Chapter 4.2.3:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            Haapavesi is located in northern Ostrobothnia some five hundred ten kilometers north of Helsinki in a remote farm area, not on any main highway or railroad.  As with the Perho River Valley and Saarijärvi traditions, the Haapavesi area, which includes the villages of Pulkkila, Piippola and Leskelä, has had an active folk music life going back many decades.  Ilona Porma (1948a) mentions the names of dozens of fiddle players, accordion players, singers and kantele players who participated in local musical activities.  Many of these activities were in connection with weddings, dances and evening programs, particularly those sponsored by the local Youth Society.  The Youth Society also sponsored song festivals and contests which drew musicians from throughout the area and it helped in the organization of choirs and brass ensembles.

            Haapavesi has the distinction of being the place where five‑string kantele playing continued as an unbroken tradition well into the twentieth century.  Erkki Ala‑Könni (1973:396‑401, 1986:23‑25) mentions names and details through oral history of more than eighteen five‑string players from around the turn of the century. 

            The Haapavesi area also had a distinctive large kantele tradition.  Little is known about large kantele players in the area before the turn of the century, but larger carved kanteles were known at the time.  For example, Antti Rantonen owned a sixteen‑string kantele as a boy and the local cantor, August Jääskeläinen, owned a bottomless ten‑string carved kantele, which he probably made himself (Ala‑Könni 1973:392, 1986:20).  There may have been some players of box kanteles, particularly since by the late nineteenth century they were being made in greater numbers by master builders in the Perho River Valley and Saarijärvi areas and were being distributed widely around the country.  There was some interest in kantele building in Haapavesi at the time.  Keränen (1973:162) has written that starting in 1896, boys were building kanteles at the Kansanopisto [Adult Education School] and at a 1906 industrial exhibition in Kuopio there were four kanteles displayed from Haapavesi builders.


                                                     Pasi Jääskeläinen


            More than anyone else, the large kantele playing tradition in Haapavesi was influenced by Pasi Jääskeläinen, who was born in 1869, the son of the cantor.  In his earlier years, Pasi was familiar with carved kantele playing of family and friends.  He was sent by his father to secondary school in Oulu, but was more interested in music, so he soon began attending cantor and organ school in Oulu.  Pasi did not, however, become a cantor, but an actor and comedian.  Eventually, he played in the Kansan-teatteri [Folk Theatre] and Uusiteatteri [New Theatre] in Helsinki.  He also studied voice in Helsinki with Abraham Ojanperä and met the pianist Emil Kauppi, the music director of the Kansanteatteri, who became Pasi's lifelong friend (Porma 1948b:289). 

            Pasi began a career as a singer of comic songs in 1895, touring extensively in all parts of Finland, in Scandinavia and even making two tours to the United States.  He dressed in an old Karelian‑style folk costume, like Väinämöinen, and sang folk songs and comic songs while playing a kantele.  There must have been a combination of interesting and humorous things in his performances, because he described them as "[musical -‑ dramatic -‑ acrobatic programs (before educated urban audiences, kings, etc.)]" (ibid:290).  He became one of the most popular entertainers of his day.

            Pasi used a carved kantele during his early tours, but later switched to playing box kanteles, originally made by builders from Saarijärvi and Viitasaari (Ala‑Könni 1973:392, 1986:20) and later those made in his own kantele shop.  According to a letter which was published in an article by Martti Pokela (1982a:5), Pasi may have learned a portion of his large kantele playing style from Hjalmar Räisänen, the grandson of Kreeta Haapasalo.  The letter was written in 1900 by Räisänen and reads as follows:


[I was at Pasi's concert... where he sang old Kalevala and Kanteletar songs.  He accompanied his songs with a kouru [channel] carved from aspen, to which were attached five brass strings (the writer of the letter means naturally a five-string kantele) which he now and then strummed with strength.  He conquered the audience with comedy.  I lived at the time in the parish with the precentor.  After the concert, Pasi came to our home to greet the precentor, who was previously his school chum.  My kantele was stored on top of the piano.  Pasi's eyes flew to it.  I played for him.  Pasi screamed and jumped: 'Now I know my life's calling.'  I began to teach him and for the  entire winter he travelled between Haapavesi and Raahe a couple of times a week.  He learned what one with short, thick fingers could learn.  But he didn't have to.  The rest he did with his outstanding comedy and a Karelian homespun outfit] (ibid.).


