Jussi Reijonen Brings the World to his Music in New Album and Rockport Concert

Photo courtesy of Eric Antoniou.

This week, WHRB spoke to Jussi Reijonen, award-winning composer, guitar, and oud player born in Northern Finland but raised by the world — growing up in the Middle East, East Africa, and the United States. His debut album, un | ان, received great positive critical acclaim in early 2013 was nominated for an Independent Music Award and captures the essence of his musical journey around the world. His latest album, Three Seconds | Kolme Toista and described as a “transcultural suite in five movements,” was released worldwide on October 14, 2022 via Challenge Records International and has already blown away listeners. In addition to performing solo, he also co-leads the quintet Sawaari, which translated from Hindi means “to ride,” as an oud player and bridges musical traditions from India to North Africa and Italy.

Presented as a part of the Global Journeys Series, Jussi Reijonen led a nonet in the world premiere of his newest album on Sunday, November 6th, at 5 pm ET at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

WHRB: Hi Jussi, thanks for stopping by WHRB.

Jussi: Thanks for having me. My name is Jussi Reijonen, and I am a composer, guitar player, and oud player, originally born in Northern Finland on the Arctic Circle. I grew up in the Middle East and in East Africa, and then I spent a lot of my life in the US, Boston in particular and some in New York.

WHRB: It’s been a pleasure to read a bit about you before the interview, so let’s dive right in with how you first became interested in music and picked up the guitar and the oud. Why did you choose these instruments?

Jussi: My first experience with music that I remember clearly was when I was four years old. This was the mid-eighties in Finland, before my family moved abroad. There was a very popular rock band called Dingo, which generated a Beatles-mania kind of hysteria in Finland especially among young people. I was completely obsessed with this band, and I loved their songs. You can imagine what a rock band in the eighties would have looked like for a kid.

Originally, I wanted to become a drummer, but then when I was thirteen, I remember I had a friend selling a drum set but he was asking for way too high a price. I got upset by that, and I asked my father if I could have a guitar instead. I started to play guitar at thirteen and learned from friends or records by ear. I didn’t really take formal lessons until I was about twenty-two, and by that time, I started to notice in my early compositions and types of sounds that I was gravitating towards that there was some flavor I was very attracted to — sounds that had an Arabic root to them. When I tried to examine this a bit more, I realized I had been exposed to a lot of Arabic music growing up in the Middle East. It really started to come through subconsciously, then. I bought an oud on a backpacking trip in Northern Morocco in Fez, and from there just started to learn that.

I eventually came to study music formally in my early twenties first in Helsinki, in Finland, and then later at Berklee and the New England Conservatory here in Boston. It’s just been a very natural evolution.

To me, music has always been a way to make sense of the world and express who I am, especially with a background influenced by so many cultures.

WHRB: When did you first become interested in composing — telling the story of music not only through performing, but writing it yourself?

Jussi: Having grown up with rock music and heavy metal, I always had this idea that it’s really cool to be in a band and to make music as a collective unit. It was crystal clear to me, too, that bands write their own original material. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of the word, ‘composition,’ but rather that we would write some songs and try to put something together. I would fiddle around with some riffs and see how that develops.

Gradually, it started to evolve from there and become more of a defining part of what I do through music. Looking back, I feel that I don’t really fit into a particular box or category — in music or personally — as I have been exposed to and inspired by all these different kinds of music. Given my background and living in so many different countries as a child, I had to find my own way of putting everything together. That’s where composing becomes more and more of a need, a necessity.

WHRB: What was it like to start taking formal classes in your twenties after you had been largely exploring for much of your life?

Jussi: It felt like coming home in a sense. For the first time, I found like-minded people who were very dedicated, serious, and much more experienced than I was at the time. When I was learning on my own, I went to the local library to find transcription books or guitar magazines in this pre-internet era in Northern Finland. Then, in these classes, it really felt like a natural transition to having all this new information available all around me.

Because I had studied for eight to nine years on my own, it seemed like I was able to be a bit freer and not take things as dogmatic in every way. I had major concerns going into it thinking that they were now going to teach me the rules, and this is how I must play. There were certainly situations where there was dogma, but I seem to be fairly resistant to that.

Reflecting on this, I realize I’m a slow person — for me, going deep into things always takes time. That’s why I think composing takes a long time because I need to really absorb the information, filter it and understand it from my own perspective. It’s a craft, and I’m always looking for something that resonates a bit deeper.

WHRB: In your formal training, do you have particular mentors or professors whom were particularly helpful in shaping you as a musician?

