Sing the song of Kantele!
The kantele belongs to a large family of string instruments called zithers. Zithers have a resonating body with a variable number of strings, which can be plucked, strummed, struck, or bowed. In the case of the kantele, the strings are plucked or strummed and the smallest kanteles can be held in the player’s lap. The kantele is the national instrument of Finland. Finnish folk poetry recounts that the first kantele was made from the jaw bones of fish and the hair of young maidens. When the first kantele was played, the sound was so beautiful that all living things started to cry. Their tears rolled into the ocean, and when they touched the sea they turned into beautiful blue pearls.
There are kanteles of many sizes: 5-string, 10-string, 11-string, all the way up to the 36-string concert kantele, as seen above.
My favorite instrument is the 5-string kantele. It is a very soulful and humble instrument. It teaches you to quiet your mind and allow the kantele to sing its stories–stories of hard winters and beautiful summer nights, stories of a resilient northern nation who fought hard for its independence.
You play the 5-string kantele by plucking the strings to create melodies. You can also strum chords by muting the strings that don’t belong to the chord. The strings of this small kantele are tuned to the first five pitches of the major or minor scale.
The 5-string kantele is often taught in Finnish schools as the first instrument for young children. It encourages creativity, as it is easy to learn improvisation with this instrument. Children find the kantele fun because they experience the joy of playing together as a group. You do not have to be a Finn to appreciate and learn kantele.
I am a first-generation Finnish immigrant now living in the US, and for me, the kantele and Finnish music are the bridge that connects the two distant worlds.
When I close my eyes and let my fingers move across the strings of the kantele, I remember—I remember the Finnish spirit that is in me. The spirit that says keep going and never give up. All the while, singing the song of life through all the difficulties. Sing the song of the kantele!
Learn more about Merja at merjasoria.com. View a “vintage video” of Merja performing on a 10-string kantele soon after her arrival in the United States.
– Merja Soria is a performer and teacher of Finnish folk music and a Center for World Music teaching artist.