Georg Ots’ beautiful songs live on
Jori Otsa, who performs the music of the legendary Estonian singer Georg Ots, never made it aboard his namesake ship; but Jori and his band now want to travel to Georg Ots’ homeland, to present the songs they have interpreted with piety. Georg Ots’ songs, which exude the romanticism of life at sea, have now been recorded by Otsa and his band on a new album called Harbor Georg – and the harbour immortalised in the photos is Vuosaari.
This year, Finland has been celebrating a hundred years since the birth of the hugely popular Estonian singer Georg Ots. Georg Ots gained recognition in Finland for his stunning vocals, and in the 1960s he was considered to be a star of the same calibre as Olavi Virta.
Georg Ots’ songs deal with nautical topics, serve up Slavic melancholy, and romanticise life at sea. They sweep both singer and listeners away on a sea voyage.
“For me, the sea means freedom, power, humility and perspective. It’s also the environment in which I’ve spent my entire life, from childhood onwards. I once tried to live inland – it didn’t work out. I missed the presence of the sea, along with its winds and screeching birds,” says orchestra singer Jori Otsa.
“This album may have ended up being a little bit more wistful than the first, and that’s a good thing. The sea and harbours – there’s a certain air of wistfulness about them. Leaving and saying goodbye, disappearing into the open sea. That’s what life is like.”
“As a child, I remember how my mum, my dad and I would just drive around in the evenings. At some point, these drives would always end up at the harbour. We went to see what the ships were like and where they’d come from. It was always an exciting and very atmospheric experience – and was stamped on my memory forever.”
Later, many of the other band members he played with had fathers who worked on ships, one as a captain and another as a cook. They told stories of unforgettable journeys to America, where they had seen things like Boston, Savannah, and many other famous cities. Although Otsa’s own father kept both feet firmly ashore, he spent his whole life working at the docks in Rauma building new ships.
“Shipping, ports, docks and the like are still a big part of who I am, even though I never went to Rauma Maritime School in the end.”
Vuosaari Harbour a backdrop for sea shanties
In addition to classic hits, the new album also includes a song with music and lyrics composed by Jori Otsa. The album also takes its name from this song, Harbor Georg. The photos taken for the album, and also the video for the song Harbor Georg, were all shot at a real harbour: Vuosaari.
“When I was writing the song, it was clear that I’d stick to the theme – songs that take you on a sea voyage – or more precisely, a sailor returning from his last voyage.”
“It was really challenging to start writing a song for inclusion among all those classics. I had to avoid using modern expressions and idioms; had to get into the spirit of the past and revive it. I don’t know whether or not I succeeded – that’s up to the listeners to decide. However, I do think it sits well with the rest of the songs.”
Jori Otsa says that the new nautical album is part of a Georg Ots trilogy. The first album was an introduction – a leaping onto the stage. The second album takes listeners on a sea voyage with the orchestra. The third album will return to the starting point and wave a wistful goodbye to the theme.
Some of the familiar classics on the album include Saarenmaan valssi (Saaremaa Waltz), Ilta redillä (Harbour Nights) and Mustanmeren valssi (Black Sea Waltz).
“People have sometimes asked why I sing Ots’ songs in particular, and I tell them it’s because they comfort me,” says Otsa.
“Georg Ots’ songs speak to me better than many others of the same era, as they have a clear Slavic intonation and a certain sense of seriousness about them. His repertoire included folk music and Russian romances, which are already in some way perceived as classical music.”
Jori Otsa first planned to perform Georg Ots’ music ten years ago, but it’s only now that the right line-up has given wings to that dream. The acoustic band Mah’Orkka comprises Rolf Storsjö on the accordion, Kari Hartikka on the prima balalaika, and Turkka Wahlbäck on the contrabass balalaika. The band’s first rehearsals were at the end of 2018.
Backing musicians from the first album also added a little spice to the new album. Violinist Tuomas Rounakari from Kokkola guested on a couple of tracks, as did AkkaPella, a three-woman choir from Kokkola. Their stunning backing vocals were done under the name Reelingin ruusut. The album was recorded in the same way as the first, at Tommi A Lehtonen’s studio in the port city of Kokkola.
The album can be purchased from all well-stocked record stores and their webstores. It’s also available on the orchestra’s own website and at their gigs.