Jussi: I owe my eternal gratitude to those who have guided me. My first real mentor was a guitar player from Finland, and his name is Peter Lerche. It was difficult to get to study with him, since as a kind of legendary musician in Finland, he was in high demand as a teacher. Eventually, I got the chance to take private lessons with him. It really meshed with my background because he was also someone who, though he was Finnish, grew up elsewhere — in Pakistan. He had this strong Indian and Pakistani influence in his music (and American influences). We had an unspoken understanding of being not only from one culture. He pushed me hard.

One time, we were talking about musical language and dialects. I speak in a very strong Northern Finnish accent, and he just said to me, you have such a beautiful way to express yourself when you talk. Why don’t I hear that when you play guitar? That was a major transformation for me, to hear that somebody cared so much to share that with me.

When I came to Boston, Mick Goodrick, the legendary guitar player and educator, was someone who I automatically clicked with. He told me, with your background, why do you want to play bebop? Between Peter and Mick, I got the message of doing your own thing, finding your voice and music. At Berklee, I also studied with David Tronzo, a slide guitarist, and David Fiuczynski, a microtonal guitar player.

Later, when I went to the New England Conservatory for my masters, I focused on the oud. I had the chance to study with Simon Shaheen, who is a Palestinian violinist, oud player, and composer. I also took lessons with his brother, Najib Shaheen, as well as Bassam Saba, a Lebanese nay player, flutist and multi-instrumentalist who was another important mentor who we unfortunately lost to Covid.

To be fair, all the musicians I’ve had a chance to play music with over all these years, including my brothers in the current nonet, are all mentors to me, too.

WHRB: Turning to the next portion of our conversation, you have been all over the world — to Finland, Jordan, Tanzania, Lebanon, and more. How have you incorporated the voices of these cultures into your work and given back?

Jussi: Moving to Anman, Jordan and being put into an American community school without speaking a word of English in an environment where all my classmates were from different parts of the world was huge for me. As a child, you’re just open and accepting of everything. I’ve carried this feeling of being at home in multicultural environments with me since. I also learned how to read body language from different cultures, to communicate before I had the words.

I’ve gone through different phases of asking myself if I’m expressing an influence of a certain culture and question whether I am allowed to express this because I’m not native to that culture. At the same time, the way I see it is, if I didn’t reflect what I’ve learned from cultures that have raised me alongside my family, it would be disrespectful. I can’t hide, and I don’t want to hide that. I hope that I can give back to cultures with my music as an open thank you letter.

One thing that I want to be very clear on is that I don’t represent any particular culture. I’m just inspired and influenced by everything from Egyptian vocal traditions to American hip hop to European classical music. I’m just trying to find a way to reflect this natural balance in my playing.

WHRB: During the pandemic, you’ve reflected on this time as a moment for you to consider that multicultural voice more carefully and how you want to convey this message in your next album. Can you speak a bit more about this time?

Jussi: My last album came out in 2013. It was recorded in 2011 with material from prior to that, and I had just finished grad school. After touring the album, I noticed I couldn’t compose — I had some creative block. It took me a long time to first accept it, then deal with it.

In 2018, I was wrestling — subconsciously and consciously — with this question of how can I be authentic to myself given all of these influences that are part of who I am. I needed to reflect and express work without sounding like a thief, so there was a lot of questioning and doubt. I would also say there was a bit of a perfectionist streak as I had received such a positive critical response to the first album.

Out of respect for my audience, I wanted to figure out the next step carefully. In 2018, there were certain things in my personal life that came into focus, and I realized that certain family dynamics – and my role in my family – were a factor in this creative block. I needed to undo a lot of inhibitions I had, so when the pandemic hit, I was deep into the process of understanding what created that block in composing. In normal times, there would be gigs and teaching and recording, but that was all gone. Everything just went quiet.

This was an opportunity that left me with no excuses anymore. I had to figure this out for me, and as horrible as it all was — I lost a mentor to COVID — I did welcome the pause. Again, being a slow person, it was good for me to stop, reflect, sit down, and write without being distracted by the next gig. It helped clarify everything a lot.

Originally, I wanted to write a quartet or quintet, but because I could not experiment with other musicians, I scored right into a software notation service. Eight months into writing it, I realized I had added violin, horns, and drums, and it became a nonet.

WHRB: What do you hope audience members will take away from your album and concert in Rockport?

Jussi: However people hear it is valid to them. For me, what’s really important is that we can do the music justice. The concert will be the world premiere of this new music, and it will be performed as I had intended when I wrote it — not as five independent tracks, but as a five-movement suite with a narrative arc from start to finish. There’s a lot of very deep personal narrative symbolism in the music, too. The response has been overwhelmingly positive for the album so far, which is fascinating because people hear such different things.

WHRB: Is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners?

Jussi: I’m incredibly grateful to anybody who checks out the music. I would also love to hear people’s comments — honest feedback!

// Felicia Ho ‘23 is a producer for the Classical Music Department and the Director of Online Content for Classical Music