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36 String Kantele

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Merja Soria, CWM teaching artist, and player of the kantele.

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.

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland

Larin Paraske, one of the great rune singers of Finland.

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.

Merja with her daughter and two other children

Merja, with her daughter, and two children.

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.

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

2016 Christmas Revels – Northlands

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.

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article about the tin whistle by Jonathan Parker, program director for the World Music in the Schools program.

An instrument with an ancient and enduring history, the tin whistle (or penny whistle) is one of the most misunderstood and maligned of wind instruments. Often mistaken for a toy, this flute is, in capable hands, one of the most expressive and delightful of traditional musical instruments.

Originally made from a hollow bone, such as that of a bird’s wing, the tin whistle is a type of instrument known as a fipple flute, and is identical to the flageolet in its earliest form. As its name implies, it later came to be made of tin, and was first mass-produced in this form by Robert Clarke around 1840. Examples of bone whistles dating from the 12th century have been unearthed in High Street, Dublin, Ireland.

Whistle assortment The tin whistle is, in physical terms, one of the simplest of instruments. The mouthpiece has a narrow windway, an opening or “window” cut in to the side of the instrument, and a sharp edge over which the player’s breath passes. The instrument has six front fingerholes and no thumbhole, distinguishing it from the recorder. The bore was often conical in older instruments (typified by the English-made Clarke tin whistle), while many modern whistles have a cylindrical tube and a plastic mouthpiece replacing the older wooden or lead plug. In recent decades, this instrument has been made from a wide variety of materials, including exotic woods, PVC plastic, aluminum, brass, composite materials, and even sterling silver.

Whistle mouthpiecesPlayers of the tin whistle range from the 17th Century English diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote of his delight in playing the “flagilette,” to the great modern Irish flautist James Galway. Many Irish flute players and uilleann pipers have played the tin whistle as a secondary instrument, including Willie Clancy, Paddy Moloney, Joanie Madden, Liam O’Flynn, Michael McGoldrick, and Mick O’Brien. Among the best-known contemporary players of the Irish tin whistle are Cathal McConnell, Mary Bergin, and Brid O’Donohue.

Deceptive in its simplicity, the tin whistle is one of the most accessible and portable of instruments, and one of the grandest in character.

Video Links:
Mary Bergin plays two jigs, Tom Billy’s and the Langstern Pony
Liam O’Flynn performs the slow air Sliabh na mBan

Jonathan Parkerthe World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music, has played the tin whistle since 1980.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the July 1990 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Jonathan Parker.

15th century bagpipe painting in Härkeberga Church (photo Olle Gällmo)

15th century bagpipe painting in Härkeberga Church

When we think of bagpipes, most of us envision the Scottish Great Highland warpipes played by brawny, kilted men with red moustaches, marching in echelon. Indeed, the Highland pipes are known the world over, due to the regiments of Scots sent throughout the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What few people recognize is that this instrument is only one of a very large family of musical instruments, played in dozens of countries. There are bagpipes from India, Persia, Bulgaria, North Africa, Russia, Italy, France, England, Ireland, Spain, Estonia, Poland, and Germany, to name a few. Many countries even have several; France has at least ten, and Scotland has no less than three distinctly different types. Altogether more than one hundred kinds of bagpipes exist, each with its own performance tradition and repertoire.

Today we’ll take a look at one of the farthest-flung of these, the Swedish säckpipa. As with many varieties of bagpipe, this humble instrument was played largely in the rural parts of the country. One early depiction of a bagpipe in Sweden is from around 1480, in a painting by Albertus Pictor in Härkeberga church in Uppland, although the form of the instrument he depicted suggests that its origin may be different from the surviving historical examples of the säckpipa. Also played for dancing, the säckpipa harmonizes well with the fiddle, but it was usually played as a solo instrument. It is mouth blown, having but one drone and a chanter with a compass of eight notes. Known in different parts of Sweden as dråmba, koppe, posu, or bälgpipa, its sound is quite sweet and about the same volume as a fiddle, making it an agreeable indoor instrument.

Säckpipa made by Leif Eriksson (drawing Paul Johnson)

Säckpipa made by Leif Eriksson

Instrument makers constructed the pipes from birch wood, with a calfskin bag, and sparingly decorated it with hand-carved ornaments. The reeds were made from Phragmites australis, the common pond reed, harvested in the winter and chopped out of the ice. Some early examples also have a second “dummy” drone, which is not drilled and has no reed. The säckpipa seems to be most closely related to the Eastern European bagpipes of Bulgaria and Macedonia, with a cylindrical chanter bore and reeds of the single blade type. This should not be too surprising, considering that Scandinavians traded, battled, and marauded all the way down to Constantinople, in what is now Turkey.

The säckpipa has recently undergone a rebirth, having been taken up by many young musicians over the last few decades. The last piper, or pösuspelman, in an unbroken tradition was Gudmunds Nils Larsson of llbäcken in Dala-Järna, who died in 1949. Fiddler Per Gudmundson, at the urging of Gunnar Ternhag of the Dalarnas Museum in Falun, decided in 1981 to reconstruct the instrument and its musical repertoire. Woodworker Leif Eriksson was asked to help, and he and Gudmundson replicated the instrument based on examples found in museum collections. Together they worked out the details, and built a working set of pipes. Per went on to research the available written and recorded music, taught himself to play the instrument, and recorded an album in 1983 which has become a classic volume, Per Gudmundson: Säckpipa. This LP was rereleased in CD format in August 2015 on Caprice Records.

The author and his pipes (drawing Paul Johnson)

The author and his pipes

Since its revival in 1981, a number of other makers have begun building this instrument, and there are now hundreds of active players in many countries. For more information about this instrument and how it has developed since this revival, visit Olle Gällmo’s säckpipa website.

Video links: Polska Efter Nedergårds Lars, solo säckpipa | Polska Från Säfsnäs, fiddle and säckpipa

— Jonathan Parker is the World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music, and has played the säckpipa since 1986. Illustrations are by Paul Johnson; Olle Gällmo provided the photo from Härkeberga church and other valuable support.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the September 1990 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.

Happy Traum

A Presentation of San Diego Folk Heritage

Happy Traum, with Chris Clarke

Friday, January 30, 2015  • 7:30 pm
Templar’s Hall
14134 Midland Road
Poway, CA 92064

Admission: $18 (SDFH members $15)

For details, including Guitar Workshop with Happy Traum on Sunday, February 1, see the San Diego Folk Heritage website.

HappyTraum.com

Galloway Folk Music

Some 80 traditional musical arrangements sourced from across Scotland in the early 20th century have been discovered, and contemporary musicians are breathing new life into them . . .

 “It’s something that’s really important to me, to encourage people to sing and to bring these local songs to life so they’re not lost,” said [musician Robyn] Stapleton.

“We have got some fantastic songs that I have been working on personally and I am looking forward to be able to perform songs that people haven’t heard before.

BBC South Scotland

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