Chapter 4.2.4:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            Outside the major folk music style areas, there are many individual folk kantele players who have their own unique styles.  Generally these are people who have learned the kantele on their own through a process of experimentation, in order to discover playing techniques which work for them.  Each of them had heard kantele music and thus had a of concept of how the kantele was supposed to sound; each then tried to match that concept by trial and error.  It is difficult to determine how such a player fit into tradition, since they are not continuing a particular style passed on to them; rather, they are creating their own idiosyncratic styles.  The variation in their playing styles and techniques is far greater than is found in a style area.  Also, in most cases, they do not pass on their style to a new generation.  It remains with a single individual and usually ends with that individual's life.


                                                      Lauri Kahilainen


            Lauri Kahilainen was born in 1916 in Viitasaari, approximately halfway between Saarijärvi and Haapavesi.  Today he lives in Jyskä, just outside of Jyväskylä in central Finland, some two hundred seventy‑five kilometers due north of Helsinki where he is a gardener by profession.

            Lauri was born into a musical family, where his father played guitar and his brother played the violin.  As a boy, Lauri became interested in the kantele, because he    occasionally heard kantele music on the radio.  He bought his first kantele, a central Finnish model of box kantele with twenty‑eight strings, at the age of sixteen.  He does not remember who the maker was, but it was a right-handed instrument, so it was unlikely that it came from Haapavesi.  It probably came from one of the Saarijärvi builders.

            As with most other folk kantele players, Lauri plays with the short string closest.  He learned to play by plucking out melodies by ear.  As he describes it, he uses only his right forefinger to play melodies, but sometimes he does use the middle and ring fingers as well in thirds.  His right hand jumps all around to play the melodies.  Originally he played only melodies, but then taught himself to add accompaniments with the left hand.  The left hand does not play chords, or chordal figurations as in other traditional playing styles.  He uses his left fore and middle fingers to play bass figures which, in many places, are similar to counter melody.  On cadences he plays chords, usually the tonic and sometimes the dominant, by plucking each of the notes with his left forefinger in sequence, from the root.  The hands share an almost equal role in Lauri's playing.  It is not merely melody with chordal accompaniment, it is more like a melody and counter melody together, with occasional chords brought out at cadences.  Sometimes the hands change ranges, the right playing melody on the lower strings and the left accompanying figures on the upper strings.

            The overall texture is quite full, since Lauri does not damp the strings with the damping board, except at the very end of a piece.  He will occasionally damp bass strings with his fingers. 


Illus. 51.  Lauri Kahilainen at his home in Jyskä, 1983.


          Lauri served with the Finnish army in the Second World War and brought his kantele with him to the front.  He played for his fellow soldiers and received notoriety by having his picture on the cover of Hakkapeliittä magazine in December 1941.  After the war, Kahilainen acquired a twenty‑eight string double bottomed kantele, which he believes to be from Pasi Jääskeläinen's kantele shop.  In 1954, he also purchased an early Paul Salminen kantele.  Today he plays on two different kanteles made by Oiva Heikkilä.  Both are thirty‑six string "home kantele" models with tuning mechanisms on the G strings.

          Lauri has a good ear for pitch and he checks the tuning frequently between selections.  His two kanteles are tuned in the keys of C major (A minor) and G minor.  Although he can tune to other keys, he would rather not since he believes that the instrument suffers and can never be gotten exactly in tune.  Lauri does not use the individual string tuning mechanisms on his kanteles at all because he believes they never work properly and always have to be corrected with the tuning key anyway.  Similar to Ilona Porma, Lauri uses a tuning trick, by tuning the G above middle E to a G#, so he can play in the relative minor key in that one octave.  He correctly notes that this can be done only on a home kantele, not a machine kantele.

          Unlike many other folk kantele players his age, Lauri has been active throughout his life in playing the kantele.  He has played with such groups as the "Antti Vesterinen Pelimannit" and the "Jyväskylän Pelimannit", and performed with the Jyväskylä University Folk Dance Ensemble during several summers in the early 1970s, on their tours throughout Europe.  He was a founding member of the Central Finland Folk Musicians.  Lauri estimates that he played around two hundred concerts a year during the 1970s!  These concerts were with various groups at schools, concert halls, private clubs, weddings, funerals and on radio and television.

