Carl Rahkonen interviewed by Lani K. Thompson:                    October 31, 2004

Published in the New World Finn (Spring 2005)

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.   


Perhaps the 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 Toronto.  Temkin is an evolutionary biologist, and he ran the structures of the various Baltic psalteries through a computer program that looks for similar characteristics.  The Finnish kanteles were at one end of the spectrum, sharing the most characteristics with some Karelian and Estonian models.  They were more distantly related to the Latvian and Lithuanian varieties.

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 Estonia, such a structure was accepted as a kannel.


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 Finland to do fieldwork.  The kantele is so rare an instrument in museums in the U.S., that I never saw one, except in pictures, before I arrived in Finland in December 1982.   It was the greatest thrill of my life to study and write about the kantele for my dissertation.



4. What kind of kanteles do you like to play? Why?

I really don’t consider myself a kantele player.  I am a musician, playing viola for 40 years, bass for 35, fiddle and mandolin for 10, and many other instruments.  In the second year I spent in Finland (1985-86), when I was teaching English and my wife was studying for her dissertation, I taught myself to play kantele to some degree in my living room in Helsinki.  All the players I interviewed for my dissertation told me the same story – they had taught themselves to play!   So I thought maybe I could also teach myself.  It was very significant since I was writing my dissertation at the time, and teaching one’s self in folk tradition became one of my most important points.


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.”


That 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 Nieminen.  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 Perho River Valley style.  When I made a recording of my Grandpa’s fiddle tunes from Finland, I accompanied one tune with that kantele.  The recording engineer said that it was one of the best sounding instruments that he had ever heard.  I agree!   In addition, I have several other kanteles, both large and small, that I use only for study and display when I lecture about the kantele to Finnish American groups, which I’ve done on numerous occasions.



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 Finland?

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 about?

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 interview...

You state that Martti Pokela developed the use of you mean he "invented" the technique or do you mean he developed an existing technique further? Thanks! Lani


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 Finland (Haapavesi), as a model for his own playing.  Did Rantonen play harmonics?  He might have, and in that sense then Pokela was the one to really develop the technique. 

Back to Carl Rahkonen's kantele site

Please read the official disclaimer.
Page created and maintained by Carl Rahkonen.  © 2005   Last modified 6/21/05
Comments and/or suggestions may be e-mailed to: