From Birth to Rebirth
by Lani K. Thompson
The Kalevala tells about the birth of the kantele, which was made by Väinämöinen, the wizard- minstrel who fashioned the first kantele out of a giant pikebone. After it was lost at the bottom of the sea, Väinämöinen created another kantele out of birch wood. Today, scholars can’t agree about the origins of the kantele or its age. Estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 years old. We know that 11 kanteles, dating to somewhere between the 12th and the 14th centuries were found when the ancient city of Novgorod was excavated. According to Hannu Saha, kantele player and researcher of Finnish folk music, the earliest mention of the kantele in literary documents dates back to the 1500’s. For centuries the kantele has been an important instrument for the Finnish people.
Kanteles are played by people in Estonia, where it’s known as the kannel, in Latvia, where it’s called a kokle or kuokle, in Lithuania, where it’s known as a kankle and in Karelia, where it’s called a kandele or kantele. Some scholars believe it may be related to the Russian gusli, or the Arabic ganun, though others disagree. Numerous scholars have published papers arguing that the kantele originally came from Asia, from the Slavs or from the Balto-Finns. Carl Rahkonen’s book, The Kantele Traditions of Finland, which is available online, gives a fascinating and detailed account of the various theories.
The oldest kanteles were made out a single piece of wood that was hollowed out, and they had five strings made from horsehair. The horsehair strings were eventually replaced with metal wire. About 200 years ago, kantele makers started adding more strings, making it possible to play polskas, waltzes and mazurkas. The first concert kantele, or machine kantele, was invented in the 1920’s by Paul Salminen. Concert kanteles are equipped with a tuning machine that makes it easy to quickly change keys. Kanteles don't have a bridge. Instead, the strings are attached to a metal rod at one end and pegs at the other. Kantele shapes can vary depending on the builder, but they’re usually vaguely triangular with one long side and one short.
Although the kantele became a symbol of Finnish culture in the 19th century, by the mid 20th century, there were very few people alive who still knew how to play a 5 string kantele. Then Finnish folk musician and composer, Martti Pokela started giving public kantele performances. By playing traditional folk tunes, popular music, serious music and experimental songs, he showed people that the kantele didn’t have to be used only for rune singing. Martti Pokela and his wife, Marjatta, were thus responsible for reviving interest in the kantele, first in Finland and then in other countries where it’s played. Today the kantele has become a crossover instrument played by folk musicians, art musicians, heavy metal bands and even by one thrash punk band!