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Finnish Reggae
By Catherine Winter
May 23, 1997

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A lot of the residents are descended from Finns, who must've seen some similarities to their chilly homeland when they came to work the mines and log the forests near the shores of Lake Superior. A lot of the mining towns are poor now, surrounded by pits where no one is digging anymore. But somehow this tough ground has grown a tropical flower. A band from UP has added some bongos, steel drums, and a tropical beat. They call their music Finnish Reggae. Catherine Winter on Mainstreet Radio has this profile of the band, Conga Se Menne.

The guys in Conga Se Menne used to play rock and roll at bars and wedding receptions on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But they say they got tired of playing songs like "Proud Mary." And one day, lead singer Derrell Syria got an idea.

I used to play my grandfather's 78s all the time and I got into the marches and schottisches and I don't know when I first started realizing that these two beats were running parallel, and I came up with the first song I wrote that was like a Finnish reggae tune was "Come-a Take-a Sauna," and from that moment on we were hooked as far as blending those two styles together.

music: Come-a come-a come-a come-a come-a take a sauna with me
We'll let the steam go
And yump in the snow.
It'll be much neater if I hit you with a cedar bough
It makes the blood flow ...

Saunas find their way into a lot of Conga Se Menne's songs. So do hunting and fishing, and other aspects of life on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or UP, the little strip of Michigan attached to Wisconsin and nearly surrounded by Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan. The UP is a remote place of beautiful forests, fishing resorts, grim little towns, and bitter winters. Percussionist Les Ross says the band decided to turn tropical partly because of the UP's weather.
The past two winters in a row we set records for most snowfall and before that we set records for the coldest winters, so you have to do something to keep warm. So we take a lot of saunas, but that only goes so far. But music helps. Especially music that comes from where palm trees grow.
Ross says the band is also trying to keep Finnish heritage alive. They play some traditional schottisches and polkas -- with a little bongo in the background. Sometimes, Derrell Syria's mother sits in on fiddle. And Les Ross's father, Les Ross Senior, plays harmonica. The older Ross brought the house down at a recent gig in Ironwood, Michigan, where he stood between two plastic palm trees, wearing blue ball cap, and played the Sakkijarven Polka.

Les Ross Senior has spent his whole life on the UP. He says he learned to play traditional Finnish tunes when he was a little boy.

Both my grandfathers used to bring me harmonicas. I'll get you a better one, I'll get you a better one. They were like competing, so I must've been about four years old when I first started.
Ross says he didn't get interested in reggae music until his son started playing it, but now he likes the blend of Finnish and reggae styles.
For one thing the Finnish schottische is a comparable beat. It's not quite the reggae style, but it's close.
Members of the band say they've seen older people dancing the schottische to their reggae songs. Les Ross Junior says it's fun to see the broad range of ages in crowds that come to see Conga Se Menne in concert halls and at festivals.
We'll do a calypso or a soka, and some of the old people will polka to that. But their hips are swaying a little more. (laughs)

Finnish reggae is just one of the things we do. Our music has been coined as northern island rock or tropical sauna beat because all of it isn't reggae. We borrow some Jamaican elements but there are many other islands we borrow from, too -- Trinidad, Cuba, Brazil -- The beats and rhythm are more tropical than anything else.

Ross says the band is starting to take off. It's getting some radio play and has cut two CDs. He's working on a CD of his dad's traditional harmonica playing, with some of the Conga boys playing backup. Ross calls it alternative schottische. But for now, the conga boys are keeping their day jobs. One washes dishes; one teaches music; one is an electrician at a mine. Singer Derrell Syria drives a bus. But he's still writing songs about life on the UP -- about breaking down on a backroad, drinking beer on a rock on Lake Superior -- and trapping weasels with a guy named Eino.

I'm Catherine Winter, Mainstreet Radio.