Chapter 4.2.2:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            Saarijärvi is a small town in central Finland, approximately three hundred thirty kilometers north and slightly west of Helsinki.  Being centrally located, Saarijärvi is somewhat of a crossroads for traffic between Ostrobothnia and the larger towns of Southern and Central Finland.  The kantele tradition in Saarijärvi has been documented from about the 1880s, by Erkki Ala‑Könni (1963a).  Ala‑Könni believes that the Saarijärvi tradition was influenced by the many kantele players who travelled through the area on concert tours.  For example, Kreeta Haapasalo, the famous kantele player from the Perho River Valley, was known to have travelled through Saarijärvi on several of her tours.  She was mentioned in Saarijärvi's newspapers as playing concerts in Jyväskylä, only sixty kilometers away, as late as 1887 and 1890.  Also, Akilles Ockenström, a famous blind kantele player from Oulu was known to have played a concert in Saarijärvi in 1888.  Undoubtedly the kantele players who visited Saarijärvi had an influence on the growth of the tradition.

            In 1883, two brothers, Frans and Fredrik Krank moved to Saarijärvi from Lehtimäki in Southern Ostrobothnia.  Frans was a lumberjack who built and played kanteles and his younger brother, Fredrik, played as well.  Unlike Frans, Fredrik was known in the area for being "slothful" and for not being able to keep a job.  Fredrik was also remembered for being a particularly gifted kantele player, who traveled the area in the 1880s and 90s playing many engagements.  In 1983, when I interviewed kantele players in Saarijärvi, they all knew and played the piece "Resu‑Rankan Polkka," attributed to Fredrik Krank.


                                                The Covering Technique


            Just as in the Perho River Valley, the kantele in Saarijärvi is played with the shortest string closest to the player and there is no overall damping of the strings.  While most Finnish kanteles were played by plucking the strings with the fingers, in the Saarijärvi area the players employed a different technique of playing which they called sulkutyyli [blocking style].  I will call this the "covering technique" since the fingers of the left hand cover the strings not needed for a chord, blocking them from sounding, while the right hand strums the strings with the nail of the forefinger, or some other plectrum such as a match stick or stiff piece of leather.  The covering technique is used more frequently in the playing of other Baltic psalteries, for example, in Latvia and Lithuania (see Niles 1980) and in Estonia (Tõnurist 1977a), but the technique is rarer in Finland.  Antti Rantonen used it in playing the five‑string kantele and the Ingrian Teppo Repo used it in playing a twelve‑string kantele.  It is taught today as a technique for carved kantele playing.

            According to Hannu Saha (1983), the covering technique was more widely used in Finland in the past.  There are still quite a few individual folk kantele players outside of the Saarijärvi area who employ it.  For example, around Lake Vimpeli in Southern Ostrobothnia there are two players, Joel Elgland and Antti Viitaniemi.  In Kauhava, Albin Saari played using this technique, as does the Aarnio family in Humppila and the old player Toivo Liukkonen from Kaavi.  Saha mentioned that even Viljo Karvonen experimented with this technique as a boy.  The covering technique, then, is not idiomatic to Saarijärvi, but it was developed and preserved there better than in other areas of Finland.

            It is not certain if the covering technique came to Saarijärvi from elsewhere or if it was independently discovered.  The informants I interviewed there believed that the technique may have come from the Krank brothers, who moved to the Saarijärvi area from Southern Ostrobothnia, where many of the other current covering technique players are found.  On the other hand, the covering technique is something which can be easily discovered through experimentation, especially if there is some necessity for a louder and more rhythmic playing style.  Veikko Manninen, a current Saarijärvi kantele player, believes that the covering technique was developed so that the rhythmic accompaniment of the kantele "could be heard over the sound of twenty dancing shoes on a wooden floor" (Manninen 1983).

            In 1983, I was able to interview two players of the Saarijärvi style, Veikko Manninen (b. 1904) and Arvi Pokela (1914‑1984) (no relation to Martti Pokela).  These gentlemen together with the violinist Pauli Hiekkavirta (b. 1918) made up an ensemble called the "Saarijärvi Folk Players,"  which had been performing at various events for around ten years.


