“Finland is a country which contrasts the light with the dark: we see it both in seasons and the electronic music scene,” says Leena, 26, at the Red Garden stage at Flow Festival, a stylish event set in an abandoned power plant in Helsinki.
The city’s dance music scene is blossoming into a well-respected and unique contender to rival Amsterdam and Stockholm, and Flow is testament to that. “Twenty years ago we were always going to Sweden to see international acts, but now we can stay at home,” says Niko Kangas, who works for Music Finland, a music export organisation. “Electronic fans who haven’t been to Finland before are missing a very interesting Nordic country with a strong mix of genres.” Niko explains that international sales in Finnish dance music have rocketed over the past few years. Foreign fans who visit Flow for the first rate headliners – this year including Helena Hauff, Detroit In Effect, Kendrick Lamar and Moodymann – may well discover that local DJs steal the weekend, so we decide to let them be our guide. First up are DJ duo Denzel & J.Lindroos, performing on Saturday afternoon at the Backyard to a lawn full of picnickers. The sunshine complements their playful funk, italo and unusual film scores. “We’re definitely trying to bring the joy during our sets, we’re at the lighter end of the scale and like to play less obvious tracks,” says J, aka Jonii, as we hang out with the pair backstage after their set and share a bottle of champagne. Both aged 26 and from Espoo, it’s surprising to find out that they founded Helsinki’s hottest new club, Post Bar. “We met when we were seventeen at a house party,” said Denzel. “We didn’t imagine we would be doing something like this back then.” Post Bar hosts official Flow afterparties during the weekend.
A regular DJ at Post, Marju is a prominent figure in Helsinki’s underground scene. Her set at Flow’s Red Garden on Saturday evening is full of energy and confidence, yet she confesses to us that she’s more than a little nervous in front of her biggest crowd yet. “I would describe my sound as dark and eerie,” she says. “Currently there’s a kind of breakthrough phase where female DJs are finally getting a platform on the scene, which I think has come late to Helsinki.”
DJ Lauri Soini, who curates the Red Garden and nightclub Kaiku, is becoming known for a female-friendly attitude to club line-ups. “I struggle to want to do anything that doesn’t have an idealistic motivation behind it, and gender balance is an important topic in dance music,” says Lauri, who we catch zipping between stages to catch some of his favourite Finnish female acts such as Bombarelli, Malin Nyqvist and Kristiina Mannikko.
Kristiina, 34, has been a resident at Kaiku for five years. “The Finnish electronic scene is super vibrant at the moment. There are lots of young people who are up and coming,” she says. “People take music quite seriously, but it’s a small community and quite like a family.” A fashion photographer by day, Kristiina’s look is sleek as she sips black coffee. “My sound is pretty dark and I love heavy snares, that sound moves me.”
With numerous DJs, promoters and fans citing Sansibar as up-and-coming in Finland, we follow him to the Gold Area after his set on early Friday evening for a chat. His blend of fun electro and techno, influenced by a contrast of nostalgia and futurism, gets the crowd moving in a way that is decidedly less northern-Europe awkward. Wearing a Textasy shirt and oversized 80s glasses, Sunny embodies the mischievous nature of his music style. When a plastic cup gets knocked over during the interview, he puts a would-be embarrassing moment to good use by knocking over all of the other cups and skipping around the grassy area, grinning.
“A lot of us are huge retro nerds,” he tells us. “Finnish DJs have a tendency to play off-kilter tunes, sampling really unexpected or silly stuff.” True to his word, a few months ago Sansibar sampled Nicki Minaj on his track ‘Used To Live In Detroit’, which is due to be released on Textasy’s label, FTP. “I think the thing I’m most excited about at Flow this year is Detroit In Effect at the Frontyard,” he says.
Detroit In Effect is indeed not to be missed on Saturday night, and true to his word Sunny is leaping around the dancefloor like a kitten on hot coals – as are the rest of the crowd to D.I.E.’s saucy samples. Helena Hauff follows with a set that, as usual, doesn’t disappoint.
As the festival draws to a close for the evening we decide to head to Sompasauna. The wooden structure is on an old docking yard a few minutes walk from Flow, a squat sauna that anyone can use for free. At 2am the place is packed with naked Finns dashing between the wood-fired sweat bath and the Baltic sea. Next door is a free party, one of many that takes place during Flow weekend in the area, with a few hundred people dancing in a small marquee or lounging on a huge abandoned ship covered in graffiti. Amid the steam we even bump into Finland’s Director for Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ville Cantell, whose enthusiasm for late-night saunas and music puts some youngsters to shame.
As a visitor to Finland it’s easy to get under the skin of the close-knit local dance music scene simply by scouring Flow’s line-up. Whether your preferences are as dark as Finland’s Christmases or as light as their midsummer, the level of quality of Helsinki’s music and the community-spirited nature of the electronic scene makes it a special place. Clothes are optional.
Shanna F. Jones is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter