Chapter 4.4:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            Just as the kantele is used in playing folk music and art music, it is also used in playing popular music.  The boundaries between popular music, folk music and art music are unclear, because popular music borrows from all the music styles available in a culture and uses them to create new styles.  Consequently, style is not always helpful in defining what constitutes the popular music of a given culture.  In Western culture, some styles of music are almost always seen as a part of popular music, such as jazz, rock & roll and country‑western. 

            Popular music can be defined better by its performance and learning context, mode of transmission and susceptibility to change.  Popular music is usually learned in an informal atmosphere, using experimentation, and thus can be particularly innovative.  It is frequently performed in a formal and public context.  Popular music is generally transmitted by a commercial infrastructure.  It has an immediate and pervasive impact because it is spread quickly and widely by sound recordings and the mass media.  At the same time, popular music is quite ephemeral; a new style is created quickly and disappears just as quickly.  Of all the style categories, it changes the fastest and has the greatest amount of change.

            The use of the kantele in popular music has been limited, but is growing in significance.  The kantele came to be used in popular music mostly through experiments on the fringes of folk music and art music.  Many of the same kantele players who were or are tradition bearers of folk or art styles have also played a significant role in popularizing kantele music.  For example, several of the historical figures performed in a popular context in their time, such as Pasi Jääskeläinen, Antti Rantonen, Akilles Okenström and even Kreeta Haapasalo.


                                       Martti Pokela as a Popular Musician


            Near the beginning of my field work, a Finnish ethnomusicologist asked me why I was studying Martti Pokela.  He asked, "Don't you know that Martti Pokela is Finland's Johnny Cash?!", the implication being that Martti Pokela is more of a popular musician than a folk musician.  Martti Pokela has had and continues to have perhaps the greatest influence of anyone in bringing the kantele to popular attention.  He, together with his wife Marjatta, began their performing careers in the early 1950s playing guitar and singing folk songs.  Many of these songs were those which they learned as children, from Ostrobothnia and Karelia, to which they added popular songs from the war years.  They did not perform the songs exactly as they had learned them, but made arrangements which were suitable for stage performance.  They also composed original songs following the same general style as the old songs.


            [We then civilized [the folk songs] and I have to say we made many improvements.  Marjatta had a strength in working with the words and she kind of liked shortened broadsides and ballads.  We made arrangements so that they could truly be performed.  We arranged both the words and the melodies. And we also made many of our own folk-songs.  This is clear ‑‑ when we put something down, we didn't know anymore what was ours and what was the original. ... These scholars and the like were certainly quite appalled] (Pokela 1982b:24).


            Soon the Pokelas began to use kanteles in their performances and in a manner similar to their reworking of the folk songs.  Martti began to study and expand the performance capabilities of the five‑string kantele.  A. O. Väisänen originally disapproved of the way Pokela played the five‑string kantele, but later came to accept Pokela's innovations (ibid:36).

            The kantele became more widely used in popular music groups during the folk music revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The revival brought about a backlash against foreign cultural influences and produced the emergence of large, popular folk music festivals, such as the annual festival at Kaustinen.


                                   Popular Musicians and Groups Using the Kantele


            The well known Finnish jazz musician, baritone saxophone player Seppo "Paaroni" Paakunainen organized a band called Karelia in 1970 to play a blend of Finnish folk music and jazz.  The original members included Paakunainen as well as Edward Vesala (percussion), Ilpo Saastamoinen (guitar), and Pekka Samanto (bass).  The band recorded three long playing records, Suomi Pop (1970), Suomi Pop 2 (1971) and Nunnu (1972) and soon thereafter disbanded (Lehtonen 1983: 237‑39).  The band was again put together again in 1980, when Paakunainen discovered and began using birch bark flutes made by Rauno Nieminen.  This time the band included a fine kantele player, Matti Kontio.  They recorded two new long playing records, Tuohihuilu [Birch bark flute] (1981) and Maanitus (1983).  The records included extensive playing by Kontio on various types of kanteles, from carved kanteles on up to the machine kantele, as well as acoustic guitar.

            Matti Kontio (b. 1948 Helsinki) grew up spending nearly equal amounts of time in Germany and Finland, since his father was a Finnish newspaper correspondent in Germany.  Although trained as a mathematics and physics teacher, today he is by profession an arranger and producer of sound recordings living in Cologne, West Germany.

            Kontio began studying violin at a young age, but soon switched to guitar.  In his teens and twenties, he played in numerous folk and rock groups, and was exposed to a wide variety of music.  Major early influences were the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.  There was also a substantial influence from Finnish folk music, which was popular at the time.  In Germany he was a member of an ensemble which performed various international styles of folk music.

            One summer, when he was working as a mathematics teacher at the Kansanopisto [Adult Education School] in Kalvia (in the Perho River Valley), he bought a used thirty‑two string kantele at a music store in Kokkola and began to play.  Since he soon returned to live in Germany, he could not find anyone to teach him, so he learned to play on his own, by experimentation.  He played the kantele with the German ensemble mentioned above.

            Kontio moved back to Finland and met the kantele builder Oiva Heikkilä, who repaired his old kantele.  He also met Martti Pokela through Martti's brother, Oiva, who was teaching at the Helsinki German School, as was Matti Kontio's wife.  Pokela and Kontio began playing kantele together and soon performed at a Kalevala Festival.  They, together with Pokela's daughter Eeva‑Leena Sariola, later made two outstanding long playing records together, Vanha ja Uusi Kantele = Old and New Kantele (1975) and Kanteleet (1983). Kontio, as well as kantele players Eeva‑Leena Sariola and Hannu Syrjälahti, were also members of a modern folk song group called Laulupuu, which recorded one long playing record (1982).

            Kontio received further training at the Popular and Jazz Music School in Oulunkylä (a borough of Helsinki) and classical music training at the Cologne Music College.  Although he does not consider himself a jazz musician, jazz has been a major influence because "[it is the only [popular music style] which requires the musicians to read music and know [music] theory]" (Kontio 1983).  Kontio has continued his love and study of folk music as well.  He listens to a lot of current folk music, for example he mentioned an Estonian folk song choir Kolage.  On long train journeys he "reads" the folk music transcriptions published by the Finnish Literature Society which contain pieces from Southern Karelia, Ingria, Estonia and Finland.  The most important thing is that he does not try to imitate any of these various influences; rather, he uses them to develop a unique style.


            [...all these influences mix in my mind to the point where I can't tell the differences and then when I play ... I try to avoid any one clear style ... I hope that these influences shape some type of personal development from the ... materials which I use.


            ... in August [1983] we have a one week rehearsal camp with Karelia.  Then there has to be some new pieces.  We try in the group ... to make a kind of music which isn't jazz, isn't pop, isn't rock, but is something from our own heads developed as a continuation of folk music.  We don't aspire [to perform] authentic [folk] music.  ...  In my opinion it is impossible, because authentic [folk] music isn't ever performed, but is just played for our own enjoyment with friends or perhaps family.  When we go on stage ... we play at a technical level where the standards of classical music are in effect. ... Classical music defines currently all performed music because the concepts of clarity, form, structure, intonation, harmony and projection of sound all come from European classical music whether you like it or not]            (Kontio 1983).


            Kontio has a genuine knowledge and appreciation for the old Finnish, Karelian and Ingrian life styles and tries to portray a feeling in his music which pictures the old people and old ways of life.  He tries to capture that feeling on the concert stage, so it may be felt and heard by people who are used to hearing disco or whatever else is in fashion at the moment.


Illus. 61.  Matti Kontio in rehearsal at Kaustinen, 1983.


Illus. 62.  Tuulenkantajat.  Photograph from the back cover of their album  c 1985  Tuulenkantajat.


            Another group which successfully combines diverse musical influences is Tuulenkantajat [Carriers of the Wind].  Tuulenkantajat was formed in the fall of 1980 in Jyväskylä with Hannu Lehtoranta, Raimo Hiekkavirta, Jarmo Hovi and Hannu Tähtelä as members.  They play an enormous variety of acoustic musical instruments and borrow styles from a wide variety of sources, but at the core of a majority of pieces is Finnish folk music, especially that performed on the five‑string kantele.  Their concerts are very light, entertaining and at times quite humorous.  For example, they use a five‑string kantele with the sound hole taped shut and beads inside as a rattle, or they play the violin between the knees like a cello.  One selection on their record features a Massey‑Ferguson tractor as an instrument.  While on the surface there may be humor, the aesthetic intent is serious.  They have produced their own cassette tape, Toaton soittamia (1983), and have one commercial long playing record, Tuulenkantajat (1984).  The group has appeared at numerous festivals and concerts, in Finland, Poland and Hungary.  Perhaps their most significant appearance was at Finlandia Hall for the Sesquicentennial Kalevala Anniversary Celebration on Kalevala Day, February 28, 1985.  Ilpo Saunio, a Finnish ethnomusicologist, has written about the group as follows:


            [Every generation has its own concept of folk music.  In the 50s folk music was Martti Pokela, in the 60s and 70s it was Konsta Jylhä and the Purpuripelimannit.  In the 80s we talk about 'contemporary folk music.' ... contemporary folk music has revived the kalevala singing method, incantations, the five‑string kantele and many other forgotten popular 'folksy' instruments from the birch bark horn to the cow's bell.  These primitive instruments' possibilities of expression have developed wildly and with them have come the instruments of other cultures.  Many different influences have blended surprisingly unscathed with one another, and whether the result is kantele rock or ancient Finnish jazz, the esteemed old tradition has been preserved] (Saunio 1984).


            Many of the researchers who study the older traditional styles of kantele playing are also the greatest innovators in using the kantele in a popular music context.  These include members of the Perus Hämyt, Primo, Fedja Happo, and Salamakannel groups.

            Rauno Nieminen (b. 1955) is by profession an instrument builder who specializes in smaller folk instruments such as carved kanteles, herdsmans' aerophones, jouhikko [bowed lyre] and mandolin.  Nieminen learned from his mother to make all sorts of simple instruments by carving the natural materials which grow around the lakes and in the forests of Finland.  He built upon these early skills to become a first-rate craftsman.  He worked for a time as an electrician, but since 1980 has built instruments and taught instrument building professionally.  He also is a master player of all the instruments which he builds, believing that he cannot build an instrument properly unless he is able to play it as well.

             Rauno Nieminen and Jouni Koskimäki formed the Perus Hämyt [Basic Twilight] group.  In an interview for Finnish Radio (1980) they described their concepts about contemporary folk music.  They collected performance materials from many sources and blended the various styles together, using a wide variety of instruments: accordion, acoustic guitar, mandolins, herdsmans' aerophones, jouhikko and kanteles.  The instruments limited and defined to a certain degree what they played, but they tried to broaden their capabilities to play rock, jazz, or other styles of music which had never been played previously on these kinds of instruments.  They recognized that contemporary folk music is performed in a formal context, on the concert stage, or in the media.  The danger of this is that people may adopt the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to play folk music.  They felt that it was necessary to invent new things and to change things so that the folk music would be alive and develop.  Because they grew up with rock and roll, tangos and other popular music in Finland, they held a concept of folk music in which they use the old material, but in a contemporary way.

            Hannu Saha (b. 1956) is a musician and music scholar with a particular interest in folk and popular music.  He performed in the mid 1970s with a rock ensemble Mummi Kutoo [Grandma Knits], playing guitar, mandolin, harmonica, block flute, piano and singing.  The group recorded one record (1975) and received good reviews because, while being a rock ensemble, they played mostly acoustical instruments and had the feel of folk music (Lehtonen 1983:366).  Also in the 1970s, Saha began studying folk music and ethnomusicology at Tampere University as a student of Professor Erkki Ala‑Könni and started to play various kinds of kanteles, first the five- and nine‑string models developed by Ala‑Könni and soon thereafter larger kanteles.  He graduated in 1982, writing a thesis on Teppo Repo, an Ingrian and last known traditional player of herdsmans' aerophones (Saha 1982).

            The group Primo, which stands for PRImitive Music Orchestra, was begun in 1979 in Tampere by Hannu Saha and Rauno Nieminen and originally included Saha's wife, Johanna, and Armi Makelä.  Both men came to work in Kaustinen in the early 1980s, Saha as a researcher and Nieminen as an instrument builder.  At that time, the women did not wish to perform with the group any more, so Heikki Laitinen joined as a third member.  For most of its existence Primo has been a trio, with Saha, Nieminen and Laitinen. 

            Heikki Laitinen (b. 1943) had already been at Kaustinen for several years as Director of the Folk Music Institute.  He had performed with several other folk groups, such as the Kankan Pelimannit, a traditional Perho River Valley group with fiddles, harmonium, and string bass, in which he played the large kantele.  He is also a member of Nelipolviset [Four Generations], a group which strives to perform Kalevala runes in an "authentic" style.  The group also includes Anneli Asplund, folk music researcher for the Finnish Literature Society, Seppo Knuuttila, a folklorist at Joensuu University and Pirkko‑Liisa Rausmaa.

            The Primo ensemble has as its goal the performance of ancient Finnish music according to what is known about its performance style.  All the members of the group had studied the available sources extensively, Laitinen and Saha as scholars, and Nieminen to learn how to build instruments with the same qualities as the originals.  For carved kantele playing, the descriptions of A. O. Väisänen were particularly important.  After studying these descriptions thoroughly, they taught themselves to play in this manner through a process of trial and error, at the same time experimenting with other possibilities.  The basic idea was not necessarily to resurrect an old style, but to create something contemporary according to an old pattern.

            A significant part of Primo's performance style rests on improvisation.  The concerts usually feature several solo improvisations on the carved kantele, which are of indefinite lengths, as well as solos on the jouhikko, birch bark flutes and singing in the Kalevala style.  Less frequently, there are improvisations using two or all three members.  The apparent simplicity of the music hides the fact that it is not simple or easy to perform such fast and dexterous improvisations.  These performance skills come only after many years of practice.  As Laitinen has said about the old Karelian carved kantele playing style:


            Playing a five‑stringed instrument called for just as much creative skill as making music on an instrument covering a wider range.  Using only five strings, players were able to conjure up a constantly changing world of sound.  The result was not closed‑form pieces of a specific length but music that flowed freely along with infinite variation (Laitinen 1982c:44; English translation in Asplund 1983b:83).


            Laitinen has also mentioned to me how a different world view and a different aesthetic experience comes about from the repetition of a limited melody, as is done in Kalevala rune singing and five‑string kantele playing, together with constant improvisation.  For the performer and audience, this produces an aesthetic experience which is not often encountered in our contemporary world.  We cannot know if it is the same aesthetic experience which the ancient performers had of this music, but is something which is experienced today from the performance of this music.  Ironically, the aesthetic is understood by many in terms of contemporary aleatoric art music, which was my own initial reaction to Primo's rehearsals and concerts.

            There are some significant differences between Primo's music and aleatoric art music.  The improvisation exists within narrow stylistic limits and within the structural limitations of the musical instruments employed.  The core of the improvisation is a set of simple, repeated melodies which are constantly changed and varied.  There is a beginning to a given piece, but not an ending.  It is played as long as the performer desires.

            Primo's music and performance style are very personal. Their musical instruments are the kind generally used for personal enjoyment, rather than public performance.  The music is best when it is simply played for one's self, when it is performed in the company of others in an intimate setting, with a small group, and when kept simple.  Usually just one solo instrument is brought to the limits of its capabilities, following the folk concept of "gaining the maximum potential from a limited instrument."

            The Primo ensemble recorded a long playing record in 1984, which contains many of the pieces performed in their concerts.  The record cover states that:


            [[The goal of] the PRIMO ensemble from the start has been to make ancient Finnish music more popular, or at least better known in Finland... The general tendency of the group is to follow the ancient performance style as truly as possible, on the other hand they search for new ways and try to combine ancient elements with modern ones, as may be clearly heard on this record] (Primo 1984).


The record does not fully recreate the mood and aesthetics of the concerts.  In their recorded form, the improvisations are of set lengths and the pieces are arrangements with additional instruments added.  The style of the music is true to that heard in the concerts and having these pieces in recorded form makes possible their wider dissemination.

