5: The Kantele Traditions of
by Carl Rahkonen © 1989 All Rights Reserved Back to Table of Contents
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ON THE CONCEPT OF TRADITION
The various kantele building and playing styles point out some of the problems encountered in research dealing with contemporary traditions. Many of the "traditions" which I have described may be rejected as not being traditions at all. Some fall outside of the standard theoretical realm of folkloristics, because they deal with elite or popular cultural phenomena. Also, some of the folk culture traditions may be argued as being folklorisms.
The term folklorism implies the notion of measuring the authenticity of a phenomenon. Folklore is authentic, while folklorism is not. Much has been said about the relationship of folklore and folklorisms. Perhaps the most frequently cited study is by Vilmos Voigt, where folklore and non‑folklore are pictured at opposite ends of a continuum. Folklore turns into non‑folklore through a process of folklorism and likewise non‑folklore can turn back into folklore through a process of folklorization. Much of the material which folklorists study is not at either end of the continuum, but somewhere in between.
The problem with trying to find "authentic" folklore is that most of the materials we are likely to encounter and study will be a mixture of "authentic" and "inauthentic" elements. A pure folklore simply does not exist in the modern world, if it ever did. We should overcome our academic prejudices against phenomena which do not fit neatly into our theoretical molds as to what folklore should be. These prejudices blind us in many instances to what folklore has become in the contemporary world. At the heart of this problem is the concept of tradition.
The concept of tradition is as central to folkloristics, as the concept of culture is to anthropology. Folklorists study the processes of tradition and the materials which result. Much recent scholarly discussion has focused on trying to define "tradition." Perhaps it is a "sign of the times" that scholars in our field and related fields have begun to question this central theoretical concept.
My own interest in the concept of tradition originated in a course on western folk music taught by Professor George List. Professor List stressed the necessity of oral transmission in the definition of tradition. I wanted to test his assertion, so I collected definitions from standard reference sources. Webster's Third New International Unabridged Dictionary, which is widely used by librarians because it was the last edition to be prescriptive rather than descriptive, defines tradition as "the process of handing down information, opinions, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example; transmission of knowledge and institutions through successive generations without written instruction." Professor List was shown correct in this source. But the Micropaedia of the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines tradition as "the aggregate of customs, beliefs and practices that give continuity to a culture, civilization, or social group and thus shape its views..." (1986), leaving out any mention of oral transmission. Perhaps older and more conservative definitions contained oral transmission as a necessary part, but newer views have moved away from this perspective.
We were required to study Charles Seeger's seminal article in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore entitled "Oral Tradition in Music" (1950). Seeger makes the following points. When speaking about music, we should replace the term oral with aural, meaning that tradition is transmission by hearing. He says that, "in the study of folklore in general the term 'oral tradition' is used a bit loosely. Three separate meanings in common use may be distinguished: 1) an inherited accumulation of materials; 2) the process of inheritance, cultivation, and transmission thereof; 3) the technical means employed." Later he adds that "Music tradition ... is a function of culture ‑‑ a dynamic conception ... The repertoire as a whole and its relation to the culture of which it is an accumulation of traditions are in a constant state of flux." He points out that there is another category of traditions, which he calls traditions of control. This takes into account such things as politics, nationalism, and the influence of scholars upon the folk community they are studying. He sees the technique of tradition ranging over a continuum from purely oral to purely written. Seeger's views are perhaps the broadest available, but they have not led to any overall agreement among folklorists and ethnomusicologists. The concept of tradition is still vague in contemporary scholarship.
The sociologist Edward Shils has written a book on tradition (1981), in which he points out some central tenets. He says, "In its barest, most elementary sense, it means simply a traditum; it is anything which is handed down from the past to the present" (ibid:12). The word traditum refers to "the transmitted thing", the materials, whatever they are, which are handed down (ibid). To distinguish between fashion and tradition, the tradita should be handed down at least three generations (ibid:13). Traditions are constantly undergoing changes, but the changes are not total. Certain essential elements remain constant while other elements change (ibid:13‑14). Traditional and untraditional elements are intertwined (ibid:27‑33). In spite of change and reinterpretation by current tradition bearers, there is frequently a sense of identity and filiation with earlier tradition bearers (ibid:14). He also mentions the important role of folklorists in developing the concept of tradition (ibid:18).
Nordic folklorists have long called their discipline "tradition research," but not until the final discussion at their annual conference in 1983 did they attempt to find a precise definition of "tradition" (Final Discussion 1983). The wide variety of opinions expressed during the discussion show the many different ways that tradition may be defined and that there is no general agreement. Åke Daun argued that tradition is cultural continuity, (ibid:234) while Kurt Weinbust argued the opposite that tradition is change (ibid:236). Anna‑Leena Siikala pointed out that tradition is symbolic communication and that "...tradition could be looked upon as changing systems" (ibid). Lauri Honko pointed out that "[tradition] is often an expression of identity, an identity game" (ibid:237). Aili Nelola-Kallio said "...the key to the whole of this discussion about tradition as continuity and change, is 'process'" (ibid:242).
As the opening paper to the 1984 conference on "Tradition and Identity" held at Indiana University, Dan Ben‑Amos presented a paper entitled "The Seven Strands of Tradition" in which he surveyed how the word tradition has been used in American folkloristics (1984). He found at least seven separate uses of the term: as lore, as canon, as process, as mass, as culture, as langue and as performance. His presentation showed that, just as among the Nordic folklorists, the term has been defined and used in a wide variety of ways among American folklorists.
In trying to define tradition, one is reminded of the story of the five blind men and the elephant. Each of the blind men described the elephant accurately in terms of his own limited perceptions. Tradition has been used in scholarship as a tool in various limited contexts, all of which may be valid within their prescribed limits. The concept of tradition if multifaceted. It consists of many separate elements which may never be found together as a whole in nature.
In light of these problems, I offer a multifaceted view of tradition based on what I observed among the kantele players and builders of Finland. I divide tradition into three large categories: tradition as materials, tradition as symbol and tradition as learning. These three categories are not mutually exclusive; there is quite a bit of overlap and interrelationships among them. Each category, however, provides a distinct perspective through which to organize, interpret and understand the kantele traditions of Finland.
Tradition as Materials
Tradition may be defined as the materials which folklorists and ethnomusicologists study. These materials are the products of human behavior and it is possible and valid for humans to view these products abstractly, as existing apart from the processes which produced them. A great deal of research has been devoted to the study of traditional materials: how they are created and preserved, how they are transmitted, and how they change.
Traditional materials are defined in scholarly literature using a combination of behavioral, social and stylistic characteristics. An example may be seen in the definition of "folk music" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica written by Bruno Nettl:
Typically, folk music, like folk literature, lives in oral tradition; it is learned through hearing rather than reading. It is functional in the sense that it is associated with other activities. Primarily rural in origin, it exists in cultures where there is also an urban, technically more sophisticated musical tradition.
music is understood by broad segments of the population, while cultivated or
classical music is essentially the art of a small social, economic, or
intellectual elite. On the other hand,
that widely accepted type of music called 'popular' depends mainly on the mass
media ‑‑ records, radio, and television ‑‑ for
dissemination while folk music is typically disseminated within families and
restricted social networks (Nettl 1986).
Nettl's definition shows most of the standard beliefs regarding traditional materials. They are basically the same as those offered by Professor List in his course on western folk music. In examining these and other sources, I compiled a list of eight characteristics of tradition which seem to be most prominent in the literature. For purposes of simplicity, I apply these characteristics to traditional music, though they apply equally to artifacts of material culture, such as the kantele when taken as a musical instrument, as well as other forms of folklore.
1. Traditional music is performed and transmitted in limited social networks, such as families and communities. It must have continuity in both time and space, being transmitted from generation to generation and from person to person.
2. Traditional music is learned through hearing and imitating, rather than through formal schooling utilizing written music. A given piece is learned by trial and error, not necessarily to reproduce an exact duplicate of what has been heard, but to produce a personal rendition within a learned cultural aesthetic.
