Hello Zydeco…

May 4, 2010

The brochure billed it as: “the most eagerly awaited spring happening in Finland,” so on Friday night, I left the baby with Pops, threw a couple over-sized beers into my purse, and headed out into the misty night. It was 8:00 and the sun wasn’t due to set for another two hours, so people bustled around tipsy with anticipation of the Vappu holiday.

Vappu is perhaps the most visibly celebrated holiday in Finland. The recent university graduates, and countless alums, don sailor caps and garish overalls and head to Kaivopuisto, a large park on a peninsula surrounded by the sea. Clans of friends stake out a swathe of grass or patch of smooth granite and drink, and drink, and drink. When the sun arrives on the scene, it has got to be one of the best days in Finland–just watch where you step.

April Jazz, “the largest jazz festival in the Helsinki metropolitan area,” overlapped Vappu this year. It was what I have come to expect of Finland: understated, democratic, and better than expected.

Unlike the Montreux Jazz Festival, April Jazz is better than its billing. There are no crowded queues and overpriced, oversold, shows. There’s no excess traffic or ‘festival currency.’ April Jazz feels Finnish in that its open to everyone and spacious. Even the sold-out shows had plenty of breathing room. The coat check was one euro; a beer was five. There were plenty of port-a-potties to go around. The tickets were a reasonable thirty-five for four hours of music. Anyone could dance under the spray of Dwanye Dopsie’s sweat splashing off the pleats of his accordion. With no premium tickets or front row seats, people jiggled and jostled their way onto the sparsely filled dance floor when the mood and the buzz was right.

I had never heard of Zydeco, but then, I am no music maven. Nonetheless, it was a night of pleasant surprises, not the least of which was witnessing a musical genius playing the washboard. I only wish there was someone there who knew how to dance to Zydeco. The Finns don’t have much to shake, but they’ll shake something: an arm here, a leg there, a reserved head-bop while no one is looking. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that a little Crunk-inspired jiggling would have made the night complete.

As the encore ended and Mr. Dopsie hopped down off the stage to accept kisses and to slick his sweaty palms past delirious fans, I was startled to feel not homesick, not enthusiasm, but patriotism. That’s right, patriotism.

Not since the election of Barack Obama have I felt that America does indeed have something truly unique in this world to contribute. And here it was–in the flesh. The Hellraisers are a motley crew with a fifty-something saxophone player, a muscle-clad, burly, accordion-toting lead, and a twenty-something, wiry, washboard wizard who all embody the ingenuity and exuberance that rests and the core of the American soul. Their music reminded me that hope and persistence are not foolhardy characteristics, that tapping into the light of childlike awe is what makes life zesty, and that reinventing oneself isn’t so difficult.

Ok, so maybe that’s reading a bit too much into their performance. But that’s what hit me. And as Dwayne Dopsie himself sings, “No matter where you go, I got to bring you home.”

And so he did.

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