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Digelius Music founder Ilkka ‘Emu’ Lehtinen has died

Finnish DJ, producer and Avantgardeyö radio show host Matti Nives remembers Helsinki's famed record shop owner

Born in 1947, Ilkka ‘Emu’ Lehtinen was the founder and owner of the Helsinki based record shop Digelius Music. He was a much loved figure in Finnish adventurous music circles, influencing several generations of musicians and music lovers through his shop. Digelius has served as a key meeting point in the Helsinki scene since it was opened in 1971.

The young Lehtinen initially set out for a career in architecture, but in 1970 he landed a job in the Helsinki record shop Tunnelin Levy. Shortly after he and some of his co-workers founded Digelius Music, which during its heyday in the mid-70s, boasted three separate locations in the city, each of them focused on a different genre.

Lehtinen was best known as Emu by his clientele and friends – a nickname he was given due to his childhood interest in ornithology. He diligently kept note of customers’ album wish lists, steering seekers towards deeper discoveries in whatever their musical interest might be. He never talked down to his customers, regardless of their level of knowledge. In the process he created an immensely inclusive shop environment for musical discoveries outside of the mainstream.

In a 2016 interview Lehtinen reports that one of his favourite customer questions was one that usually came from the tourists who frequented his shop more and more as Digelius’s international reputation increased. “Could you give some advice on Finnish jazz and folk music?” is a line he never tired of answering, offering an important connection to countless Finnish underground labels and artists.

The unique atmosphere at Digelius Music was documented in the 2003 TV series Jazzia Viiskulmassa (Jazz At The Five Corners), aired by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle. In addition to its everyday record shop activities, Digelius regularly served as a platform for performances and talks. On 10 October, as one of the last events of the Lehtinen era at Digelius, the shop dedicated the entire day to playing records by Thelonious Monk in order to celebrate the jazz great’s 100th birthday – a fine example of Lehtinen’s “gently educational” approach to shop keeping, in the words of journalist Harri Uusitorppa.

In 2011 Digelius Music celebrated its 40th birthday with an anniversary concert in Helsinki. The group photo of the event’s attendees hangs on the wall of the shop, spanning a veritable 170-strong who’s who of the local music scene. Most of the people pictured had entered Digelius as customers, but posed in the photo as members of Lehtinen’s vast circle of friends – a testament to his philosophy of the store as an open platform of interaction for all visitors. Impromptu percussion jam sessions with local children sat comfortably side by side in its agenda with performances by noted musicians.

“I have had the pleasure of getting to know four generations of music lovers,” Lehtinen said, while declaring “the second 40 year period of Digelius Music” officially opened. During the same year, Lehtinen was named the Jazz Digger Of The Year by the Finnish Jazz Musicians’ Union.

One of the key features of Lehtinen as a record dealer was his solid belief in the future of music and the record business. He was never one to complain about dwindling album sales or the evolution of the formats in which the music was sold and heard. Buying a rare record from Lehtinen, usually at well under the Discogs average price, often led to a heartfelt discussion regarding the bright future of the valued discovery “in a good home”. Lehtinen was well aware of the going rates for particular records, but internet’s secondhand marketplaces did not affect his thinking when it came to Digelius’s price tags.

Until the very end of his career as a record shop owner, Lehtinen usually arrived at Digelius’s home in Viiskulma (Five Corners) at around 7am and left at 6 pm, except on Wednesdays when he’d leave early to play volleyball for the team Laajasalon Voima.

At the time of his sudden passing on 22 October 2017, Lehtinen was busy planning for the fall season’s jazz festivals, which he attended annually with his record stand. To everyone who asked how the shop was doing, he always offered the same answer: “You’re welcome to come over and have a look.”