                                                     Veikko Manninen


            Veikko Manninen was a particularly valuable informant who had a fine basic understanding of the Saarijärvi tradition.  His father, Robert Manninen, was a kantele player but did not use the covering technique; he played the kantele with his fingers.  Veikko's brother, Eino (1903‑ 1981), was an expert kantele player using the covering technique.  He played at dances and at movie houses for silent films.  Eino learned the covering technique from Eino Nyrönen and Aati Tarviainen, who learned it from a well‑known Saarijärvi kantele player, Taavetti Häkkinen.  According to Veikko, his brother Eino could play in a "melodic style", using his right forefinger to strum the strings, as well as an "accompanying style" in which he used a hard plectrum, such as a match stick.  Veikko said that Taavetti Häkkinen also used the softer sound of his fore finger for playing solos and a harder plectrum for ensemble accompaniment. 

            In earlier times, the typical Saarijärvi dance ensemble was made up of one kantele, playing in the accompanying style, and one violin, playing melodies.  Veikko mentioned that the dances in those days were lighter and more frivolous than today, so the kantele and violin fit particularly well.  Eventually, as the dance styles changed, the ensemble also incorporated a pimpparauta [triangle], which was used to keep the beat, and a two-row [button] accordion to fill out the melody and accompaniment.  This kind of ensemble had a much stronger sound and sometimes the sound of the kantele would be lost, especially in the old days, when kantele strings were not as good as they are today.  The kantele eventually began to be left out of the ensemble.  The Saarijärvi Folk Players performed pieces in several different combinations of these instruments, since Veikko also played pimpparauta and Arvi Pokela also played two-row accordion.



Illus. 42.  Veikko Manninen at his home in Saarijärvi, with fiddle player Pauli Hiekkavirta, 1983.


            Veikko Manninen learned to play kantele only in the accompanying style using the covering technique.  Consequently, he rarely plays alone and usually accompanies some other melodic instrument, such as violin, another kantele, or accordion.  Veikko learned to play as a boy, but left his kantele playing when he became a lumberjack and travelled around Finland.  He returned again to Saarijärvi to retire, where he again took up kantele playing, first with his brother Eino, who played fiddle or a second melody kantele, and later, after Eino died, with the Saarijärvi Folk Players.

            Veikko's kantele is set up a little differently than typical Finnish kanteles.  He has a thirty‑two string instrument, where the top twenty strings are tuned diatonically but the bottom twelve strings are tuned in three courses of four strings each, to the tonic, dominant and subdominant, in descending order of pitch.  The twelfth string, the fourth string of the tonic course, is tuned one octave lower.  The overall tuning of the kantele is in C major.  The pitches of the lowest strings were as follows:


 F F F F G G G G c c c C d e f g a b c' d' e' f' ...


            Veikko explained that the courses of bass strings are necessary because the player has to reach quickly all the way across the instrument to play a bass note and having a course of bass strings makes a more certain target to hit.  Most Saarijärvi kanteles are set up like Veikko's for playing bass notes while using the covering technique.  The number of bass strings in each course may vary. Some Saarijärvi kanteles had just single bass strings, or courses of two bass strings, but with a large space between them.

            Veikko owns a second kantele which he called his puoliääni [half sound] kantele.  The name refers to the tuning which is in C minor, rather than C major.  It has thirty‑six strings and is set up the same as his C major kantele, except that the thirteenth string (the fifth string of the tonic course) is tuned to the contrabass tonic, followed by twenty‑three diatonic strings in C minor up to e'''.

            The actual covering of the strings is done according to various patterns.  Veikko's patterns come by anchoring the thumb of his left hand on the f'' string throughout all the patterns.  Using the thumb to anchor and measure is a common feature between this style and the Perho River Valley style. The basic pattern for the tonic chord is to have a string between each finger, except the middle and ring fingers.  The tonic string (c'') is in the middle of the chord, so the chord is always in inversion.  It may be either in first or second inversion depending on the width of Veikko's strumming, which is variable.  The subdominant chord comes by moving the ring and small fingers down one string, so there is a string between each finger.  The subdominant chord is in root position.  By strumming completely across the width of the hand, the seventh (e'') of the chord is sometimes added.  To move to the dominant chord, Veikko brings all the fingers, except the thumb, up one string, so that the thumb and forefinger are next to each other and there is a string between each of the other fingers.  Again, the chord is in root position.  The change between the dominant and tonic comes by moving the fore and middle fingers down a string.  Veikko has memorized these pat-terns and they come quickly and automatically while he is playing (Illus. 43).

            Veikko strumed the strings with a match stick in his right hand.  While strumming the chord, he also emphasizes the string carrying the melody at any given point.  He will lift the appropriate finger if the melody happens to cross one of the covered strings, including the thumb, if the melody requires an f.  In this way, he not only accompanies the melody instrument, but also augments its melody.  He always strums toward himself, from the lower to higher pitched strings.  The strumming is done to a fast rhythm to fit the melody.  If the piece is in three beats, he will strum a bass course on the down beat and the fingered treble chord on the off beats.  For four beats, he will strum a bass course on the first beat and sometimes on the third beat as well, with the treble chord on the off beats.



