Carl Rahkonen interviewed by Lani K. Thompson: October 31, 2004
1. I know there are many different kinds of kanteles. For instance, five string, ten string, fifteen string; round or square ended boxes; open or closed backs, even electric instruments! However, I wonder if the other "Baltic psalteries" (kannel, kokle, kankle, gusli, and kandele) are just names for the same instrument or whether there are real differences between them and the Finnish kantele?
No, the Baltic psalteries are not the “same as” the kantele. They are each their own class of closely related instruments. Think of it this way: In a family, the children are not all the same, but they are closely related. They will have characteristics in common, but they are unique individuals. And cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. are still related, but not as closely related. Same thing with the Baltic psalteries.
best description of this is in an article written by the young Russian
scholar Ilya Temkin, published
in the Galpin Society Journal 53 (May 2004): 219-30. He presented this
research at our 2005 Baltic Psaltery Symposium in
2a. You write: "The kantele is a product which results from a dynamic process of tradition." If the kantele builder's concepts of the kantele (how it should look, sound, and what kind of symbolic/social significance it should have) are shaped by the norms and values of the culture - can someone who isn't Finnish make a "true" kantele?
Someone who is not Finnish can certainly make a kantele! I play fiddle in two Irish bands, which have no Irish-American members. Does that mean our music is not Irish? Certainly not! They love our playing on St. Patrick’s Day and at Hibernian parties! If you can do it, it is real.
2b. What makes a kantele
Finnish (and not Russian, Estonian, or Latvian, for instance)?
There are structural differences amongst the various Baltic psalteries. At the time of my dissertation, every kantele (except round-ended ones) had a ponsi (that curved extension at the head of the instrument), and no Finnish kanteles had a lapa, the bladed extension on the tuning-pin side. That is what I basically wrote in the Kantele article for the New Grove Dictionary of Music 2nd ed. (go take a look!) But now Finnish kantele builders are making bladed kanteles! It proves that the structure and concept of the instrument continues to evolve.
2c… or, perhaps, how is a kantele made by a non-Finn different from a Finnish kantele?
It has less
to do with where a builder is from, or what his/her ethnic background may
be. It is more important what the
builder’s intention is. If he or she intends to build a Finnish kantele,
and uses a Finnish model as the basis for it, then it will be Finnish. If he or she changes the pattern or design, and still calls it a kantele, it may or may not
be accepted as a kantele. The builders I interviewed had clear cut
boundaries as to the style. For
example, a central European zither structure was not considered a kantele, but in
2. Do Finnish kantele
players have any unique traditions of their own?
Absolutely! I would say every tradition is unique. Or even more precisely, in a traditional environment, every person’s playing, or how they build an instrument, is unique.
3. How did you develop your interest in kanteles?
I heard the
sound of the kantele on a record that my mother
had. I loved that sound! It was a truly Finnish sound. So I wanted
to find out more. I have worked in
libraries for 30 years, and when I went to the library to find out more, I
found absolutely nothing! So I planned
to write a dissertation about the kantele for
perhaps 10 years before I actually went to
4. What kind of kanteles
do you like to play? Why?
I used the playing of Viljo Karvonen from Halsua as a model. I learned to play some of the tunes he had played on my field tapes. When I got together again with Viljo, and played for him, he said (in Finnish), “I’m so delighted. You’ve learned to play! And you play so differently than I do!” It taught me an important lesson about tradition.
The kantele is a “personal” instrument, meaning that I believe it was never intended for public performance, but for your own personal enjoyment! As the performers in the great folk ensemble PRIMO (Primitive Music Orchestra) said, “Plimpotusta omasta päästä!” [Plucking sounds from your own head]. So I only play for my own enjoyment, not public “performance.”
said, I do enjoy playing for myself and my family. I have a great 5-string, and a 9-string kantele made by the master Rauno
They have a wonderful sound! I also have a fantastic larger kantele built by Finnish master Keijo
Säteri in Lapua in the mid-1980's. I
bought that kantele from my dear friend Kari Dahlblom in Jyväskylä. It is a 26-string round-ended Saarijärvi-style kantele,
though I tune and play it in
5. What's the most important thing you've learned from your kanteles?
The tradition is never static – it always moves forward and changes.
6. What inspired you to write your book,
The Kantele Traditions of
Curiosity – and a love of kantele music and Finnish traditional music in general.
7. The title seems to "say it
all" -- but can you elaborate a bit on what your book's
I say in the introduction that my dissertation considers three questions: What is the kantele? How is it played? and What does tradition mean in the modern world? I wrote it in such a way that anyone can read it and understand; not like a typical dissertation. One of my proofreaders said that it really “told the story” of that instrument. It does “tell the story” of the kantele, but only up to about 1985.
8. Have you considered writing a
"sequel" to your book - to update it or cover new information that
may have come out since it was written?
No, I probably will never write a “sequel.” I also said in the introduction that ten more dissertations could be written about the kantele! So far only about four have appeared. I’ll leave it to younger scholars to write the continuing story. My own interests have moved on, and I hope to be able to write something worthwhile on Finnish and Scandinavian fiddling.
9. How can someone order a copy?
You can’t. It’s out of print. I personally photocopied about 200 copies, giving away around a 100 or so. No-one was ever interested in publishing it. I hope to make the whole thing available on my website. So far, only the “History” chapter is there, because that chapter didn’t have any illustrations. There more than 60 illustrations in it that would have to be scanned, and I haven’t found the time to do that yet. So it remains a “future project.”
10. You're "known" for having
the best collection of viola jokes on the web. Do you know any good kantele jokes?
I’ve never really heard a kantele joke. Have you, or anyone else, heard any? I could make one up, though. Any joke has to fit the foibles and personality of the instrument. So here’s an attempt:
Q. Why are kantele players so old?
A. They spend half of their lives tuning the kantele, and the other half playing out of tune. (also told about the hardanger fiddle and the nyckelharpa).
11. Is there anything else you'd like to
say that I haven't asked?
No, not really.
Carl, I have one other question I'd like
to ask (probably) just for myself as I don't think it will fit into the
As far as I
know, Martti was the first to use that technique
extensively in 5-string kantele playing, and in
that sense he “invented” it. But Martti used the playing of Antti
Rantonen, the last know 5-string player in
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