          Lauri has participated frequently in folk music playing contests and has won many medals, silver spoons and trophies at such contests over the years.  In the 1960s many folk musicians began to avoid contests, since as many as three hundred contestants would participate.  The number of contests was reduced and folk music festivals were held instead.  Lauri still participates in many of those festivals all over Finland, such as the "Paavo kahtoo" festival in Viitasaari and Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, where he was named a Master Folk Musician in 1985.

          Lauri's large repertoire is an important aspect of his  playing.  Since he has performed in such a wide variety of contexts, he plays many pieces outside of folk music. During my first interview with him he played movie themes, popular pieces, such as "Autumn Leaves", Tango dance pieces, Christmas carols, church hymns such as "Nearer My God to Thee", and even the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the National Anthem of the United States!  Newspaper articles about him have said that he knows over two thousand tunes, but setting any figure would be meaningless since he is constantly learning new tunes and varying his repertoire.  Lauri has a very good memory for melodies.  He played some pieces for me which he had learned more than fifty years ago and whose titles he has long since forgotten.  His repertoire is not limited to one genre since anything he hears and likes he is likely to try to play.

          Lauri learned his playing through personal experimentation, which is evident today since he still likes to experiment with new playing techniques.  For example, one time when he was making a tape for Finnish Radio, the engineer asked him if he could play two kanteles at the same time.  He placed two kanteles at 90 degree angles and played melody on one and accompaniment on the other.  He liked the fact that he was able to obtain two different timbres in the same performance and he could play melody and accompaniment in the same range.  At the 1985 Kaustinen Festival, Lauri was experimenting with playing a portable synthesizer for accompaniment with his left hand while playing melodies on the kantele with his right.  In spite of his penchant for experimentation and his extensive non‑folk music repertoire, Lauri has left the impression in some of his interviews that he is a purist in regards to folk music and that it is still his favorite type of music.

          As a result of a 1975 performance at the Finlandia Concert Hall, in 1976 Lauri was invited to tour the United States as a part of a folk group representing Finland in the United States' Bicentennial Celebration, Festival of American Folk Life.  He played seventy official concerts and a number of unofficial ones during a tour of the United States.  He was invited back by friends to the Seattle Area in 1981 to play a series of concerts and was recorded and interviewed by the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Division (Kahilainen 1976).

          Although he has been asked many times, Lauri has said that he has never taught the kantele, because he does not read music and because he "plays from the wrong side"  of the instrument.  But at least one person, Kari Dahlblom, an excellent kantele player who currently lives in Tikkakoski, got his start with Lauri.



                                                          Onni Kuivalainen


          Onni Kuivalainen was born in the early part of this century in the little village of Huhos near Ilomantsi in Finnish Karelia.  He grew up in a farming family and lived and worked on his farm in Huhos until his retirement, when he and his wife moved to Joensuu.

          Onni received his first kantele from his parents when he was a boy.  He said that there were no kantele teachers around at the time, so he began to play by experimenting, first with just the fore finger of his right hand and later adding the middle and ring fingers.  He began using the left hand on the bass side and eventually learned to use all five fingers to play chords. 

          As with many fellow Karelians his age, Onni was in the Second World War and had the misfortune of being injured. When he was in a war hospital in Tampere, he had a strong religious conversion and from then on has performed only spiritual music.


          [At the front I had a kantele and we established a spiritual tour and toured a division's area ...holding spiritual events.  The division pastor came along and there I played kantele for the soldiers and sang.  [After the war] the Ilomantsi parish bought me a kantele...perhaps thirty years ago.  Then I always played at celebrations and so on.  I've given my time entirely to spiritual music.  With my wife we would bring a spiritual program to Christian Clubs and old people ... [where] I play the kantele and with my wife we do readings with the kantele, solo songs, duets and so on.  This is a beloved path for me.  I have never wanted to perform and become [a performer], but I have wanted to play and sing to honor the Lord]  (Kuivalainen 1983).


