Move Over, Sibelius, Here’s a Jazz Suite Based on Kalevala Legends

There’s something of a homecoming to the world premiere of the Itkuja Suite at Berkeley’s Finnish Hall on May 27 and 28. And something of a hero’s journey.

Third generation Finnish American saxophonist Rent Romus had spent decades “taking risks” with composing, performing, and recording large ensemble jazz because “I wanted to subvert it to find a new way of dealing with things. I was too out to be in, and too in to be out,” he recounts.

But it wasn’t till he was introduced to Finnish-born trumpeter Heikki Koskinen, now 78 and a fellow resident of the East Bay, that Romus, now 55, was inspired to amalgamate their shared interest in avant garde jazz with an exploration of their shared ethnic cultural roots. Koskinen, whose grandfather was a schoolmate of Jean Sibelius, had been raised studying the Kalevala , a collection of epic poetry, compiled and published in 1835, based in ancient myths of Karelia, the extensive ethnic region straddling present-day Finland and northwestern Russia.

Koskinen shared with his new friend an English language translation of the Kalevala, along with recordings of Finnish free jazz (“The energy, the drive, it punches right through the wall!”, says Romus) and of traditional music. The latter featured the kantele (a plucked chordophone) and the entrancing sounds of itkuja (pronounced ‘eet-koo-ya’), an idiosyncratic form of lament sung throughout Karelia at both funerals and weddings, and to both mourn and celebrate. Romus also got to know the Finn