            If the story can be counted on as being accurate, Pasi Jääskeläinen's playing technique on the large kantele may have been influenced by the Perho River Valley tradition.  Räisänen's tutoring was certainly not the only influence on Pasi's playing, because rather than playing the kantele with the shortest strings closest to the player, as is done in the Perho River Valley and Saarijärvi styles, he played the kantele with the longest string closest.  Pasi had lifelong friendships with famous art musicians of the time, such as the composers and pianists Oskar Merikanto and Emil Kauppi, and the violinist Eino Rautavaara.  He also organized the first mixed choir and men's choir in Haapavesi and acted as music director.  His friend, Emil Kauppi, made arrangements for the choirs and accompanied Pasi on some of his concert tours.  The two also collaborated on several of Finland's first operettas and musical plays (Porma 1948b:293).

            Pasi may have begun playing from the long side of the instrument because he was a trained musician, who could read music.  As mentioned earlier, if the player used written music for performance it was more natural to play from the long side, since perceptually the pitches on the staff were in the same direction as where those pitches were found on the instrument.  Pasi was among the earliest documented performers to play from the long side of the instrument. 

            Akilles Ockenström published a method book with kantele arrangements in 1898, which describes the playing position from the long side and features a picture of a kantele player on the cover in this position.  Pasi may have been influenced by Ockenström, because in 1903 he published his own method book, which mentioned Ockenström's book in the Preface and featured simple arrangements of folk songs and other melodies which would help beginners start playing from the long side of the instrument.  Pasi is also credited with inventing the left-handed kantele, specially designed for being played with the long side closest.

            Pasi's innovations had a significant impact on the kantele tradition in Haapavesi.  Many of the folk kantele players began playing with the longest string closest, even if they played by ear without written music.  They also began building and playing left‑handed kanteles, using the kanteles from Pasi's workshop as models. Even Antti Rantonen began playing a Pasi Jääskeläinen model, thirty-string kantele from the long side, while continuing to play the five‑string kantele in the old way, with the short string closest.  Sometimes, he even played both types of kanteles simultaneously, plucking out melodies on the five‑string kantele while accompanying himself with a large kantele (Illus. 47).

            Pasi also organized the first kantele ensembles in Haapavesi.  These early groups contained some of the seminal kantele players who would pass on the Haapavesi playing style,  such as the four Haanpää sisters, Emmi, Katri, Anni and Riikka.  The group also included Elli and Lauri Nummela, Antti Rantonen and Heikki Väänänen (Ala‑Könni 1973:404) and possibly Sulo Esteri Rytky, who is included in a picture of the group (Porma 1948a:229).  After Pasi Jääskeläinen's death in 1920, the most active players continued to be Antti Rantonen, Sulo Rytky and Anni (Anna Haanpää) Kääriäinen (1895‑1964), who was nick‑named "Hatukankaan Anni," because she was a servant in the Hatukangas household.[1]





Illus. 46.  Pasi Jääskeläinen.  Photograph compliments of Ilona Porma.


Illus. 47.  Antti Rantonen playing a five-string and a box kantele simultaneously.  Photograph compliments of Ilona Porma.