          Most of the pieces Onni performed for me were hymns and spiritual songs, with the kantele used strictly for vocal accompaniment.  All the pieces were in a slow tempo and were sad, melancholy or contemplative in nature.  Onni sang with all the selections except one.  When he plays, he places a sheet of paper with the text of the song under the kantele's strings.  The words act as a mnemonic device to help him remember the melody and accompaniment.  He begins by playing once all the way through the melody, then he sings the verses to kantele accompaniment.  Frequently his wife also sings along.

          Unlike most folk players, Onni plays with the longest string closest.  His finger positions are unique among the kantele players I studied.  He plays melodies primarily with his right fore finger, adding accompaniment a third below with his middle finger and sometimes a fifth below with his ring finger.  The left hand plays bass notes with the thumb, and chordal accompaniment with the fore, middle and ring fingers and sometimes even the little finger.  Or as Onni said, he uses all five fingers of his left hand, which is quite unusual.  The fingers are generally perpendicular to the strings and are all lined up in a row, similar to other folk kantele players, but the timbre is soft and mellow,  probably due to the type of music Onni performs.  The right hand plays the melody in normal rhythm, but the left hand accompaniment is in an entirely free rhythm.  The overall texture sounds like pure improvisation.  Onni can also change the position of his hands, playing the melody on the lower strings with his right hand and the freely improvised accompaniment on the upper strings with his left hand.

          Onni says that he does not know enough "theory" to play all the proper accompaniment chords, but he has sung in a church choir for many years and can read choir music. 



Illus. 52.  Onni Kuivalainen at his home in Joensuu, 1983.



He is very good at retuning his kantele to different keys when needed and mentioned that he helped tune the kanteles in Tyyne Niikko's kantele ensemble when she lived in Joensuu.  Onni plays a thirty-six string modern kantele made by Otto Koistinen.  His kantele is marked under the strings in two different places, for playing in different keys.  The second set of markings act as a "movable C" so he can play the same finger patterns starting from a different string.  In my recordings, his kantele was tuned to D harmonic minor, but he also mentioned that he frequently plays in F major,  C major and A minor. 

          His kantele is equipped with a functioning damping board which he says he uses only when needed, such as at the end of a piece.  He does not use finger damping, but sometimes will use his hands to damp, if he has played something incorrectly.  Again he explains that he has developed his own system of damping and is not dependent on anyone else for anything.

          Onni's kantele is totally diatonic, but he still performs some pieces where the melody has accidentals outside the diatonic scale.  He handles this problem by leaving that portion of the melody unplayed and merely singing it.  As he explains, "[If I play and sing, I leave unplayed that note which is not the right pitch.  For example, if [the melody requires] a half step which is not there, I really don't need it.  I just leave it out, so it doesn't come.  Certainly you can tell from the singing where the half step is...]" (ibid.)

          When I asked him about his improvisatory style of playing, he emphasized that he has learned to play only through experimentation and developing his own style.  He said that he still likes to experiment and develop different techniques, because it is always interesting to try something new.



                                                  Väinö Valtteri Haapakangas


          Väinö Haapakangas (b. 1916) is from the northern Ostrobothnian town of Pattijoki.  He also began kantele playing as a boy when his older brother made a twenty‑five string kantele in carpentry school.  Väinö had five brothers and it was quite a competition to see who would get to play the kantele. 

          As Väinö grew a little older, the two-row accordion became a very appealing instrument, so he bought one and began practicing.  Soon, he was good enough to be playing at dances and evening programs.  However his parents did not approve of his accordion playing.


          [[My parent's did not approve] because it was mostly dance music and my mother was a little religious.  She said all those instruments used to play dance music and on evening programs ... are worthy of hell and will never get into heaven.  Father converted to the same religion and threw my accordion into the oven ... that's how fire destroyed my beloved instrument on a certain beautiful sabbath and my accordion playing ended there] (Haapakangas 1983).



          In 1926, Väinö ordered a 32 string kantele from the master builder, Efraim Kilpinen, in Kalajoki.


          [...I tried every possible way to collect money; I picked berries, collected pine cones, pulled bark, and everything possible.  Slowly, I collected enough savings and ordered on the phone ‑‑ the first phone call ever from Pattijoki to Kalajoki ‑‑ ...the deluxe model.  Efraim Kilpinen said that there were no knots and advertized it a lot that it was a beautiful instrument and I said let it come.  It cost somewhere around 600 marks ... which was quite a bit of money at that time.  I picked up the instrument, brought it home, opened it on the table and said to my parents `Now throw this into the fire!', but they didn't do it. [Why not?]  It was a beautiful instrument and the kantele is completely different.  It is also played in heaven] (ibid.).


