A very humble and gracious man, full of praise for his successors who took over the running of the Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival, founder Heikki Eränen and his wife Tuula kindly take some time to answer some questions about both his background and that of the festival.

It is impossible to find out all the history in one brief interview, however this will give you a small insight into what has become the largest accordion festival in the world.

We thank Heikki Eränen for his vision in creating this annual event, and you can feel his overwhelming sense of pride and passion for how the festival has developed, and for the Festival's continued success and outlook for the future.

Now in its 38th year, if Mother Nature holds true to her forecast for a fine weekend for the outdoor events, the 2010 festival promises to break all attendance records as pre-sales hit the highest mark ever!

Kevin Friedrich, Accordions Worldwide pictured below with Heikki Eränen and his wife Tuula.
Special thanks to Hillevi Chruchill for being the Finnish-English Interpreter for the Interview.

Can you tell us a little about where you were born, and some of your family history?
Several generations of Eränens have been born in Ikaalinen. I was born and raised in Ikaalinen, as was my father and my grand father and even my great grand father, Kustaa Nestori Eränen. Later my father Olli Eränen had a shop in the middle of Ikaalinen.

It was my great grand father Kustaa who brought the first accordion to Ikaalinen from St. Petersburg, a small accordion with just a right hand keyboard.

In fact, they brought three important things to Ikaalinen at that time, a gun, the accordion and a bird decoy whistle used for hunting partridge birds.

Back then, in 1870, my great grandfather used to play his accordion in the main Park in town with a clarinetist and violinist. The Finnish people are not so known for being big talkers, but they do know how to talk through their music.
Did your father also have a musical background and what was your earliest memory of the accordion in your family?
My father Olli Eränen (18 August 1895 - 5 May 1949) used to play accordion also.

I remember the day he brought home an accordion. He was quite good, and he and his brothers used to play together.

Back then my friends would ask me to go with them to hear my father play with his little band, pictured above.

Pictured right is Olli Eränen
Did you yourself play the accordion?
Laughing... oh yes.. I played a few wrong bass notes here and there!! I played some basic Waltzes and some of the more famous Finnish Folk Songs for a small time, but I was more of an excellent 'listener!'

I also tried a few times to play with the band, but the leader politely informed me that something wasn't quite right like.. like there was a problem with the rhythm... hint hint... maybe this isn't for you.

My daughter Johanna also played a little accordion, but she is quite good at the piano.
What was your main work throughout your career?
In 1963, I was the headmaster of the Adult Education Center. It was during this time that I worked to develop a music program and a symphonic orchestra. At this time, there were more players in the orchestra than there were people listening!
Do you recall the first time you met Lasse Pihlajamaa?
In 1970, I invited Lasse to come and play in Ikaalinen on a concert. He hadn't been playing for some time, but his name was still so well known. Lasse originated from the Jämijärvi area (close by) and had many old friends and other people that would like to see him back in the area performing again. I told him that his childhood friend (that we had in common) Kalle Vainionpää (right) was waiting for him to come back and play, and this finally convinced Lasse to perform.

The word that Lasse would come back to perform in Ikaalinen spread like a wildfire, and they immediately sold 900 tickets for the Hall. They could have sold many more, but we were already worried that we couldn't fit 900 people in the Hall. I was also so worried about what I would do if now Lasse canceled his commitment, but luckily it didn't happen.

On the day, in his big American made car,
Lasse Pihlajamaa arrived with his wife Maire and their dog. An amazing success and homecoming, he absolutely charmed everybody, and thus began a lifelong friendship between the Eränen and the Pihlajamaa families.
Above left: Kansan Lehti Newspaper article from 13 June 1972
Above right top: Lasse
Pihlajamaa and Kalle Vainionpää
Above right lower: Lasse Pihlajamaa and Heikki Eränen
Prior to the first Sata-Häme Soi Festival, in the early 1970's you twice organized a local concert in Ikaalinen, where amateur accordionists from Ikaalinen were invited to play. Can you tell us a little bit about this time?
In 1969, I organized a concert with a group of 12 of the best accordion players from Ikaalinen, in Oma Tupa. At that concert more than 500 people showed up!

