Finnish kantele

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What is a kantele?







A kantele or kannel is a traditional plucked string instrument of the zither family native to Finland, Estonia, and Karelia. It is related to the Russian gusli the Latvian kokle and the Lithuanian kankles. Together these instruments make up the family known as Baltic psalteries.


The oldest forms of kantele have 5 or 6 horsehair strings and a wooden body carved from one piece. Modern kanteles have metal strings and a body made from several pieces. Concert kanteles can have up to 40 strings however at Melodia soitin, we specialise in smaller folk kanteles, normally played with the shortest side of the instrument nearest the player.


The Finnish kantele generally has a diatonic tuning though some small kanteles with between 5 and 15 strings (as with our own 10 string model) are often tuned to a gapped mode missing a seventh. Players hold the kantele in their laps, on a small table or with a strap with the shortest strings nearest to the body. There are two main techniques to play, either plucking the strings with their fingers or strumming unstopped strings (sometimes with a matchstick).


These folk kanteles are part of the ancient Finnish folk culture, strongly linked with rune singing and storytelling where the music was a part of everyday life and it is said that every home would have a kantele – usually made by the player from a single piece of wood – hanging from the wall. Players in these old times were said to of played their "own power" slipping in to a medatative state where the music comes from within.


"...Sometimes you meet such kantele players, who play their 'own power', that is whatever comes to their mind. Such a player plays for all kinds of situations in life, he plays farewell tunes differently for different people, he describes how the ship is going at sea, he accompanies the stories he is telling, he describes his moods…" (Raja-Karjala 15.7.1911)


For an indepth history of the kantele, read Carl Rahkonens detailed sudy, produced in 1989, which he has kindly made available to all here:

Kantele traditions of Finland