by Mark Dvorak
Yesterday I was baptized. I awoke in the late afternoon with a full blown case of jet lag. My throat was scratchy, my sinuses dry and I had the same feeling of congestion in my chest that precedes something like a flu. There was laughter and music coming from Colby and Paul’s apartment across the foyer. First one mandolin then two together. More laughter. One voice was thick with the speaking style common to these northern regions, the other more familiar. Names were being mentioned and I only recognized a few. Someone unschooled in mandolin nobility is left to measure the magnitude of each name by only the reverence with which it is spoken.
Wasel Arar and Colby Maddox were jamming and comparing notes collected from two separate lifetimes spent bent over a mandolin in two completely different parts of the world. And to recognize how much they have found in common with one another is something to behold. Some of the same chops and riffs spill out of their instruments. They share some of the same chord voicings and scales, as well as a number of common musical friendships in the swirling world known only to those who pick at the mandolin. Details like string gauges, action, model numbers beginning with an A or an F were discussed and affirmed. Builders like Gibson and Kentuckian and others I have never heard of were addressed.
I made tea in the kitchen of John’s and my apartment, enjoying the interaction. It is evident that Wasel loves all kinds of music. He is quick to point out some of the many things old-time music and bluegrass have in common. It is remarkable that Wasel has learned to play so well and has amassed so much knowledge considering the essence of his music is rooted a half a world away. He knows instruments too. He knows how they are built and how they ought to be adjusted. And he can articulate the subtle differences in the sound of one mandolin when compared to the next. I gathered then that Wasel has listened to a great many mandolins.
Now let me tell you something else. Sitting in my kitchen sipping tea, I thought I heard lightning sparking from the strings of Colby Maddox. His playing is at once powerful, subtle and rhythmic. His phrasing dances and struts with bluesy, syncopated vigor. Whoa.
I boiled another cup of tea water and listened to the music a while longer, then joined the two in the other apartment. “I am taking you all to the sauna this afternoon,” said Wasel. The word sauna hung in the air. Sow-nah. I guess you could say Colby and I said nothing, as it suddenly became awful quiet. “You’ll enjoy it,” Wasel went on, “It is something you come to Finland to do. All Finns enjoy their sauna.”
Twenty minutes later, the four of us plus Wasel trudged down the gravel road, towels draped over our shoulders, towards sauna. Sow-nah. Wasel explained some of the health giving benefits of this age old Finnish tradition as we walked. He was eager for us to take part in the experience, yet sensitive to the shyness of his American guests. I wondered how many American musicians Wasel has coaxed and coached through their first Finnish sauna over the years. Sow-nah.
At once Wasel stopped in mid-sentence. “Wait a minute,” he said, “I forgot something. Keep on walking and I’ll catch up with you.” The four of us kept on towards our sauna. John, who has traveled the world playing music, has enjoyed sauna in several different countries. Paul is generally eager to try new things and although this wouldn’t be his first sauna, he was fully looking forward to it. I’m pretty sure Colby and I said nothing, as it again became awful quiet.
Wasel came hustling up the road toting a twelve pack carton of Finnish beer. “We’ll need these in the sauna,” he said.
We entered what Wasel called the dressing room, which is an interesting thing to call it, and we began undressing. “You can take your towel in if you like,” said Wasel. “You are all welcome to do what you are comfortable with. But if you take your towel in it will get wet and you won’t have anything to dry yourself off with.”
As we stood, one of the boys handed me an open bottle of beer. I folded my towel and placed it atop my stack of clothing and we exited the dressing room. Across the hall is the doorway to the sauna. As you enter you step past a container about the size of a small trash can. It is filled with what look to be man-made stones which are somehow heated by the container. Two gents, already sweating and pink welcomed us. We stepped up one at a time and the older of the two scootched around the u-shaped bench to make room. The younger one stayed on the end nearest the container and manned the pail. Periodically he splashed a ladleful of water atop the rocks. The water sizzled and evaporated, filling the sauna with heat and moisture.
A Finnish sauna is rather compact and is hotter than a traffic jam in Louisiana in August. Eighty degrees centigrade is a hundred seventy-six in our part of the world and you feel it immediately. Wasel explained something of the philosophy behind sauna. He spoke something in Finnish to the younger man who immediately splashed two more ladles of water on the stones. The water sizzled again and the heat increased. “There is an art to sauna,” Wasel explained. “You have to do things slowly and when you feel it is time, we will step out back to the river.”
Soon enough the time came. Dripping with sweat, we tiptoed out of the sauna down the short hall and tiptoed out of the doorway which led to the river. There we paused for a spell and I ducked back to the dressing room to deposit my empty bottle. While there I heard Wasel calling something to the others and by the time I came back out, John, Colby and Paul were already in the water. “Some people like to dive right in,” Wasel said to me, “but try easing in and see how you like it. You may find it easier to back down the ladder into the water.” I turned around facing Wasel and backed down the ladder.
The water was cold but not icy. Steam was coming off my arms and off of Wasel’s shoulders. “Watch your step he said, the ladder is slippery.” I was in about as far as my knees and looked down to make certain my feet were steady on the ladder. I felt Wasel’s hand atop my head. He mumbled, “I hearby baptize you into the river of sauna,” and he pushed. I pushed off the ladder with my legs and fell back laughing into the chilly water. Wasel stepped down the ladder and joined us. “Don’t be in a hurry to get out of the water,” he said. “You’ll know when it’s time.”
One carries the heat of the sauna into the river with them. And the heat of the sauna remains when one climbs back up the ladder and out of the water. Colby and John fetched another round of bottles from the dressing room and there we stood, talking and drinking, watching dusk and stillness settle on the lagoon. A seagull screeched from her perch on a rock while her still fuzzy babies paddled in the water below.
Finnish sauna is refreshing, just as Wasel promised, and invigorating. The shyness of disrobing in public is only temporary. Sauna in Finland is as commonplace as cell phones are in Lincoln Square, and one falls into the custom quite naturally. While fully clothed and facing an audience I have felt more naked on countless other occasions, with guitar in hand and a good set list to boot. Sow-nah.
Colby began to shiver and I began to shiver. The process of heating up in the sauna and cooling off in the river can be repeated as many times as one prefers. Wasel recommended three, so three it was. Paul and Colby stayed for a fourth, while John and I showered, dressed and headed over to the restaurant for dinner. The room was crowded and by the time we arrived, a bluegrass jam had already assembled in the corner. We took the small table by the door and ordered, astonished to find out it was nine thirty. We had spent more than two and a half hours in the sauna.