          Today Väinö plays a 36 string modern kantele made by Oiva Heikkilä.  Similar to Onni Kuivalainen, Väinö's kantele playing is mostly for song accompaniment.  He performs with two friends, Alpo Alakulju and Sanni Peuhkurinen, mostly at retired persons' festivals, veterans' celebrations, Youth League activities and on the local radio.  This group performs mainly melancholy, slow folk songs and hymns.




Illus. 53.  Väinö Haapakangas (on the left) and singers Sanni Peuhkurinen and Alpo Alakulju in Raahe, 1983.


          Väinö plays with the longest string closest.  He uses his right fore finger to play the melody and occasionally uses his middle finger to add harmony a third below.  His accompaniment with the left hand is quite sparse.  At cadences, he plays a bass note with the thumb and adds two or three accompanying pitches in a fast arpeggio.  He tunes his kantele in the key of A melodic minor, (with an F# and a G#), so he can play A major and E major chords in the same piece without retuning.

          Väinö uses contact microphone and a small amplifier if he is playing in a large hall, or if he is accompanying a louder instrument, like accordion.  When I asked him what kind of music he plays with accordion, he promptly lifted the kantele up, turned it around, and played several dance pieces from the short side of the instrument!  His style of playing from the short side was very similar to that of the Perho River Valley.  The right fore and middle fingers played melody and accompaniment in thirds.  The left played bass notes and chordal accompaniment.  He used no damping at all, allowing the strings to ring freely.  He explained that dance pieces are always best played from the short side, because there is a different feel, volume and timbre.  He is one of the few players who can play from either side depending of the type of music he is performing.



                                                           Lyydia Jakonen


          Lyydia Jakonen was born in 1914 in the Karelian town of Kurkijoki and today lives in the Southern Ostrobothnian city of Seinäjoki.  Her father, Matti Väisänen, was a fine kantele player and builder.  He was a well-know folk musician in the early part of this century around Kurkijoki, where he also played violin and accordion.  He taught each of his five daughters to play kantele and gave each of them a kantele as a wedding present.

          Lyydia plays the kantele with the shortest string closest.  A large portion of her repertoire consists of slower folk songs, spiritual songs and hymns, which she performs by singing to kantele accompaniment.  For example, she performed her own arrangement of the Martin Luther hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God."  She mentioned that in Karelia around the turn of the century, the kantele was used to accompany hymns and Christmas songs.  She has sung in a church choir for more than twenty years and knows how to read music.  Even though she had learned some new pieces from written music, she never uses it when playing kantele.

          Her repertoire is not limited to spiritual songs.  She also knows some lively dance pieces, many of which were the same as those of other folk players.  She referred to these as play songs, dance tunes and folk songs taught in school.  When she performed selections in a minor key, she retuned the entire kantele by lowering the third and sixth scale degrees, going to the parallel natural minor.  Her overall tuning is slightly higher than C major, which is in a suitable range to accompany her singing.    

          Lyydia plays a thirty-string modern kantele made by Oiva Heikkilä.  One unusual aspect of her kantele is that she uses a short octave of bass notes, similar to that used in the Perho River Valley.  The lowest four strings are tuned C, G, F, C.  She says that this is exactly the sort of tuning that her father used around the turn of the century and that a Kurkijoki cantor had developed it.



Illus. 54.  Lyydia Jakonen at her home in Seinäjoki, 1983.



          She uses her right fore finger to play melodies and the right middle finger to play accompaniment a third below.  Her left hand plays bass notes with the middle finger, and triad accompaniment, which is usually not arpeggiated, with the fore finger and thumb.  Her hand positions are similar to those in the Perho River Valley.  She uses no damping.

          Lyydia has taught kantele playing privately for several years at the Kansanopisto [Adult Education School] in Seinäjoki.  She has developed her own notation system for teaching, which consists of paper charts placed under the strings, showing the proper finger positions for the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords.  She has compiled a book of repertoire using this system which has at least thirty‑four pieces (as of 1983).  She explained that she developed her own method of notation because "[you can't teach others if you don't have some sort of system]" (Jakonen 1983).