Illus. 43.  Veikko Manninen's covering patterns. 1 = thumb   2 = forefinger        3 = middle finger  4 = ring finger  5 = little finger                  

                                                                        =  strumming distance



                                                         Arvi Pokela


            Arvi Pokela was perhaps the best current kantele player in the Saarijärvi tradition.  He lived most of his life in the village of Hännilä, near Saarijärvi.  He was a farmer throughout his life and reportedly died on May 24th 1984, while sowing his fields (Laitinen 1984).  I interviewed him at the Folk Music Institute in Kaustinen and at his home in Hännilä during the summer of 1983.

            Arvi's playing style differed somewhat from Veikko's in that he not only covered the strings with his left hand, he also used it to pluck out additional accompanying pitches.  Arvi's kantele playing was frequently done as a solo because it had a full texture which could stand on its own.  Erkki Ala‑Könni has called the Saarijärvi style a mixed style (1963a:423,  1986:37), because in practice the fingers of the left hand may also be used to pluck the strings, in addition to covering the strings of unwanted pitches.  It may be less of a mixed style than a single unified style using two techniques.  This, according to Arvi, was the "genuine Saarijärvi kantele playing style" used by the best players when he was a boy. 



Illus. 44.  Arvi Pokela at Kaustinen, 1983.


            Arvi's father, Otto Pokela, was a master of the Saarijärvi style.  When Arvi was eleven years old his father began to teach him to play, on a kantele made by the master builder Juho Tamminen.  Arvi still played the same kantele in 1983, almost sixty years later!  He said it was a real celebration when his father brought that kantele home.  It was placed on a special table, which could not have any kind of dust or table cloth on it, so the kantele would lie freely and play beautifully.

            Arvi learned to play the kantele at a time of its waning popularity, when it was beginning to be replaced by the two-row accordion in dance ensembles.  In his later teens, Arvi also switched to the two-row accordion.  As he described it, there was a demand for accordion players and after he bought an accordion and practiced on it for only a couple of weeks, he was playing in an ensemble.  He felt that he rushed into it too quickly and never became a good accordion player.  But in 1983, he was a very accomplished player and would occasionally play accordion with the Saarijärvi Folk Players.  He also played fiddle and mandolin, though I did not get a chance to hear him perform on those instruments, and he was quite a good singer. 

            The kantele was still Arvi's first and probably favorite instrument.  He began kantele playing in earnest again in the early 1970s as the Folk Music Festival at Kaustinen got underway and the kantele again became a more popular instrument.  As folk music researchers became interested in what he knew about the Saarijärvi style, he became motivated to practice kantele again.  He also became interested and wanted to learn other traditional styles of kantele playing and became somewhat of an amateur folklorist, collecting information on other traditional aspects of life in the rural Saarijärvi area.

            Arvi's style of playing is quite complex and technically demanding.  It undoubtedly took a great deal of practice to become an accomplished player, which can be seen by comparing earlier and later recordings.  In 1978, the Finnish Literature Society and Folk Music Institute recorded and videotaped Arvi's playing.  Later, two of his pieces were published on a record (Asplund 1983a).  Arvi played these same pieces for me in 1983 and a comparison of the 1978 and 1983 recordings shows that he developed and improved his technique substantially in just five years. Also, as he continued to practice, he kept raising the overall pitch of his kantele, perhaps coming closer to the memory of brighter and more vibrant sound he knew as a boy.  During the final years of his life, Arvi began teaching his style of playing in courses arranged by the Folk Music Institute and at the Sibelius Academy.  He had a great desire to pass on his playing style to a younger generation.

            Arvi found it difficult to describe his playing style, probably because it was innate and only in the later part of his life did he talk about it or teach it to others.  He said it was special because the pieces are all in a major key.  They are happy, free and easy, with none of the poignancy found in a lot of kantele playing.  Even people who had never heard this style before tended to like it, as did many people at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festivals.  A majority of the pieces he played were lively dances, but he also sang songs to kantele accompaniment.  These were likewise very light and lively, with clever words.  He owned a second kantele, which he kept at a lower pitch, and used strictly for song accompaniment since the lower pitch was better suited for his voice range.

            Arvi's first kantele (built by Juho Tamminen) was diatonic across its full range and had places for twenty‑eight strings.  But the actual number of strings was fewer, since Arvi set it up for using the covering technique.  It had three courses of two bass strings each tuned to the subdominant (F), tonic (C), dominant (G), in descending order of pitch.  There were spaces of approximately two inches between each of the bass courses.  The other strings were tuned diatonically and covered a range from  g' to e'''.