            Antti Rantonen's extended family played a significant role in continuing the Haapavesi tradition.  Antti's sister, Ruusu Merikallio, was also a kantele player, but was more famous in the area for starting a major enter-prise, Haapaveden Kotimarjala Oy [The Haapavesi Home Berry Co.], in 1906, which was an important employer in the region (Keränen:173).  Ruusu's two daughters, Hilkka (Merikallio) Hankonen (b.1908) and Ilona (Merikallio) Porma (b. 1910) both became fine kantele players.  Hilkka established a family kantele ensemble, which had seven players in 1983.  They played only pieces composed or played by Antti Rantonen (Luhtasela 1983a).  Ilona Porma has been very active for most of her life in promoting the Haapavesi style of kantele playing, which she described for me in detail in two interviews (1983a, 1983b).


                                                         Ilona Porma


            Ilona cannot remember a time when she did not play the kantele.  She remembers that when she was a girl, Anni Kääriäinen played kantele and sang for her.  Later Ilona played duets with Anni.  Ilona was always involved with the kantele activities of her family.  However, she told me that her primary instrument is the piano.  Ilona began learning to read music and play the piano at the age of eight, from Saima Davidsson in Haapavesi.  She became quite a good piano player, eventually accompanying the Haapavesi choirs and playing piano recitals.

            Ilona says that she keeps her kantele playing separate from her piano playing.  Her kantele playing is a part of the tradition which existed in Haapavesi when she was young.  She owns several kanteles, which are left handed diatonic instruments, without tuning mechanisms, built by Efraim Kilpinen, the master builder who began his career in Haapavesi.  She does not use written music while playing the kantele and she does not teach the kantele from written music.  She does, however, have a notation system based on solfege syllables, only for teaching.

            Like Pasi Jääskeläinen, Ilona not only performed on the kantele, but actively promoted it by organizing kantele ensembles, concerts, concert tours and teaching.  She organized her first kantele ensemble just after the Second World War in 1946, which had seventeen members in a "kantele choir" playing in unison.  Included in this group were members of her extended family, including her uncle, Antti Rantonen, several other original members of Pasi Jääskeläinen's kantele ensemble, as well as other fine kantele players in the area.  The kantele concerts also generally included singing, since Ilona became director of the Haapavesi mixed choir in 1946. 

            Haapavesi kantele ensembles gave concerts at various celebrations and events around Finland.  In 1947, a group containing Ilona Porma, Antti Rantonen, Riikka Pentti and Anni Kääriäinen performed at the Finnish Youth Society's Sixty‑Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Helsinki.  Ilona directed a large kantele ensemble in connection with the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, playing several concerts.  She also directed various kantele ensembles which

toured outside Finland.  Over the years those tours have taken her to fifteen different countries.  Her 1964 tour of the United States and Canada had a high point with a "forty‑five minute concert on live color television" at the American Pavilion of the World's Fair in New York City (Porma 1983a).

            Ilona has also influenced the growth of kantele playing in Finland by being a prolific kantele teacher.  Dozens of fine kantele players began their instruction with her.  In 1982 she was awarded the title of Musiikkineuvos [music "counselor" or "expert"] by the government of Finland.  She was honored on her seventy‑fifth birthday by the Kantele League, which noted that she was "[a kantele and piano teacher, choir director, folk music group director, and music critic among other things...]" (Sopanen 1985a:17).  Since 1980, she has served as the artistic director of the Haapavesi kantele camp.

            The Haapavesi kantele camp started with planning between Martti Pokela, Oiva Luhtasela and Ilona Porma in 1978 and finally began in the summer of 1980.  It has been held every summer since at the Kansanopisto [Adult Education School] in Haapavesi.  Luhtasela is a newspaper editor from Ylivieska (a town on the main railroad junction 50 km southwest of Haapavesi) and has been very active in the planning of folk cultural events in the area.  He has served as the organizational director of the camp, while Ilona Porma has served as the director of instruction.