          She knows that many current kantele players play and teach from the long side of the instrument, but she feels it is important to preserve the original way as she learned it, especially since the kantele is Finland's national instrument.  She said:


          [Certainly many play from the other side, because they play from written music and when the notes rise up it is easier to follow.  But I think that this is the kind of instrument that steadfast old Väinämöinen didn't put written music there and start to play.  He put it on his knees and played and sang.  It is so much further from the original [to play with the long side closest]] (ibid.).


                                                         Samppa Uimonen


          Samppa Uimonen was born in 1927 on the island of Tulola in Lake Ladoga, not far from Sortavala in Ladoga Karelia.  There were no kantele players on the island, but there was an active musical life, particularly with choir singing in the local churches.  At around the age of seven, Samppa heard a traveling minister, Antti Naukkarinen, sing and play the kantele.  Samppa wanted to sing and play the same way, so  he tried to make a kantele from a wooden crate and some strings.  His father saw this and got Samppa his first kantele for his seventh birthday, a thirty‑two string instrument built by Naukkarinen. The builder showed Samppa how to find an octave and tune the instrument, how to position the fingers, and how to play just one piece, the children's song "Ukko Noah."  From then on, Samppa experimented and developed his kantele playing style on his own (Uimonen 1986a).   

          Samppa positioned the kantele with the shortest string closest, as in the oldest playing styles.  He played melodies with the right fore finger and found that the other fingers could play strings which sound good together.  For example, leaving a string between each finger sounded good (making parallel thirds) and leaving two strings in certain places also sounded good (making fourths).  In this way, he worked out patterns for accompaniment, which included root position and some inverted chords.  His left hand originally doubled the right an octave lower.  He found that the right thumb could be used to double the melody an octave higher and the left little finger could play bass notes when necessary.  Samppa still uses the same basic playing style and fingering: the thumb, fore, middle and ring fingers of his right hand; and the fore, middle, ring and little fingers of his left hand.  He arpeggiates the chords, moving from the bass to the higher pitched strings.  His earliest kantele had no damping board.  Originally he did not damp the strings, but later he taught himself to use finger and hand damping to avoid a muddy sound.  His repertoire included all kinds of music which was known at the time: popular songs, folk songs and spiritual songs.  He was performing publicly on the kantele by the age of ten and was also well known for his poetry recitation and dramatic talents. 

          During the Winter War (1939-40), Samppa and his family moved to the Northern Ostrobothnian town of Haapavesi, an area known for its kantele playing.  There he played for the well‑known kantele player Anni Kääriäinen, who encouraged him to switch and play from the long side of the instrument.  He also became acquainted with Antti Rantonen's playing of the five‑string kantele.  The family returned home to Karelia during the Continuation War (1940-44), but near the end of the war again moved back to Haapavesi.  Samppa was involved in the music and drama activities of the Youth League and even participated in a kantele ensemble, playing from the long side of the instrument, though he always continued to play from the short side when performing alone.



Illus. 55.  Samppa Uimonen, in a publicity photograph from the 1960s, compliments of Samppa Uimonen.


          Samppa developed a unique style of playing the five‑ string kantele, which does not follow any of the current styles practiced in Finland and is an extension of the playing style he uses for the large kantele.  He holds the kantele firmly in his lap by grabbing the sides and pressing down with his left hand and uses only the fingers of his right for plucking the strings.  He primarily uses the right fore finger plucking towards himself to carry the melody and trails the middle and sometimes the ring finger in thirds behind.  He calls this a "vuorosormi" system, meaning that the "fingers take turns."  He knows a number of pieces, some of which he composed for the five‑string kantele.  In some pieces he turns the kantele around and plays from the long side (!), since the quick scaler ornaments are descending in pitch rather than ascending (Uimonen 1986a).

          Samppa became a teacher, first in elementary school and later at the Kansanopisto [Adult Education School].  During this era in his life a significant event occurred.  At a Kalevala festival in 1962, he witnessed a performance of a Karelian rune singer, Juho Lipitsä, who was the son of a famous rune singer, Timo Lipitsä.  Juho Lipitsä was blind and around eighty years old at the time.  He was reluctant at first to perform, but when properly encouraged, went on to sing unaccompanied a long, improvised performance of the Kulervo cycle of runes.