            The members of the Primo ensemble, together with the other researchers at the Folk Music Institute in Kaustinen, Ilkka Kolehmainen and Simo Westerholm, made up the nucleus of another group called Fedja Happo, named after one of the last known Karelian players of the carved kantele who used only five strings.  The group was formed specifically to perform at the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) Festival of Contemporary Folk Music, which was held at Kaustinen in 1982.  The concept behind the EBU Festival was to provide radio listeners with a chance to hear traditional music performed in a new way.  The Fedja Happo group gave only a dozen or so performances, but it led to the formation of the Fedja Happo Society, which promotes carved kantele playing.  Prospective members have to pass an audition, where they show that they have mastered the skill of free improvisation on carved kanteles.

            The kantele has had some limited experimental use in amplified music.  In 1983 during my visits to Kaustinen, I was surprised to hear a group using electric kanteles.  A master kantele builder employed at Kaustinen, Jussi Ala-Kuha, who has published a book on how to build modern kanteles (1982), began his career building electric guitars and is a fine electric guitar player.  At the request of Hannu Saha, he built an electric kantele.  The instrument looks like a typical twenty‑nine string modern kantele, except that it has electrical pick‑ups under the strings and the necessary tone and volume controls, switches and plugs.  Rauno Nieminen became interested and built a pair of electric five‑string kanteles. 

            The electric kantele band originally played together as a trio, with Ala‑Kuha playing electric guitar, Nieminen playing electric bass or five‑string electric kantele and Saha on the other electric five‑string kantele or on the large electric kantele, tuned in D major so it would fit better with the other instruments.  They performed mostly original pieces composed by Saha or Ala‑Kuha.  I became interested in their sound and began to play with them on viola, with an electric pick up.  We played together on two programs at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in July and recorded several pieces in October of the same year.  The group disbanded in December, when I returned to the United States, but a small record was released on the Finnish jazz label Bluebird, under the title Kalle Rahkonen ja Salamakannel [Carl Rahkonen and the Lightning Kantele] (1984).  The group was later reorganized with Saha, Ala-Kuha, Arto Järvelä, violin, and Kimmo Känsälä, bass.


Illus. 63.  Primo.  Photograph from the back cover of their album Haltian opissa  c 1984  Primo.


Illus. 64.  Salamakannel at Kaustinen, 1983.


            The various popular ensembles which use the kantele as an integral part of their music have several factors in common.  All the groups value and perform folk styles of the past and believe that these styles should be preserved, much the same way that art musicians still value and perform Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.  At the same time, they have tried to produce something new and unique using old materi-als.  They play music which is a blend of various styles, with the result being more than the sum of the individual styles.  They have put a premium on being creative, innovative and in changing the old styles to fit the modern world.  The tie to tradition is usually described as being a feeling or mood rather than specific stylistic characteristics or performance method.  Finally, when the music is performed on stage or in the recording studio it must be of high performance quality, which means that it is measured by Western aesthetics and performance standards.



                                       The Sibelius Academy Folk Music Program


            Another important factor in the growth of folk music performance in Finland has been the folk music program at the Sibelius Academy.  This program began in 1975, when Martti Pokela was invited to give several lectures on folk music.  Soon he was invited to direct a specialization in folk music offered through the Department of Music Education.  Today, students can major in folk music performance, earning the same degrees as art musicians or jazz performers.

            From the beginning, the main goal of the folk music program has been to make active and living contact with tradition (Saha 1980:21).  The students are required to take courses in folk music research and ethnomusicology, but the greatest emphasis is on learning to perform Finnish folk music.  The performance courses are taught by Martti Pokela and other master folk musicians.  The most important instrument has been the kantele, but other folk instruments used in Finland are taught as well.  Even though the teaching is founded on tradition, the students are encouraged to experiment with new ways of performing folk music.

            Almost every year since 1976, new folk music performance groups have been organized.  The first of these was Jutkaus, then came Onko Niin?, Melkutus, Tilitulitallaa, Niin On, Niekku and Pirnales.   Many Sibelius Academy students, some of them performance majors in western art music, participate in the folk music groups, learning to perform folk music "by ear."  These groups have performed extensively all over Finland and other parts of Europe, on Finnish radio and television, and have produced folk music recordings for the International Radio Competition of Tape Recorded Folk Music in Bratislava (Czechoslovakia), winning two second place prizes and one sixth place prize.  I studied the group Melkutus in 1983.