The concert were organized in the Autumn, after the harvest season was over, as people had more free time. The concerts were held under the 'Ikaalisten Syyssoitto' name (Autumn Festival). The Autumn concerts of 1969 and then 1970 and 1971 grew quickly and became so big that we had to move it to the summer time to accommodate more people.

Below is pictured a performance from the Autumn Festival of 1970.
During this time the concept of Sata-Häme Soi Festival was born? How did this come about?
With the incredible amount of people, the Autumn Festival was moved to the midsummer period. The word Sata pertains to the region to the West of Ikaalinen and the word Häme pertains to the Eastern and South-Eastern part of the region, so Sata-Häme Soi encompasses the entire region surrounding Ikaalinen.

People were tired of watching TV and were more excited about supporting live concerts, and so the concerts became a well known tradition. The first festivals were also held outside and in the Sports Hall.

Interestingly, at this time, the group of 12 accordionists that were performing at these festivals were invited to the Sibelius Academy to perform. They were the last ones to perform on a rather lengthy classical and contemporary music concert, and were quite nervous as to what the audience would think of this amateur folk group from Ikaalinen. They thought what surely would be a highbrow audience would not appreciate them. However when they performed the Saakijarven Pollka, the audience went wild and gave them a standing ovation. In the audience was a renowned Finnish musician Georg Malmsten who inquired at the conclusion of the concert.. how can you all play so well together!?
The first festival was in 1972. Do you have any information about these early Sata-Häme Soi Festivals?
We had many concerts and activities from competitions, to children's concerts with the first festival in 1972 attracting over 10,000 people! The first festivals were held in the Softball Park, before later moving to the Center of Town in what is now called Festival Park.

We had many connections with the Sibelius Academy and some of the famous Finnish accordionists who had immigrated to the United States, that returned to perform. Some of the artists included Lasse
Pihlajamaa, Merja Ikkelä and Matti Rantanen from Finland alone, so already from the very beginning, the standard was very high!

During the years, there were Folk Dancing Calling Competitions (1975-1977) as well as Fiddle competitions (through 1979). In 1980's the Golden Accordion Competition was added, which began broadcasting on live TV in 1983, with the Silver Accordion (youngsters competition) being added in 1986. Maria Kalaniemi won the first Golden Accordion Competition and in 1983, the TV audience for the live broadcast was estimated at 1.1 million!

In 1977, the initial three day festival was expanded to a week long celebration. In 1985 Sata-Häme Soi Festival attracted around 45,000, which was already about 10, 000 visitors more than in 1984. By 1985, The Sata-Häme Soi Festival had grown to the accordion world's largest event. In 1985 more than 60 concerts and events took place over nine days!

In 1991, to compliment the annual summer Sata-Häme Soi Festival, the Silja Europa cruise was added where the competition to decide the Golden and Silver Accordion finalists was held. Unlike any other event in the world, more than 3,000 people bus in from all over Finland to take part in this annual overnight cruise to Sweden and back.

Pictured below are attendees at the first Sata-Häme Soi Festival in 1972.
Obviously there have been some outstanding guests over the years, however do you have any guest artist from over the years that have left a special impression?
There have been so many, but some that are quite special are of course Lasse Pihlajamaa, Paul Norbach and Astor Piazzolla, who gave his only Finland performance ever, while at the Sata-Häme Soi Festival.

Other artists have included the Montavani Orchestra, Paul Norrback, Alfred Hause Tango Orchestra (sold over 40 million records) which drove from Germany by Bus, Viatcheslav Semionov from Russia and other artists which have now come from all around the world.
How long were you directly involved with the management of the Sata-Häme Soi Festival?
I was the Chairman of the Sata-Häme Soi Festival until 1989 when I also retired as the Head Master of the School in 1991. However, in spirit, I am always involved with the Sata-Häme Soi Festival forever!!