            The covering patterns used by Arvi were different than those used by Veikko and in some ways were simpler.  He anchored his left thumb on the b'' string.  The tonic chord pattern had the thumb and forefinger next to each other and a string between each of the other fingers (Illus. 45).  For the dominant and subdominant chords, he left the thumb on the b'' string and moved all the other fingers down one string, so there was a string between each of the fingers.  If he wanted to play a dominant chord, he strummed the lower half of this pattern, from the other side of the little



Illus. 45.  Arvi Pokela's covering patterns.  1 = thumb  2 = forefinger 

            3 = middle finger  4 = ring finger  5 = little finger                            

                                                                        = strumming distance


finger, to the middle finger.  If he wanted a subdominant chord, he strum-med the upper half of this pattern, from the middle finger to the other side of the thumb.  Using just two simple finger patterns, he got three chords, which were all in root position.  The basic finger patterns were also used to test the intonation of the kantele, by making sure the chords were in tune.

            Arvi used the forefinger nail of his right hand to pluck the strings.  He used a match stick in the past, but felt it was uncertain because the match stick would break or perhaps it would break a string.  He also experimented using pieces of leather, but had a hard time finding any that were stiff enough.  When the nail of the forefinger was strong enough, he felt it was best.  Also, his finger was more accurate than a plectrum in hitting specific strings.  Arvi always strummed the kantele towards himself, from the lower to the higher pitched strings, never the other way.

            His right hand, which strummed out the chords, also had the primary role in playing the melody.  It was difficult to pinpoint the exact melody, because the strumming was variable.  Sometimes Arvi would strum only one string, sometimes two, and sometimes three or more.  This produced a randomness and mixing of melody and accompaniment similar to that found in the old carved kantele playing style.

            An important technical aspect of Arvi's playing style were the extra pitches he added with his left hand.  He generally used only the fore and middle fingers to pluck these pitches.  When I asked him about this, he used the word höystää, which means to add some seasoning, spice or flavor, and said it was the hardest part to teach others.  He played these extra pitches very quickly, producing a full and moving texture. 

            Arvi's innate sense of rhythm was the most important part of his playing style.  His right hand stroking was not always even with the beat; it could be syncopated or delayed.  The bass notes were also rhythmically variable and were added on the beat, immediately after the beat, or occasionally on the off beat.  Part of the rhythmic variability in the right hand came from the physical necessity of reaching all the way across the instrument to play bass notes, thus there was always some compromise in the rhythm between the bass and treble.  Also, the pitches played by the fingers of his left hand were added strictly by feel and in a different rhythm than that of his right hand stroking.  The combination of these elements produced a constantly shifting rhythmic variation in the overall texture.  He was truly a virtuoso folk kantele player and received the Master Folk Musician's title at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival in 1983.


                                      Possible Origin of the Saarijärvi Style


            Heikki Laitinen, who has studied Arvi Pokela's playing style in depth, believes that his style may have developed from the five‑string kantele playing tradition.   A. O. Väisänen's article Kantele ja hyppivä puuhevonen [Kantele and a Jumping Wooden Horse] (1931) mentions that Aapraham Nekkeli, an old man from Sumiainen (in Central Finland not far from Saarijärvi), played a five string kantele with a plectrum tied to a long string with a small wooden horse at the other end.  As he would play, the horse would appear to be jumping to the music.  Nekkeli played with his left wrist on top of the ponsi and the fingers of the left hand plucked the strings, playing a soft accompaniment.  The right hand played the melody with a plectrum, which had a louder and sharper sound.  Väisänen also mentions that Matti Kirjava from Haapavesi, in a similar manner, attached a string to his fore finger and would make "an Estonian horse dance" when he played the outer most strings.  Antti Rantonen learned at least a portion of his playing style from Kirjava, who gave Rantonen a five‑string kantele.

            Originally, in the five string kantele playing, each string had its own finger.  This system began to break down in Ostrobothnia by a process of the right hand being removed from the strings and plucking various strings with the forefinger.  The left hand remained on the strings, each finger plucking its own string as before.  The best example of this was Antti Rantonen's five string playing technique. His left hand covered the strings not used in a chord, while his right forefinger stroked the uncovered strings.  At the same time, he also continued to pluck strings with his left hand.  It is possible that the techniques which originally grew out of carved kantele playing formed the basis of the Saarijärvi style (Laitinen 1985).

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