            Melkutus was made up of eight members: Juha Saari (clarinet, jouhikko and bass), Juha Hilander (jouhikko, percussion and aerophones), Virpi Pitkänen (kanteles),  Soili Perkiö (accordion, flutes and clarinet), Merja Rautio (violin and percussion), Reijo Kekkonen (violin and jouhikko), Jyrkki Immonen (accordion, string bass, and kanteles), and Anu Rummukainen (kanteles and percussion).  In addition, all members sang.  They held rehearsals on Monday evenings and played perhaps an average of one concert per week.


Illus. 65.  Members of Melkutus receive instruction from Martti Pokela at the Sibelius Academy, 1983.



Illus. 66.  Melkutus at the studios of Radio Finland, 1983.


            Although everyone in the group was very well educated in music and could read music well, new songs and playing styles were learned and practiced aurally.  At the Monday night rehearsals, they would generally play through pieces which they had already learned and then talk about the the performance, criticize it and change things if necessary to make it better.  A major portion of the time was taken up in selecting and arranging the order of the pieces for upcoming performances.

            A good example of how new material was learned came in the preparation of the recording for the 1984 Bratislava Recorded Folk Music Competition.  Martti Pokela had the basic form of a composition in mind, which made extensive use of the ruokopilli, a simple reed clarinet.  He had prepared various sizes of ruokopillit and also brought kanteles with various tunings and many other instruments to first practice session.  He presented the general ideas and musical themes to the group and everyone experimented with the instruments they wanted to play.  Through a series of these practice sessions, and a lot of give and take between the members of the group, an original composition was worked up and recorded in the studios of Radio Finland.

            I mentioned to Martti Pokela that he was the composer, since he had provided the themes, instrumentation and basic structure for the Bratislava piece.  But he insisted that he did not consider himself the composer.  His purpose was simply to provide some ideas.  He said, "[I merely give them some ideas, and let them develop it from there]."  The piece recorded by Melkutus, as well as recordings by the other Sibelius Academy Folk Music Groups, was issued on a long playing record (1985).  Paavo Helistö, the Folk Music Producer for Radio Finland wrote as follows:


            One of the fundamental principles of the Sibelius Academy's folk music instruction has been to stimulate creativity while still adhering to tradition.  This is reflected in the range of instruments used ‑ the kannel is the chief teaching tool. The music on the record, on the other hand, is enriched by a variety of 'non-orthodox' [instruments] such as rice bags, clay recorders, chanticleer whistles, deer bells, and so on.  Some of the tunes keep strictly within the bounds of folk music; others transcend folk and move off into other musical fields ... There is also a great deal of improvisation and original arranging. ...the different groups of performers play the same piece in different ways.  The feeling is sometimes different; different instruments are used, and the length of the pieces can vary as well.


            ...Experience has demonstrated that higher education must preserve folk music in the widest sense and seek to develop it.  The very fact that the Sibelius Academy has now instigated a folk music training programme is due to the most encouraging results that the student school music teachers gave (Helistö 1985).



            The most telling moment in my fieldwork came when I asked Martti Pokela if the activity at the Sibelius Academy could be considered "traditional".  He thought a long while and replied that in the strictest sense it was not traditional, but that it may be considered as a "new tradition".  He added that the roots of the new tradition may be found in the old tradition.  The old tradition will always be there as a type of foundation.  The students at the Sibelius Academy learn and perform folk music "by ear," they play traditional instruments and perform from memory the same music, in the same style as traditional performers.  These things link the activities at the Sibelius Academy to the old tradition.

            Pokela believes that the old tradition will continue to survive, as it does in many parts of Finland, but in our modern world it will probably not grow.  Hopefully it will stay at a stable level and not totally disappear.  The new tradition, however, will grow fantastically as new talented young people become exposed to folk music through Finland's music education system.  Of course, the context has changed completely.  The previous context of the old tradition is gone forever.  The world has changed and it can never again be the same as it was.

            Virtually all the "authentic" folk performers in the country are quite old.  Twenty or thirty years from now, the young people who are able to perform these styles of music will be the folk performers for the country.  Because the context in which these styles are learned and performed is completely different, the younger players are frequently seen as not being a part of tradition.  Even in a new context the folk styles of performance will survive.  The new tradition represents what has become of the old traditions.

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