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Maria Kalaniemi trained as a classical accordion player for 11 years, but her greatest musical success has come through her mastery of the folk traditions of Finland. In addition to three memorable solo albums, Kalaniemi has been essential to recordings and performances by such top-ranked Finnish folk groups as Niekku, Aldargaz, the Helsinki Melodeon Ladies Quintet, and Zeta Bop.
Playing the five-row button accordion from the age of eight, Kalaniemi has had an illustrious career. As the winner of the prestigious Golden Accordion award, she recorded her debut album, Kultaisen Harmonikan Voittaja, in 1983. Released by the Accordion Institute of Ikaalinen, the album showcased Kalaniemi's talents for interpreting traditional Finnish dance tunes. Enrolling in the folk music department of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Kalaniemi continued to strengthen her musical skills. In addition to studying traditional music, she took classes in music theory, improvisation, and performance. While the accordion remained her prime instrument, she learned to play mandolin, violin, and kantele, a zither-like instrument. Together with other students, Kalaniemi formed a band, Niekku. An all-woman group, with the exception of violinist Arto Jarvela, later of JPP, Niekku brought a contemporary vision to the traditional music of Finland and became leaders of the New Finnish Folk movement. Although she briefly studied with accordionist Marcel Azzola in France, Kalaniemi returned to complete her studies at the Sibelius Academy. Graduating in 1990, she began experimenting with the classical-oriented technique of using her left hand to create free-bass melodies. Taking two years to master, the technique provided new composition, arrangement, and performance possibilities.
Kalaniemi released her first album as a professional musician, a self-titled collection of traditional Finnish and Swedish folk tunes, polkas, tangos, and original compositions, on the Finnish Olarin Musiikii label in 1992. The album was subsequently reissued in the United States on the Xenophile label and, later, on the Finlandia Innovators Series label. Along with JPP, Kalaniemi toured the United States with the Finnish Fever tour in 1994. The following year, she formed a new band, Aldargaz, with Arto Jarvela and pianist Timo Alakotila of JPP, mandolinist Petri Hakla, guitarist Olli Varis, and bassist Tapani Varis. The group's debut album, Iho, released in Finland in July 1995, was reissued by Ryko/Hannibal two years later. In 1996, the band became the first folk group to receive the Prize of Finland, awarded by the Minister of Education for "excellence in music." At the same time, Kalaniemi began collaborating with a wide variety of musicians including ethnic/jazz fusion band Zeta Bob and Finnish vocalist Katri Helena. Together with Riitta Kossi of Varttina she formed the Helsinki Melodeon Ladies Quintet. In 1996 she became one of five accordionists from five different countries to comprise the Accordion Tribe, who hit the road that year and two years later issued an eponymous debut album recorded live on that tour.
Kalaniemi remained busy in 1997. In addition to receiving a three-year artist's grant from the Finnish state, she toured Sweden twice and collaborated with singer/actor/flutist Vesa-Matti Loiri, playing on his album Rurja and touring Finland as a member of his band. The following year, she organized and performed at the Harmonikka Accordion Festival and continued to explore an eclectic range of musical settings. Together with Olli Varis, she formed a group, Andetagen, with accordionists Lars Hollmer (an Accordion Tribe member) and Kimmo Pohjonen, and recorded a vocal improvisation album, Pidot, with Heikki Laitinen and Anna-Kaisa Liedes. In January 1999, Kalaniemi performed at the Celtic Connection Festival in Glasgow, along with Sharon Shannon of Ireland and Karen Tweed of England, and that same month saw the release of the second Aldargaz album, Ahma. She also participated in a French production of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf that year.
The new millennium continued to bring many performing and recording opportunities for Kalaniemi. In 2001 two collaborative albums were released, Ilmajousi-Luftstråk (with Swedish fiddler Sven Ahlbäck and nyckelharpa player Johan Hedin, who with Kalaniemi perform as the Luftstråk trio) and Ambra (with JPP/Aldargaz collaborator Timo Alakotila). The 2000s also saw the release of two more Accordion Tribe albums, Sea of Reeds (2002) and Lunghorn Twist (2006), both recorded in the studio. The Maria Kalaniemi Trio (Kalaniemi, Alakotila, and Aldargaz guitarist Varis) performed two concerts in Tokyo in 2001, and a recording from the group’s appearance, Tokyo Concert, arrived in 2004. That same year, the Kalaniemi solo album Niskavuoren Nuori Emäntä, consisting of both new and earlier music used for a theater production, was released.
With all of these group recordings thus far in the decade, Kalaniemi took a different approach with her 2006 album Bellow Poetry, which found the accordionist performing unaccompanied on all but two tracks. However, two years later she was back as collaborator on Siska, a second album by the Luftstråk group also featuring Ahlbäck and Hedin. In the fall of 2010 Kalaniemi returned with another solo album, Vilda Rosor (Wild Roses), this time leading a group featuring diverse instrumentation (played by previous collaborators and others); the album included traditional Finnish and Swedish folk songs, a new Kalaniemi composition, and two pieces by the late Swedish accordionist/composer Hollmer. Vilda Rosor entered the World Music Charts Europe at number two and remained in the WMCE Top Ten for four months. ~ Craig Harris & Dave Lynch, Rovi