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Les Ross, Sr.

Hulivili Huuliharppu (Conga Records)

For a fix of Finnish fiddle music, you'd naturally look in the Finland section of your friendly neighborhood CD store. But to satisfy that Finnish-harmonica jones, you'd best bypass the international bins altogether and grab this one-of-a-kind disc from the Marquette, Michigan-based Les Ross, Sr. Playing in the all-but-extinct lumberjack style once widespread among Scandinavian immigrant communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Ross rolls out the traditional tunes on Hulivili Huuliharppu (Rollicking Harmonica).

Instead of the more familiar single-note blues-harp style, the 76-year-old plays melody, rhythm, and chords all at once; as a result at times you'd swear two or more harmonicas were jamming full tilt when, in reality, it's only Ross. The accordion-sounding workouts range from melancholy waltzes to high-stepping polkas and even a 5/4-time jazz excursion that retains the nostalgic campfire feel of the rest of the pieces.

Hulivili Huuliharppu's producer is Les Ross, Jr., son of the harmonica man and leader of the Marquette-based self-described "Finnish reggae band" Conga Se Menne (a.k.a. the Conga Boys), whose members back Ross Sr. on several cuts. Ross Jr. cautioned me that his father's disc is raw and rootsy, but quite the opposite is true. Blissfully free from obvious studio polish except for a train whistle here and some ersatz phonograph record clicks and pops on the closing cut, the performances are sonically rich, whether emphasizing Ross's harrowing speed on the Finnish-Russian song "Tummat Silmat" ("Dark Eyes") or adding orchestral strings to the creaky waltz "Lammen Laine" ("Waves on a Pond"). The seventeen songs on the CD are nicely varied and include contributions by vocalist Tanya Jurvelin-Stanaway, violinist Mary Syria, kitchen-knife percussionist Arnold Kippola, and other regional players. The constant is Les Ross, Sr., who completed the majority of his complex leads and blistering solos in a single take.

So far Hulivili Huuliharppuhas earned recognition in Great Lakes folk circles and among Scandinavian music aficionados, but the disc deserves much wider distribution, especially since the lumberjack harmonica style is as endangered as the Kirtlands Warbler. When Les hangs up his harp, the genre will lose probably its finest surviving practitioner. For ordering information see www.congaline.com.

 
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