            From its beginnings, two different playing styles have been taught at the Haapavesi kantele camp, which Ilona calls the "old" or "traditional style" and the "new style."  The old style of playing is that which Ilona learned as a girl.  The new style is the same as the art style of kantele playing which is generally taught at kantele camps in Finland.  Ilona objects to the term "art style," since she feels that traditional kantele playing is also an art.  There were six kantele teachers at the camp in 1983.  Ilona herself teaches the old style.  Four other teachers, including Ilona's granddaughter, Merja Porma, teach the new style and one teacher, Marja Viskari, teaches both styles.  In addition, there are classes in playing the five‑string kantele as well as elementary music theory classes.

            Ilona Porma's kantele playing style is based on learning the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords to accompany songs.  In performance, she usually sings the melody to kantele accompaniment.  Ilona plays the kantele with the longest string closest to herself.  She strokes the strings with the soft parts of the fingers, never the nails.  Her fingers are positioned at an angle to the strings, approximately halfway between the finger position used in the Perho River Valley style and the art style (Illus. 48). She plays chordal accompaniment with her right fore, middle and ring fingers, and plays bass notes (the tonic in two octaves and the dominant of the chord) with her left thumb, fore and middle fingers.  The bass notes and chords are played as a quick arpeggio on strong beats, while the melody is sung and frequently doubled on the kantele between the strong beats by the right forefinger.

            Ilona mentioned that damping the strings is an important part of her playing style, but that this is not the overall damping used in the art style.  Most of Ilona's kanteles do not even have a damping board and when she plays one that does, she does not use it.  Frequently she lifts it up in the open position, out of the way.  The damping in Ilona's playing is done entirely with the hands and fingers.  If there are just a few strings which need to be damped, she uses the inside portion of her hands.  If she moves on to a new chord which would make a muddy sound, such as between a dominant and subdominant, overall damping may be done with the forearm.  Just as in the art style she uses finger damping, trailing the middle finger one string behind when playing descending runs.  But her concept of damping is somewhat different than in art style: she believes that the kantele should be allowed to ring as much as possible and that damping should be used only when necessary to avoid a muddy sound.


Illus. 48.  Ilona Porma.  Notice the hand positions.  Photograph compliments of Ilona Porma.


            The pieces that Ilona performs do not change key in the middle, because she plays only diatonic kanteles without any tuning mechanisms.  She is quite good at tuning kanteles, having had a great deal of practice; many times she has had to tune all the kanteles in her ensembles before a performance.  She said that it is best to tune the kantele on the table where it is going to be played, two hours before the performance.  For a large group of home‑built kanteles to play well together, tuning is critical.  Kanteles suffer if they have to be retuned to many different keys.  Eventually, they do not stay in tune at all.  For that reason, Ilona owns several kanteles, each tuned to its own key.  In addition, she also has a tuning trick, making it possible to play the relative major or minor key.  For example, she has a thirty‑six string kantele tuned in E minor, but the leading tone D# is only found on the twenty‑first and thirty‑fifth strings, in the third and fifth octaves.  The second and fourth octaves can be used for natural minor or for playing passages in the relative key of G major. 

            Ilona teaches her style of playing with a method she has developed herself, using solfege syllables.  For every important pitch in a melody, the students learn the appropriate tonic, dominant or subdominant triad, and bass notes in the inversion which happens to lie closest.  She teaches the elementary patterns with a chart, showing the various finger positions necessary to harmonize each pitch of a scale (Illus. 49).  The students originally learn to play just one bass note, with the left thumb.  Later they are taught to add the fifth and octave higher pitches as well, played with the left fore and middle fingers. 

            After the students have learned and memorized the harmonization patterns, they learn individual pieces where the melody is written out in solfege syllables and the appropriate harmonization is marked as I = tonic, II = dominant and III = subdominant (Illus. 50).  They are taught to play the chord as an arpeggio on the strong beat and sing the melody.  More advanced students double the melody on the kantele.  Since the melodies and harmonizations are usually quite simple, most students find the pieces easy to learn and memorize.  The pieces are all performed from memory without any written aids.  In ensemble playing, each student contributes at his or her own level of ability.