3. Traditional music exists in variant forms. A traditional piece will be performed differently by each individual who knows it. It still is recognized as being one composition, but in variant forms among individuals. Thus, traditional music has variation as well as continuity. The degree of variation permissible is often genre specific.
4. Traditional music is re‑created with each new performance. It may be performed from memory, "by ear", or be improvised to a pre‑existing set of rules or boundaries. Thus traditional music may not only vary among individuals, it may also vary with the same individual from performance to performance.
5. The ownership of traditional music cannot be traced; meaning that the composer of a traditional piece remains unknown. At the same time, scholars admit that an individual creates and thereafter the community adopts and changes. A traditional piece belongs to an entire community.
6. Traditional music is seen by some scholars as the art of rural, musically illiterate amateurs from a "peasant" culture. It exists in a society if, and only if, there exists in the same society some form of cultivated, written music.
7. Traditional music frequently performs a function in a culture. It may provide the bulk of that culture's entertainment or be part of other activities such as work, ritual or dance.
8. Traditional music is typically seen as something from the past; as being old or historical. To be "authentic" it must have somehow escaped the influences of modern mass media and urban popular culture.
These characteristics constitute a concept of tradition as presented in scholarly literature. But in the real world, they are seldom all present at any one time and are not all of equal value. Some may be more important than others to call a given music traditional. At the same time, some of these characteristics are present in almost any music. I, therefore, propose two solutions for applying the characteristics of tradition.
First, we should recognize folk music for what it is today. In the past, the terms "folk music" and "traditional music" were nearly synonymous. But today, folk music generally refers to a broad category of musical styles, as do art music or popular music, and to which the characteristics of tradition may or may not apply.
Second, the characteristics of tradition should be applied separately to individual phenomena to discover those elements which are and those which are not traditional. We should not describe any given phenomenon as wholly traditional or not traditional, because everything is a mixture of elements. Different levels of traditionality may be found in virtually all humanly produced materials. We should try to find those elements in any given phenomenon which are traditional and thereby describe its degree of traditionality. The following are some examples of how these solutions helped me understand specific phenomena in the field.
Many of the folk kantele players I interviewed were also composers of pieces in folk styles. These pieces were frequently learned by other players around them and performed as "traditional" pieces, even though the composer was known to the entire community. When the composer or source of a piece is known, one characteristic of tradition is violated. This does not necessarily mean that the piece is not traditional, since several other characteristics may still apply.
Every year in late July, hundreds of
musicians from all parts of
Some of the performance contexts at the festival are vastly different than those in which they usually perform. Normally they perform at home for family or friends; here they perform on stage in front of hundreds of paying spectators. There is a tangible distinction between performer and audience and a far greater formality. They must play at a certain time and place, and for a certain length of time. They must also plan in advance the selections they will play. The normal verbal interchange between performer and listener, so much a part of traditional performance, is missing. In a certain sense, they are being judged and measured against other performers. When traditional performance takes place "on the stage", it simply does not have the same meaning to either performer or audience. Sometimes in a festival context traditional musicians receive recognition and great notoriety. They may be offered an opportunity to make commercial recordings and may become well‑known and in great demand to play other concerts, festivals, and the like. In at least some of their performances, they become professionals.
Since festival performances take place outside the context of a limited social network, and include aspects of professionalism, two characteristics of tradition are violated. For many of these musicians, their participation in festivals constitute only a small part of their overall performances. The way in which they learned to perform, their repertoires, the styles in which they perform, and their abilities to improvise may not be influenced at all by their festival performances or the possible notoriety which it brings. Most of the other characteristics of tradition may apply.
The master instrument builder, Rauno
Nieminen, described to me how he learned to build and play herdsmans'
flutes. The last known builder and
player of such flutes in
The problem remained of learning to play these flutes in the same style as Repo. Nieminen accomplished this task by acquiring copies of archive tapes of Repo's playing. He would put a tape into a portable cassette player and put on light headphones. As the tape played, he would play his flute along with it. In this manner he was able to learn almost the entire recorded repertoire of Teppo Repo and perform these works in a very authentic style.
