Self Rising Flour
By Susan Marquez
When choosing a name for their bluegrass band, banjo player Kalle Tuovinen and his bandmates, Johannes Oksanen on mandolin, Benjamin Oksanen on guitar, and Hannu Vanhatalo on bass,looked back to the good ol’ days of the Grand Ole Opry when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs sang a jingle promoting the show’s longtime sponsor, Martha White. The Tennessee-based company made flour, cornmeal, and baking mixes, but the jingle promoted Martha White’s self-rising flour. “I give Johannes the credit for coming up with the name,” says Kalle. “We all know Martha White’s self-rising flour because of Flatt and Scruggs. We agreed that Self Rising Flour is a fun name, so why not?”
The names of the band members are Finnish. While most people don’t think of Finland as a hotbed of bluegrass music, Self Rising Flour is making a name for itself in European bluegrass circles. “I guess most people in Finland are not familiar with bluegrass, but when they come to see our show, they all seem to enjoy it,” Kalle says. “Music-oriented audiences are more likely to have heard of it. They know the movies Deliverance and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? so we will get requests for ‘Dueling Banjos,’ ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’ Country music, in general, is more known, so we play some Elvis songs and John Denver’s ‘Country Roads,’ which seems to work well with audiences.”
You may be wondering how these Finnish musicians came to form a bluegrass band. “I played electric guitar since I was a child,” recalls Kalle. “In high school, I wasn’t happy with the rock and metal music I was playing. I guess I was looking for something more genuine. Somehow I got the idea to buy a banjo and bluegrass banjo guidebook. At the time, I didn’t know what bluegrass music was. But I found out there was a bluegrass band workshop in Helsinki. Wasel Arar has been running the workshop for over twenty years, and he has become my mentor. I started going there, and within a few months, I was hooked on bluegrass music.”
Johannes says he stumbled into bluegrass while browsing through records in the library’s folk records category. The first record he found was from The Greenbriar Boys. Johannes’ love of bluegrass music influenced his brother, Benjamin. Hannu heard bluegrass records from his friend in the early 1980s, but it took a while for him to start loving it. “I guess the drive and rhythm of the music are what makes it so exciting,” says Kalle. “And, of course, the banjo’s sound and singing harmonies. For me, a huge motivation was the social aspect of bluegrass. I like the community and the jamming. I think it is the perfect genre for jamming, with only a few chords and simple song structures.”
Johannes was in the same bluegrass workshop as Kalle, and during a festival, in the summer of 2018, the two jammed a lot. “We decided to keep playing together regularly, and in 2019 his brother Benjamin joined us on the guitar. After a couple of bass players played with us for a while, we asked Hannu to join the band in 2020. I had played with Hannu before in other bands.”
Kalle says their traditional sound is very much influenced by listening to and being inspired by iconic bluegrass artists like the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, The Bluegrass Album Band, JD Crowe, and Tony Rice. “My favorite lead singers are Keith Whitley and Charlie Sizemore. I think our traditional sound comes from listening to bluegrass so much. I couldn’t play it any other way. The music needs to have a solid beat all the time and enough edge.” Self Rising Flour’s three-part harmonies are arranged and rehearsed with care. “Johannes can easily sing the highest tenor part, and Benjamin usually sings the lower baritone part.”
Even their visual style is traditional, with a nod to the 1970s. “Johannes knew of a website in Germany that sells vintage 70s fashions, and we had seen photos of the 70s bluegrass bands and liked the look. We wanted to look as cool as they did, so we bought paisley shirts and bell-bottomed pants. Now our image and graphic designs are heavily fixed in that theme.”
The band has played about a dozen gigs this year, mostly in bars, restaurants, and a few festivals. “We do the booking ourselves. We’ll be playing Tiveden Americana in Sweden, which will be our first gig outside of Finland, and we are very excited about that. A well-played show is the best promotion for the band, and that has gotten us new gigs.”
The band has released two recordings, both in English. Their debut album, All Original, was recorded in early 2021 and released that summer. A Christmas single, “Santa Gave Me a Banjo,” was written by Kalle and released in November 2021. “I started learning bluegrass in 2013, and I tried writing some songs then, but they weren’t good,” Kalle recalls. “I wrote my first complete song in the summer of 2019 while driving on a long journey home from a folk music festival. That song was recorded on our debut album. When our band got together, that gave me the motivation to write. I wrote ten songs for our album, two of which are instrumentals.” Kalle is in the process of writing songs for an album to be recorded and released next year.
While they love music, the band members all have day jobs. Johannes and Benjamin are both acoustic engineers, which helps make the band sound good in the studio and on stage. Hannu is an insurance broker with a business that handles performing artists’ billing, so he handles the band’s finances. Kalle works in a business that builds and repairs boats and works part-time for another company in production. “Most of the gigs we do are on weekends, so it works out well for us,” he says. Kalle also fills in on banjo and guitar for another Finnish bluegrass band, Jussi Syren and The Groundbreakers.
Kalle says that he hopes the band can travel to the United States in the future. “It takes a lot of effort to get there, with work permits and such. I guess our best bet will be the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass Event. All bands can apply, and foreign bands can sometimes get a grant to cover traveling expenses.” Until then, Self Rising Flour may possibly be seen at Rootsinpyhtää Bluegrass, a festival held each summer in Finland since 1988. “Artists like Hot Rize, Rhonda Vincent, and James King have all played there,” says Kalle.