            The kantele ensembles directed by Ilona Porma at the 1983 Haapavesi camp contained students of all ages and skill levels.  Melodies were played by those who could; the others added accompaniment as they had learned.  Generally, the playing was in unison, but Ilona mentioned that with certain advanced groups there may be two or three different parts, which are put together. 

            There were two separate kantele ensembles.  This was necessary because some of the participants at the camp were members of the Laestadius faction of the Finnish Lutheran Church, which is very conservative and prohibits dance music.  The large kantele ensemble, which included Laestadians, performed first on the camp's final concert, so that the Laestadians could leave if they wanted and not have to sit through selections of prohibited music.  The Laestadius theology prohibits dance instruments, such as the accordion, but they approve of the kantele since it is mentioned

as a holy instrument throughout the Finnish Bible.[2]  They practice a different type of folk music, a spiritual folk music, based on the performance of religious songs in a variety of ways.



Illus. 49.  Chart which Ilona Porma uses to teach chordal accompaniment.



Illus. 50.  "Haapaveden valssi" written in a notation system invented by Ilona Porma.


            Ilona sees her style of playing as something which is easily learned and preserved by the students for their own pleasure.  It is immediately accessible to the beginner, who can join a kantele ensemble and make some contribution, unlike the art style which takes many years of careful practicing before any results can be obtained.  After the students have learned the basic principles, it is just a matter of learning new pieces to build their repertoires.

            In an interview with Ilona Porma and Oiva Luhtasela (1983a) they expressed concern that the differences between the old style and new style (art style) are becoming less clear.  They feel that if the old and new styles combine, the old style will disappear.  In the old style, there is no one right way to play or teach.  Each person's individuality must be expressed.  There is a danger that when folk music is taught in a school context, that it will become progressively more rigid and will stifle individuality.  Most of the students at the Haapavesi camp were learning kantele just as a hobby to enrich their lives, much the same as their forefathers did before them.  The Haapavesi kantele camp was founded as a regional camp, for the express purpose of preserving and supporting the local style of kantele playing.



                                      Martti Pokela's Large Kantele Playing


            In addition to being a master five-string kantele player, Martti Pokela is also a tradition bearer of the Haapavesi style of large kantele playing.  He actually started playing the large kantele as a boy, long before he took up five‑string kantele playing.  Martti described for me various aspects of his large kantele playing style in two interviews (Pokela 1983a; 1983b).  He learned the style first with some basic directions from his father and then much more extensively from his father's cousin, Anna Kääriäinen, nicknamed "Hatukankaan Anni," the same person who influenced Ilona Porma's playing.  Despite learning the basics of the style from the same person, Martti Pokela's and Ilona Porma's playing styles are quite different.  Ilona's playing is more subdued, generally being lyrical and song‑like, while Martti's playing is lively and stronger, favoring dance pieces with fast, technical passages.

            According to Martti, Anni Kääriäinen was perhaps the most talented player of the large kantele in the Haapavesi tradition of his time.  She came from a very artistic and talented family, which included the writer Pentti Haanpää as well as the songwriter, fiddle, and kantele player Mikko Haanpää.  The Haanpää family lived in the Leskelä village outside of Haapavesi.  Anni, together with her three sisters and Antti Rantonen, were original members of the kantele ensemble formed by Pasi Jääskeläinen in the first decades of this century.

            Pokela considered Anni Kääriäinen and Antti Rantonen as piilosäveltä-jat [hidden composers], who knew the traditional playing style, but also put in their own "tricks" and additions which enlivened the playing.  He said they may be considered "natural composers" since they invented these new additions.