The fact that Nieminen learned to build herdsmans' flutes by trial and error using a traditional artifact as a model and the fact that he learned to play these flutes by hearing and imitating an example of the traditional sound are things which fulfill at least one characteristic of tradition. But the other characteristics may not apply in this instance. It should be noted that Nieminen considers himself an authentic tradition bearer and hopes that the tradition will continue as he encourages and teaches others to build and play herdsmans' flutes by example and "by ear."
Tradition as symbol
Tradition frequently refers to the symbolic significance of a material. This point is made very strongly in recent articles by Linnekin (1983) and Handler and Linnekin (1984). Linnekin maintains that "tradition is a conscious model of past lifeways that people use in the construction of their identity" and therefore "tradition is inevitably invented" (1983:241). Handler and Linnekin argue that "tradition is a wholly symbolic construction" because "the past is always constructed in the present" (1984:273,286). The point they make is a good one, because traditional materials frequently serve as symbols of cultural identity and the symbolic values are reconstructed by each new generation.
To argue that tradition can only be a symbolic construction is to deny the existence of tradition as a process of learning and the materials which result. The learning of traditions is something which people have been doing all along and will continue to do, whether or not there is conscious recognition by the participants or scholars that something is a tradition. Apparently Handler and Linnekin believe that traditions are only those phenomena which are consciously invented and called traditions. I believe that traditions can and do exist, which are not consciously called, or thought of, as traditions. An example could be the "traditions of control" spoken of by Charles Seeger (1950:826) which takes into account, for example, academic and political traditions that are not normally thought of as traditions. Not all traditional materials are intrinsically symbolic. It is an additional attribute which is found frequently, but not necessarily.
The kantele has two distinct types
of symbolism in
For the vast majority of Finns, the kantele was primarily known as a symbol of Finnish nationalism. From their point of view, the kantele was a mytho‑poetic, somewhat abstract concept ‑‑ a motif of folklore which, together with the other motifs of folklore and the national epic Kalevala, symbolizes Finnishness. They may know that the kantele exits in reality, but contemporary kantele players and builders could not be taken entirely seriously. After all, this was Väinämöinen's instrument. They could not comprehend what it had to do with modern life.
The symbolic nature of the kantele had the affect of both uniting and distinguishing groups of people. To the players and builders, the kantele was an important part of their lives and identities, so it was something which united them, even if they played or built kanteles in a wide variety of styles. At the same time it distinguished them from those who knew little or nothing about the kantele. They made fun of those who saw the kantele only as a symbol of nationalism, since the outsiders had no idea what the kantele really was: a living tradition.
Those to whom the kantele was mainly a symbol of Finnish nationalism used its symbolic nature to represent a common heritage among all Finns and something which distinguished them from other peoples, in spite of the fact that many of the surrounding peoples in the Baltic had their own versions of the kantele, which acted as symbols of their own nationalism.
When a tradition becomes symbolic, it helps to insure its survival. To some, the tradition itself may not be as important as its symbolism. Even a dead tradition may be
resurrected if there is some kind of symbolic significance which remains for the present or future generations.
Tradition as Learning
In its most basic meaning, tradition refers to the transmission of knowledge or information from one person to another, or one generation to another. In order for knowledge to be transmitted, learning has to take place. It is only through learning that any tradition survives. The emphasis, then, should be placed on learning, rather than the more nebulous concepts of "transmission" or "process" usually found in scholarly literature.
One common aspect of all the kantele
Many older folk kantele players told me that when they were learning to play there were no teachers around, so they simply had to take the kantele into their hands and experiment in plucking the strings until they were able to play. They began with some kind of general concept of the type of music they wanted to play and the technique used in playing. Using these general concepts as a guide, they experimented and practiced until they were able to play.
A good example here is Viljo Karvonen, the master kantele player from Halsua. He described how as a boy he desired to play the kantele, but his father placed the kantele too high on the wall for him to reach it. He figued out a way to get it down and taught himself how to tune it and some aspects of playing. Not until he built his first kantele was he able to practice regularly. He took examples, half in secret, from the playing of friends and relatives around him. Most significantly, he learned the largest portion of his skill on his own, by practicing. His playing style is related to that of others, but it is unique in its specific characteristics.
