Finland's national instrument
Although its roots lie far away in Asia, the kantele has been elevated to the status of Finland's national musical instrument. Its early history is associated with the period when a class of stringed instruments called psalteries, which include the zithers, reached the Mediterranean region and the rest of Europe from the East. Experts believe that the kantele was played in Finland centuries before we started numbering our years from AD 1 on. It travelled a long way to get here; the Scythians, a nomadic people from Asia, brought it to the lands on the eastern shore of the Baltic and from there it was passed on to the Finns and their kindred peoples.
Two main types of kanteles evolved in Finland: one carved from a solid block of wood, the other built using separate boards. The carved block zither is unique in the world; there are no others of similar structure anywhere. By contrast, the kantele made of boards has relations all over the world. The traditional Finnish kantele characteristically had five strings, never fewer and rarely more.
The concert kantele used nowadays has many times that number of strings and the tuning mechanism enables the player to change key very quickly. It is largely the creation of one Paul Salminen, who in the 1920s added a mechanism, developed from the one used in a concert harp, to a large box kantele, thereby greatly enhancing the musical potential of the instrument. The kantele's basic tuning is diatonic; in other words, it can only be tuned to notes corresponding to those of a piano's white keys. However, the mechanism allows the note to be raised or lowered, doing much the same thing as the black keys. Today's concert kanteles do not vary very much from the principle of Salminen's design. Box kanteles, which are used to play both folk and concert music, have a maximum of 32, 36 or 38 strings. Finland's only university-level institute of music, the Sibelius Academy, has a separate kantele teaching line.
Weather forecasts with the kantele
The kantele has become a national symbol in Finland and crops up in all kinds of contexts: in coats-of-arms, on gravestones, in the logos of cultural associations and especially in old paintings. The prominence of the instrument in the national epic the Kalevala has added to its mythical status. One of the main heroes Väinämöinen is depicted in many Kalevala-inspired paintings and sculptures singing his own powerful songs and accompanying himself on a kantele. The traditions of rune singing and kantele playing have remained strongest in Karelia, the eastern region where Lönnrot collected the traditional poems that he used to compile the Kalevala.
Kanteles have always been built carefully using high-quality wood: spruce, pine, alder and nowadays increasingly often birch. As is the case with a violin, the quality of the wood used to make the sound box influences the tone, but it can also have a practical purpose: in ancient Karelia, it was believed that the sound of a kantele could be used to predict changes in the weather.
Folk instrument that it is, the kantele can be made and played in many original ways. All over Finland one finds players who fit into no particular category. In all of its thousands of years of history, this instrument has never succumbed to standardisation. Its tradition is alive and still evolving.