            Pokela had a lifetime friendship with Anni Kääriäinen up to the time of her death in 1964 and systematically studied how she played the kantele.  He has the only known sound recordings of Kääriäinen's playing.  Once he asked her to describe in detail how to play in the Haapavesi style, but she could not because her own playing was so instinctive.  She did have some folk terms to describe certain aspects of the style.  The first of these is tikkaus, which is a grace note of one string higher just before the downbeat.  The second is plurraus, which is a scale run, usually from an octave above, down to a note on the down beat.  The third is jutkaus, (a term invented by Martti Pokela's wife, Marjatta, which has since come into folk use) which is a break from the regular rhythm.  Anni Kääriäinen's playing was full of these subtle, stylistic features which a typical listener may not even consciously perceive.  These three stylistic characteristics affect the accent and rhythm of traditional playing and help it "to come alive." 

            In addition, Pokela has added that traditional playing had to have strength in order to live.  He achieves this strength in part with nosto [lift] in which the fingers are placed more perpendicular to the strings and actually lift the strings as they are plucked and the hand itself lifts up from the strings.  This creates a strong and lively sound in passages which should be emphasized.  If the hand is held with the fingers nearly parallel to the strings, it is hard to get the sound to live.  It makes the instrument too uniform.  Folk players pull the sound with great strength.  Some players with very thick fingers do not have to lift too much.  It is always possible to get a nice pianissimo on the kantele, but in traditional playing the sound of the kantele should rise with power, so that it does not merely stay in the player's fingers on the surface of the instrument.  Pokela promotes this strong style of playing with all of his students at the Sibelius Academy and teaches it by example, encouraging the students to do it by ear and by instinct.

            Dynamic contrasts are another important aspect of the Haapavesi style.  These are produced partially by nosto and partially by damping.  The traditional style of Haapavesi kantele does not have a damping board, but that does not mean that damping is not important.  Damping is done entirely with the hands, using the outside of the palms.  During strong and loud sections of pieces, particularly when nosto is used, damping may not be needed at all.  But during softer passages, damping must be used at strategic times; for example, in the soft section of Hatukankaan valssi.

            Martti Pokela has also greatly developed the use of the bass strings in the Haapavesi style.  In the old days, when the structure of the box kantele was still developing, the bass strings were not used much because they did not sound good.  They were too long and could not be tuned up properly and were often left so loose that they shook into each other.  On several of Ilona Porma's kanteles, the bass strings are simply left untuned because she never uses them.  Martti typically uses modern kanteles which have good bass response.  He has started adding more bass notes to the overall style, which has given his playing more fullness and a more pronounced underlying rhythm.

            The basic elements of the Haapavesi style come from tikkaus, plurraus, jutkaus, nosto, and dynamic contrasts using hand damping.  Pokela mentioned that just as with Anni Kääriäinen, originally his playing was entirely instinctive.  It was only later that he began to think about it, study it, and codify it.  He began to codify his playing mostly because he began to teach it to others.  Pokela mentions that the subtle stylistic features of the Haapavesi style have been left out of many transcriptions of the pieces, probably because the transcriber did not even hear them.  He believes that no composer can write these stylistic features.  They can only come from knowing the style well and then adding them naturally, by instinct, giving a kind of "instinctive musicality" to folk pieces.  These subtle stylistic elements are as valuable as gold and should be looked out for and preserved.




[1] Anni Kääriäinen's sister, Katri (Katariina Haanpää) Oksanen (b. 1893), left for the United States, where she formed her own kantele ensemble (see photograph in Ala‑Könni 1973:397, 1986:25).  Riikka (Henriikka Haanpää) Pentti moved to Vehkälahti and continued to play both large and five‑string kanteles.  Many other families continued to pass on the tradition, which can still be found in the Haapavesi area today.  For example, the Pitkälä brothers, Eero, Sauli and Heikki, formed a group called the Haapaveden Kantele-pojat, and recorded a commercial cassette in 1985 called Haapaveden kantele soi, which features folk songs played on three kanteles and sung.

[2] Each time there is a reference to "harp" in the Bible, it is rendered as "kantele" in the Finnish Bible.  Some examples are Genesis 4:21; 1 Samuel 16:23; 2 Samuel 6:5; Psalms 137:2; Psalms 150:3.

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