I must give my biggest thanks and compliments to Kimmo Mattila who became Musical Director of the Festival in 1984. He is perfect as he is such an excellent organizer, a great musician and he speaks several languages.. he is a person with so many talents!
This early collaboration between you and Lasse has obviously led to a lifelong friendship. Can you tell us about this.
After the successful concert in 1970, laughing... we were invited down to Helsinki after the concert in the Pihlajamaa's big American car with Maire at the wheel. He insisted that she drive, so that he could conserve his fingers! As they drove into Helsinki, Lasse would caution Maire about her city driving.. taking care to not run the red traffic lights! We were always made so welcome in their lovely home in Helsinki.

The Pihlajamaa's were the most warm and friendly people and had big hearts and Lasse was always the perfect gentleman. Whenever they stopped the car, he would jump out and run around to the other side to open the door for Maire. Lasse often joked that he wanted to invent something so that he could automatically open Maire's door without running around the car to do so!! Lasse thought the world of his wife Maire, and appreciated her more than 100%. Lasse was purely the artist and musician, and didn't know much about finances etc.. so Maire took care of all those details behind the scene.

Tuula: Lasse and Maire took a sailing course and proceeded to enjoy their new boat named "Dance of the Wind"
. They invited us out for an overnight sailing in the Baltic Sea. It was quite windy and rough, and I was so sea sick that I was glad to get back on land!! Ironically, the next day the sea was very calm!!

For Lasse's 70th Birthday Concert at the
Sata-Häme Soi Festival in 1986, he composed a new piece called Muistojen Harmonikka - Accordion Reminiscence. He asked me to come and listen to this new piece. After listening to it, I told Lasse, it was so beautiful, that if at least half of the audience doesn't cry.. I will be disappointed! At the concert in the Ikaalinen Hall, it was a very moving experience. Everyone in the audience had tears in their eyes.. and Lasse had tears in his eyes!
Somewhere along the way, you met your beautiful wife Tuula. Where did you meet and how long have you been married?
His wife Tuula answers: Heikki is 9 years older than I am. He was an excellent sportsman in his day with his specialty being the 10 event Decathlon. He had enough points amongst the various disciplines, that he was crowned the Finnish National Champion. Heikki was selected for the Finnish Olympic Team, but unfortunately in the end, he couldn't attend due to an injury.

He did some of the training for his sports in Kilvakkala where I (Tuula) lived, so that is how I came to meet him. We dated for quite a while while he trained as a teacher and then we got married in the summer of 1961.
Now you live in the center of Ikaalinen just a few meters from the festival itself. How long have you lived here?
In this house in the Center of Ikaalinen, we have lived 43 years!
Looking forward, what do you think is the most important aspect of having something like the Sata-Häme Soi Festival?
The most important thing is the showcasing of the diverse styles and many faces of the accordion and the many people from all countries around the world that play it!

The accordion itself continues to develop, such as the advent of Free Bass etc... so the Sata-Häme Soi Festival continues to profile what is happening in the accordion world.

Having seen all the people come both as artists and audience over the years to hear the greats such as Piazzolla, people have learned and developed themselves based on what they hear.

The competitions have continued to develop, and now people have come from the opposite side of the world such as Grayson Masefield from New Zealand, (winner of Primus Ikaalinen V) and its helped the festival to develop so fast.

The accordion hasn't always been appreciated like the piano for example, and sometimes people are even a bit shy about saying they play the instrument, but this festival has showcased the instrument in a great way on the world stage.
Can you describe how it feels today to see the festival that you created turning out to be a major International event, attracting people from all corners of the world?
with a smile from ear to ear.......Fantasitc!!!

When we began the festival, we worked at our jobs by day, and our house turned into the Sata-Häme Soi Festival office by night. Watching the festival grow, now there is an office and staff. To watching the festival grow, see the incredible dedication of the very large team of workers and volunteers, including youngsters who give their time and energy... the artists that come from all corners of the world, seeing that the greats such as Astor Piazzolla as a 'real' person, it is amazing.

We can't thank Sirpa Sippola (Director) and Kimmo Mattila (Music Director) and the Festival team enough for their incredible work for the continuation of the Sata-Häme Soi Festival!