The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

by Carl Rahkonen © 1989  All Rights Reserved   Back to Table of Contents

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            The present study deals with the basic problems of what the kantele is and how it is played, and the more complex problem of the meaning of tradition in our modern world.  Among the Finns, the kantele manifests itself as a musical instrument, a motif of folklore, and a symbol of identity.

            The structure of the instrument has changed radically over the course of its history, so that today there are many different kinds of kanteles falling into three broad categories: those which have bodies carved from a single piece of wood, those built from separate pieces of wood, and those using a reverse-curve shape to improve the tonal qualities across a wider range.  Kantele builders were and are influenced by matters of function, fashion and tradition in developing its structure.

            The kantele is played in folk music, art music and popular music, in a wide variety of styles appropriate to these contexts.  Various groups, and various geographic areas of Finland, maintain different playing traditions which exist simultaneously in the music culture.

            The concept of tradition is as central to folkloristics as the concept of culture is to anthropology.  Folklorists and ethnomusicologists may study tradition as the materials, the symbols, and the learning processes of a culture, which produce a dynamic balance of stability and change.





            I would like to thank the many individuals and organizations who helped me with this work.  I begin with teachers who steered me in the right direction, Dr. Joyce Newman, Dr. Alan P. Merriam and Dr. George List.  I thank Dr. Stephen Reynolds for providing me with valuable bibliographic information and for his congenial support.  I pay tribute to the Finnish scholars Ilkka Kolehmainen, the first Finn I contacted regarding the kantele;  Heikki Laitinen, the greatest expert on the kantele for liberally sharing his knowledge and reading and correcting an early version of this work; and Professor Timo Leisiö for his valuable assistance in my early days in Finland.

            I would like to recognize the United States Educational Foundation in Finland, currently the Finland-United States Educational Exchange Commission and Dr. William Copeland for the A.S.L.A.-Fulbright Grant making this research possible.  I thank the National Museum, Helsinki; the Sibelius Museum, Turku; the Tampere University Institute for Folk Traditions and the Folk Music Institute, Kaustinen; for allowing me to study and photograph their kantele collections.  I also thank the Finnish Literature Society Manuscript Archive for allowing me to examine the kantele documents of A. O. Väisänen and Elias Lönnrot.

            I express my deep gratitude to all the kantele players in every part of Finland who taught me about themselves and their playing:  Anu Rummukainen Itäpelto, Anneli Kuparinen, Tyyne Niikko, Ismo Sopanen, Hannu Syrjälahti, Ilona Porma, Arvi Pokela, Veikko Manninen, Viljo Karvonen, Jaakko and Tytti-Leena Laasanen, Hanna Pirhonen, Kari Dahlblom, Onni Kuivalainen, Lauri Kahilainen, Väinö Haapakangas, Lyydia Jakonen, Samppa Uimonen, Daryl Gibb and Matti Kontio.  I would also like to recognize the kantele builders who shared their knowledge:  Erkki Leskelä, Otto Koistinen, Ossi Heikkilä, Jussi Ala-Kuha, Kaleva Järvinen, Heikki Linjama, Sulo Huotari and Jorma Salminen for sharing valuable information on his father, Paul Salminen.

            A special appreciation goes to Hannu Saha, a scholar and expert kantele player, and to Rauno Nieminen, a master instrument builder and kantele tradition bearer in his own right, for not only being my teachers, but also being my friends.  I give greatest thanks to Martti Pokela, a man who epitomizes all the kantele traditions of Finland, without whom this work would not have been possible.

            I acknowledge the work of my doctoral committee Professors Austin B. Caswell, Felix J. Oinas, Ruth M. Stone and Chairman Ronald R. Smith for their valuable guidance and assistance throughout.  I also recognize Mr. William F. Newton and Dr. Joyce Hakala for reading and making many valuable corrections to the final draft.

            I thank Indiana University of Pennsylvania and their Director of Libraries, Mr. Larry Kroah, for valuable support in providing access to darkroom facilities and for printing, duplicating and binding the final version of this work.

            I acknowledge the many other individuals whom I may have missed naming above.  Please forgive me and accept my heartfelt thanks for your contributions to this work.   

            Finally, I express my deepest appreciation for my wife, Sharon M. Franklin-Rahkonen, for her valuable assistance during my fieldwork and for her unwavering support over the past six years during the writing and rewriting of this work.


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