks to the city’s once vibrant Finnish community. Though only about 1% of Berkeley’s population in 1920, Finns played a highly visible and disproportionate role in the region’s commercial and cultural life.

Radiating out from the intersection of University and San Pablo, Finntown encompassed several Lutheran churches, saloons, cooperative grocery stores, and the sadly shuttered Finnish Hall on 10th Street, which was built by the radical Finnish Comrades Association and served as a community hub for all Berkeley residents after it was completed in 1909. Political divisions in the Finnish community, exacerbated by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that led to Finland’s independence, culminated in a second Finnish Hall (on Chestnut, where Saturday’s concert takes place) being built in the mid-1930s (I gleaned most of this information from an informative website run by Thayer Watkins, a polymathic San Jose State economics professor).

“I didn’t even know the hall was there before Heikki invited me to perform at a Finnish Independence Day Celebration,” Romus says. “The music was totally high energy and breakneck, and I thought, I’m home. I ended up joining the lodge and I’m one of the few younger members. It’s pretty fascinating to find out how vibrant the Finnish community was, that it was big enough for two Finnish Halls just blocks away from each other.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....