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Despite growing up in a Nordic country, Ahti Paunu wasn’t raised with the music of ABBA. “In my home we almost only listened to classical music,” the Finland native says. But as it is for so many, it was love at first listen. “I instantly fell in love with the tunes,” Paunu says. “I think I had been lacking a lot not knowing them before.”
Certainly the 38-year-old has now made up for lost music in his youth. For about a decade now his six-member vocal group Rajaton has regularly performed a symphonic concert in tribute to the Swedish superstars. The a cappella group will make its debut at the Kennedy Center next weekend in the program “The Music of ABBA” with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops, led by Steven Reineke.
“I sang once before at the Kennedy Center when I was nine,” Paunu says, chuckling at the memory of performing as part of a children’s choir tour of the U.S. A baritone, Paunu, who also grew up playing cello and piano, helped form Rajaton as an a cappella group while studying music education in college. “We had a dream that we could become the first professional vocal group in Finland, and make a living out of it,” he says.
Along the way Rajaton — the name means “boundless” in Finnish — started performing symphonic tributes to other pop legends, including the Beatles and Queen. “But this ABBA thing we have performed the most all over the world,” Paunu says, “whether in Finland or especially Australia — they are really fanatic about it [down under].”
At the Kennedy Center Rajaton will perform a few of its own original a cappella songs in addition to the ABBA classics. “There is a rock band playing in the middle of the orchestra, so we still have the disco kind of feel all the time,” he says. And patrons are encouraged to sing, even dance, along. Says Paunu: “We love people singing with us…I would say that especially towards the end, it is kind of a party.”
Rajaton performs Friday, May 30, and Saturday, May 31, at 8 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are $20 to $85. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.