The magical sounds of kantele

Last Updated 19 January 2013, 13:39 IST

While on a business trip to Finland, I happened to visit my Finnish friend’s home and was fascinated by a musical instrument that occupied the pride of place in his living room.

On enquiry, I learnt that it was kantele, a stringed instrument that was almost like the symbol of Finnish identity. My curiosity aroused, I asked him to play it and found the bell-like sound the instrument produced very pleasing on the ears, almost like the sound of harp.

Kantele is nothing but the Finnish version of a zither or harp, I’m told.

The traditional folk music instrument of kantele has a history that’s as interesting as the sounds it generates. Dating back to ancient times, kantele finds mention in ancient Finnish poems and legends. In Finland’s national epic, Kalevala, mythical Finnish sage and shaman Väinämöinen first built a kantele with the jawbone of a giant fish while the strings were made from the hair young Finnish women willingly gave him!

The oldest forms of kantele, I was told, had 5-6 horsehair strings, and was carved out of a single block of hard wood. However, present day kanteles are made out of several pieces of wood, while the strings are of metal.

Modern kanteles are of two varieties — small and concert. While small kanteles have 15 or fewer strings, and are modelled on traditional kanteles in shape, concert kanteles have up to 40 strings. The playing position of the two kanteles is also quite different, I learnt. While the small kantele is easy to learn, playing a concert kantele takes a lot of practice. Players either hold the kantele in their laps or on a small table in front of them.

The playing of kantele, which originally accompanied the singing of Finnish folk songs, has definitely come a long way. This is how — as the popularity of European music spread to Finland, kantele players started modifying the kantele by adding more strings to it to be able to play a wide variety of musical notes with it.

That’s how the number of strings went up to 40 from five. Now, there’s even an electric kantele, almost on the lines of an electric guitar, lending itself conveniently to heavy metal genre of music too.

Kantele is definitely a musical instrument worth playing.

(Published 19 January 2013, 13:39 IST)

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