          Samppa had always had a fascination with his Karelian roots and was greatly moved by Lipitsä's performance.  He saw it almost as a type of spiritual calling to continue the rune singing tradition which he had witnessed.  He began to study the runes of the Kalevala and began to practice the technique of improvisatory rune singing.  He practiced on his own for several years until he felt ready for public performance.  He also began experimenting using both the modern and the five‑string kantele as an accompaniment to his singing.  To complete the symbolic picture, he grew a long beard and wore a rustic Karelian folk costume.  In this way, Samppa was able to capture all the major symbolic elements of rune singers: long sung improvisation of Kalevala texts, kantele playing, and the outward appearance of Väinämöinen.

          In 1972, Samppa appeared as the star of a program called Tuhatvuotinen Karjala [Millennial Karelia] which he had written himself and was directed by the opera director Yrjö Kosterman.  He appeared as ten separate figures during the course of the program, singing runes, reciting incantations and playing the kantele.  The program received good reviews from critics and had approximately 250 performances in Finland (Uimonen 1983).

          "Millennial Karelia" represented a break‑through for Samppa's performing career.  He switched from teaching to full‑time performing around 1980.  Samppa has put together fifteen different productions, with almost 2000 performances.  He has performed in fifteen countries in all parts of the world, on radio and television in eight countries, and has produced various records, cassettes and videos.  In 1980, he founded a cultural center called "Kalevala Forum" which functions each summer from near his home in Parikkala on the Karelian border (Uimonen 1986b).  He was at the center of the Sesquicentennial Kalevala Celebration at the Olympic Stadium in the summer of 1985. 

          In recent years, Samppa has become a strong advocate for all kantele players in Finland.  He has served on the board of directors of the Kantele League and has spoken out in defense of the multiplicity of playing styles which are currently practiced in Finland, that all kantele players have in common that each has had to develop his own personal style of musical expression.  He has wanted to experiment and try other playing styles, but feels that this might hinder the development of his own personal style.  He believes players should never think that there is a right way and a wrong way to play the kantele, which has had a terribly divisive influence in the past.  They should put their differences behind them and should find  common ground for agreement (Uimonen 1986a).

          Samppa considers himself a genuine tradition bearer of Karelian rune singing and kantele playing, as much of a tradition bearer as one can be in this day and age when everyone in Finland is literate and has the comforts of modern life.  Samppa likens rune singing to skiing through the woods:  Most of the time you break your own trail, and sometimes you come across another person's trail and follow it for a while, but you eventually break away and return to your own trail.  One must always have faith that they will find the right path out of the woods (Uimonen 1986a).  In other words, each rune singer of the past had to create his own performance style, just as Samppa has had to create his.  Samppa's performances are not far removed from the "new tradition" kinds of folk music performances by well‑educated young people, for example, from the Sibelius Academy.  His performance style may have nothing to do with what the rune singers of the past did in their performances, but Samppa says it is "in the same spirit" as their performances (Uimonen 1986b).  Perhaps more than anything, he represents a living symbol of ancient kantele playing.


                                                     Other Individual Players


          There are many other folk kantele players who have their own styles.  For example, Kaleva Järvinen, a folk kantele builder and player from Vaasa in Southern Ostrobothnia; Martti Salo, a folk player who currently lives in Ivalo in Northern Lapland; Eeli Kivinen from Vimpeli, who is called "Vimpelin Väinämöinen"; and Lauri Hirvonen from Kitee in Finnish Karelia. 

          These older folk kantele players represent only a portion of the folk music performed on kanteles in Finland.  A significant amount of folk music is performed by students in the context of folk music festivals, kantele camps and formal instruction at music academies.  For example, students can major in folk music performance at the Sibelius Academy and receive instruction in folk kantele playing. Also, most of the other folk performers I have mentioned have been involved in teaching their own folk styles of kantele performance to young people.  The next generation of folk music performers has learned by formal instruction, rather than informal hearing and imitation.  In spite of this change from the original learning context, and perhaps because of it, the old styles of playing are being preserved.


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