Simple and Sacred
by Lani K. Thompson
(Note: If you'd like to download mp3 files of the winning songs, just click on the titles below.)
In 2006 I held my second kantele songwriting contest because the contest I'd held the year before was so much fun. This second contest was fun, too. Children's Kantele Music was the theme and there were several sponsors including Gerry Henkel who donated one of his wonderful five string "katele" kanteles as first prize, Koistinen Kantele who donated five string instruction books and copies of Anttu Koistinen's CD Pikkujättiläinen - Little Giant. Clan Thompson, my "parent" company was also a sponsor. Juding was done by Finnish born guitarist, Ari Lahdekorpi; songwriter, singer and kanteleplayer, Diane Jarvi; and concert flutist and performing artist, Ulla Suokko.
The judges selected Dewain Belgard as the winner of the competition. Dewain's song Bird Song narrowly beat the second place winner, Rio Yanase, from Japan, who wrote Adventure. Third place went to John Nurmi for his song, Cardamom Bread - Pulla. After the contest was over, and the results were in, I decided to learn more about the winners so I set about interviewing them.
Dewain Belgard has only been playing kantele for around a year, he said, and eleven year old Rio Yanase has only been playing for about six months! John Nurmi, on the other hand, has played kantele for around 8 years.
I asked Dewain and Rio what they most liked about the kantele. "I like most its simplicity," said Dewain, "but like most simple things, it's actually much more complex than it appears. I heard an ancient Greek lyre once and thought how marvelous that such a haunting and beautiful sound could come from a few strings over a sound board. I have chromatic zithers with 50 or more strings, but none hold my interest like the simple 10 string kantele."
Eleven year old Rio said that she liked the "original healing tone."
I asked the winners why they decided to enter our competition.
"Any time I sit down with any instrument, little themes and melodies seem to come out of it almost on their own," Dewain told me. "Most I simply forget. But a few I write down. The kantele especially lends itself to such spontaneous improvised melodies. So when I saw the contest advertised, I thought, why not? Nothing to lose but a stamp. The tune for this song came before the lyrics, but the lyrics had been cooking a while too -- inspired by a particular mockingbird in my neighborhood who is quite accomplished and by a flock of sparrows who visit my backyard every morning.
Rio said, "My kantele teacher, Hiroko Ara won this past contest (Our Pikebone Songwriting Competition held in 2005)...I'd like to, too."
John Nurmi already answered most of my questions when I interviewed him last year as the second place winner of the Pikebone Competition. This year he decided to share the story behind his winning song, Cardamom Bread (Pulla). "The song actually was inspired by a childhood experience of mine," he told me. "I remember stopping at my Finnish grandmother's house on the way home from school (it was still safe for a kid to walk places alone in rural Upper Michigan in those days), and, even before reaching the front door, getting a hint of the cardamom mixed with cinnamon smell. It arrived, full force, when I opened the door. There the loaves would be, shining, fresh from the oven, still warm, just waiting for the pat of butter and glass of milk accompaniment (I never did get bitten by the coffee bug). To this day, when I smell cardamom, that whole picture enters my consciousness. The smell, the taste, the afternoon light of the sun streaming through the curtains, and especially my grandmother's warmth, love and caring as expressed in those wonderful loaves."
John went on to explain that Cardamom Bread is an 'audience participation' song, "easy for children of any age to participate in. And it 'teaches' the Finnish word for biscuit - pulla - which kids of any nationality seem to have fun saying."
Is there anything special you aim for when you're writing music, I wanted to know.
"I like the way phrases combine to form different themes that are related," said Dewain. "In Bird Song for instance, if we label the first two-measure phrase as Phrase A, and the second two-measure phrase as Phrase B, etc, then the two themes look like this:
Theme 1 AB, AB
The effect of a completely different emotion and color to the first part of each theme while keeping the second part more or less constant produces the effect that interests me so much."
"I image my inner story," said Rio, "and...it fills my heart with new melody."
Do you have any musical dreams, ambitions or goals, I asked?
"I only play for my own enjoyment and peace of mind," said Dewain. "I'm happy if someone else appreciates what I play and try to take care not to irritate someone who doesn't."
"I want to produce a lot of music that amuse not only myself, but also others," Rio said. "I love music...Kantele is still minor instrument in Japan, but I love Kantele every night and morning and also noon. My heart is always satisfied by kantele."
John is working on a CD featuring the small Kantele and Native American Flute. Someday, he'd like to get a concert kantele and take lessons on it.
I asked the three winners if they play any other instruments. "I play Japanese traditional drum, soprano recorder, and piano" said Rio, who also sings.
John plays organ and Native American flute and Dewain said he plays the keyboard, soprano recorder ("when my little dog Ceelie allows it - she howls like a wolf when I play recorder"), chromatic harmonica, and several different kinds of zithers including a kantele-like 12 string instrument he made himself from an Oscar Schmidt Guitaro Autoharp.
"I've found with whatever instrument and whatever kind of music I try to play, that the most important thing is to forget myself -- to lose that oppressive concern about how well I'm doing and whether or not I'm impressing someone -- and just be the music," said Dewain. "I look on the instrument as being a partner in this event. The instrument is very important. It's like an extension of the soul of the person(s) who designed and/or made it. And when the instrument is made out of wood, that makes it especially sacred -- I never forget that this was part of a living being."