Martti Pokela underwent a similar experience when he learned to play the five‑string kantele. As a boy, he had seen Antti Rantonen play a five‑string kantele. Pokela did not play one until he acquired his own in the 1950s. The memory of Rantonen's playing provided a starting point for the learning process, but the playing style which Pokela eventually developed went far beyond Rantonen's style. It came about through a great deal of experimentation and practice, with the goal of achieving the maximum potential from a limited instrument.
In art music, one would assume that
skills are acquired only after many years of study with a "master
teacher," and one can "trace the lineages" of current master
players by those who taught them. But
even art music kantele players have said that they developed their playing
skills largely on their own. Hannu
Syrjälahti received formal instruction only at the beginning for a short time,
yet he is recognized as one of the finest art music kantele players in
The principle of self-teaching is
highly applicable to kantele builders.
The majority of kantele builders in
Rauno Nieminen mentioned that when he first began to build kanteles, he had only the most general ideas about how to go about it. He acquired knowledge simply by building and experimenting with the characteristics. A portion of the knowledge he has gained is applicable to all musical instrument building. After many years of experience he has "learned how instruments work," so building a new instrument is not as difficult now as in the beginning. Rauno also attributes a portion of his success in instrument building to the fact that he has taught himself to play all the instruments which he builds. Being able to perform on an instrument gives the builder a clear idea of what the end product should do, allowing them to make the adjustments necessary to achieve that goal.
As the individual teaches himself, a portion of the learning is accomplished by pure imitation of something which already exists. An additional part is the creation of something new, which is unique to the individual. The individual creates in order to fill in the gaps of memory, or to substitute in areas which may be beyond his skills and abilities. The quality of the created materials is entirely dependent on the individual's experience, talent and creativity.
My own experience in learning to play the kantele may be typical. I tried to learn to play in the Perho River Valley Style strictly from what I could remember about it. I started with some of the simplest melodies I could remember from the playing of Viljo Karvonen. I remembered general aspects of the style and technique of his playing. Beginning with this information, I was able to take a kantele and start to experiment, first plucking out the melodies with the right hand and later adding an accompaniment with the left.
In many instances, I simply did not have a precise memory of how a certain tune went, or what the harmonies were, or other similar details. At those times, I filled in the best I could by inventing something which, in my opinion, would fit. In the process of learning, I was drawing on what I had heard and remembered, but at the same time I was creating something new and individual. This seems to be the same pattern followed by most kantele players.
For example, I asked Onni Kuivalainen to play Karjalan Kunnailla, a very well known Finnish melody, especially among Karelians. I knew that one pitch in the melody was outside the diatonic scale and wanted to see how he would handle it. When he came to that point he just left it out and remarked that he leaves out those pitches which do not fit, because usually he is singing with the kantele and the voice can cover the pitch which the kantele cannot play. Eino Tulikari has written that folk players frequently would not notice, or perhaps they did not care if an interval was a half step or a whole step (1976:52‑4). He was probably not describing a lack of ability or perception on the part of folk players, but this type of creative replacement in pieces which do not fit the kantele exactly.
Learning without the benefit of a teacher has been the norm of kantele players in the past, but things are now changing. Kantele traditions are beginning to be taught in schools, music conservatories, at kantele camps and through adult or continuing education courses. It was interesting to see the reactions of typical Finns to my own kantele playing. Most would ask "Who taught you to play?" which is a very logical question considering that one can learn almost anything in formal courses nowadays. The automatic assumption is that the best way to acquire skills is from a teacher. All styles of kantele playing are taught at one place or another, even folk styles of playing. The Folk Music Institute at Kaustinen sponsors summer courses, some of which are taught by master folk musicians who may have had only limited experience in teaching their styles of playing.
When a tradition changes from something which is self-taught to something which is taught formally in the classroom, certain changes take place: for the teacher, for the students and in the playing style.
As a player becomes a teacher, he has to find some kind of system to describe the playing technique. There is less room for variation and certain rules or boundaries of the style have to be formalized. All of a sudden there is a right and a wrong way. Students and other players are judged according to an emerging standard. Some play better than others within the rules of the style.
Arvi Pokela, who had only limited experience in teaching his style of playing to others, found it very difficult even to describe how he was playing. He had learned to play at a very high technical level mostly through self-teaching and he had never found it necessary to describe his playing in concrete terms. The same held true for other players with limited teaching experience. Viljo Karvonen, on the other hand, had been "studied" extensively by scholars and had taught his style. He described his playing to me initially by comparing it to the art style of playing, showing the influence which can come from teaching others.
When Lyydia Jakonen from Seinäjoki was asked to teach kantele at a local adult education center, she had to find a way of communicating her idiosyncratic playing style to others. She used a paper chart under the strings, with number notation, to convey her technique and repertoire to her students and remarked "You can't teach others if you don't have a system" (Jakonen 1983). Ilona Porma of Haapavesi likewise has developed her own system of kantele teaching based on solfege syllables. Even Martti Pokela described how his perception and understanding of the Haapavesi large kantele tradition changed when he began to teach it. Many aspects of his playing had been instinctive, but he had to codify, study and describe these elements of style when he began teaching others.
In a formal teaching context, the student's playing is measured against a concept which the teacher holds, rather than a concept which is self-developed. During lessons, the student gets constant feedback about what is right and wrong. The playing style itself becomes more rigid and more clearly defined. Differences among the playing styles of individuals do not come to light to the same degree. Teaching brings a far greater stability to a tradition.
A central trait of tradition is that
it contains both elements of stability and innovation. A tradition must have stability and unity to
a critical point in order to be seen as a tradition. A tradition must have stability in order to
become established and survive. This stability
may be brought about by a change in the way a tradition is learned. R. Anderson Sutton (1986) has described how
certain "marginal traditions"
of gamalan playing in Java have become established as the standard, because
they are now being distributed on cassette tape recordings and are being taught
by masters in music conservatories. He
feels that this is a necessary part in the survival of a tradition. The Swedish ethnomusicologist Jan Ling has
mentioned a similar occurrence in the folk music revivals of
Even though a tradition may have stability, it never stops changing or evolving. Some innovation must be a part of tradition in order "to keep it alive" as Martti Pokela has said. Innovation is just as essential as stability to the survival of a tradition because it gives new life, interest and variety to the tradition. Through innovation a tradition is made to adjust to a changing environment, where survival is dependent on change and adaptation, just as the structure of the kantele was changed in order to adapt it to a changing music culture (see Rahkonen 1983b). Tradition may be defined as the dynamic balance of stability and innovation.
The learning process has within it the seeds of both stability and innovation. When a tradition is self-taught it contains innovation, because a style is created by the individual according to his memory, skills and talents. But if the context changes where a tradition is taught by someone else to the individual, the tendency will be towards stability, since the teacher will be forced to verbalize and define the boundaries and rules of the style. Both self-teaching and teaching from others play a role in the survival of a tradition.
Even in formal instruction there are some elements of self-teaching. Another element common among all the kantele players I interviewed was that it took a great deal of individual practice to become a good player, regardless of the style. During practice, students have to work out individual problems according to methods which work for them. What is practice except self-teaching?
Beyond the universal aspect of
practice, in some kantele instruction there has been a concerted effort to
include elements of self-teaching. This
is an essential part of the carved kantele playing methods which have been
developed by the scholars at the Folk Music Institute and may also be observed
in the Folk Music Program at the
In the past, the concept of
tradition has been used as a tool in limited contexts and in a wide variety of
ways to explain and interpret human behavior.
It should be used to broaden the area of valid inquiry in folkloristics
and ethnomusicology, because elements of tradition may be found in virtually
all humanly produced phenomenon. I have
tried to show how materials, symbolisms, and learning processes each played a
role in the development of the kantele traditions of
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