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A chain of generations in Kaustinen

by Amanda Kauranne

In December 2021, Kaustinen fiddle playing was included on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Kaustinen fiddling tradition has remained unbroken ever since the instrument first made its way to Finland some three hundred years ago. How does a living tradition pass from one generation to another, and what does the everyday music scene in Kaustinen look like?

Every summer in July, during Finland’s biggest and oldest folk music festival, music takes over the town of Kaustinen, with playing heard everywhere in performance venues ranging from the official festival arenas to informal bush jams. The festival’s first seed was planted in Kaustinen’s music-minded soil back in 1968, and it remains the annual highlight in the small Central Ostrobothnian municipality.

I like Kaustinen most during winter when the festival buzz has died down and only the shell remains. Perched on top of a hill in the town centre, the red Pelimannitalo – Folk Musicians’ House – looks on as children frolic in the snow in the same place where festival guests congregate in summer. Music is present in winter as well, but in a more subdued way, as part of everyday life.

Each week, the lobby of the Folk Art Centre comes alive with an adult folk music group as well as the children’s group Näppärit. The Youth Association’s folk dance groups rehearse weekly, with dancers ranging from toddlers to young adults, all accompanied by the ensemble Ottoset. In addition to hearty meals, the local Pelimanni restaurant has regular jam sessions on the menu. You may even get exposed to music while shopping for pastries: the Pesola Bakery is a popular hangout for folk players, much in the same vein as how the legendary group Kaustisen Purppuripelimannit used to congregate in the Santeri Café – there is even a tune dedicated to the establishment, composed by Konsta Jylhä, the figurehead of the group. 

Kaustinen Festival Pelimanni Players Photo C Risto Savolainen 2018
Kaustinen festival 2018
Photo: Risto Savolainen

Music playing everywhere

Matti Hakamäki, the Director of the Finnish Folk Music Institute, is hard-pressed to nominate another small geographical area anywhere in the West where playing instruments is as popular as it is in Kaustinen:  

“Here, in our municipality of 4,000 people, we have hundreds of players. And for many who haven’t picked up instruments themselves, playing represents the traditions of the family and the region. It has a certain cross-generational pull, which is tightly woven into this community’s tapestry.”

Hakamäki himself did not grow up in Kaustinen, but he and his family have made their home there. “Our four children play with Näppärit and the younger ones are also folk dancers. My wife and I are both music professionals, and our family ideology is reflected in our choice to replace our living room TV screen with instruments scattered all over the sofa. This makes it easy for everyone just to pick up an instrument and start playing for pleasure. Still, we are not immune to having to keep reminding our kids to practice”, he confesses.

”During the winter months, folk players perform infrequently, laying low in their own cocoons”, says Kreeta-Maria Kentala, a classical violinist specialising in Baroque music and a folk fiddler with strong roots in Kaustinen. “Then there is a mighty crescendo towards summer and the festival, where players are busy for the entire week, performing with their own village ensembles and combining forces with all Kaustinen players in the massed concerts. Although amateurs, they have the skills to be comfortable on the stage and to learn often large chunks of music in just a few rehearsals. Sometimes it can actually be more challenging working with professionals”, she laughs.

”The Kaustinen Festival is the best thing in the whole world”, exclaims Vilja Rautiainen, 11-year-old violinist and keyboard player from Kaustinen. “The atmosphere is fun, with all the playing going on”. Rautiainen dedicates two evenings a week to music: on Wednesdays she plays violin in the Näppärit group, and on Thursdays she has band and piano lessons in Kokkola at the Central Ostrobothnia Conservatory’s pop/jazz stream. 

Vilja Rautiainen C Juha Matti Rautiainen Matti Hakamaki C Lauri Oino
Vilja Rautiainen (left, photo: Juha-Matti Rautiainen)
Matti Hakamäki (right, photo: Lauri Oino)

A long way to get there

In addition to music, the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage listing covers a larger concept titled “Kaustinen fiddle playing and related practices and expressions”.

”The concept of a living tradition is centred around the community. Instead of valuing a tradition based on how old or how beautiful it is, you must consider whether the community feels that their tradition is worth protecting”, Hakamäki illustrates. “During the first stages of the application process, we asked our community what the tradition is, and who are the ones who practice it. As a result of extensive discussions, it was decided that the application title would include our most well-known symbols, in other words Kaustinen and the fiddle, although the tradition itself covers a variety of instruments, folk dancing, singing, traditions around celebrations, as well as all the related handicraft traditions from the wider region. Definitions are allowed to change and will change according to what the practitioners of that tradition think.”

The decision-making UNESCO committee session last December was watched via a livestream at the Folk Musicians’ House. Naturally, the positive result was welcomed with music. Playing continued through two consecutive evening jams, and the local primary school organised a festive procession.

”Around forty players turned up for the second jam session. These were people who do something entirely different for work and play for fun. Although Kaustinen tunes can sometimes be difficult, everyone joined in for every single piece. The overall mood was unreal”, says violinist Esko Järvelä, whose folk music ensembles Frigg, Baltic Crossing and Teho. have enjoyed international success.

A few years ago, he moved back home to Kaustinen with his family. In addition to his bands, he plays in the ensemble Tallari which operates as part of the Finnish Folk Music Institute, as well as teaching at the local adult education college’s folk music stream.  

”I may have not fully realised earlier what this tradition really means, just because I was simply too close to it, and because I have always been hungry for new influences. Yes, some of Frigg’s tunes do feature that rhythmic Kaustinen bowing but it has never been a centrepiece. Now, for the first time, I have written polskas and other dances in the Kaustinen style for the new album from my duo Teho.”

Esko Jarvela C Maurice Guerard
Esko Järvelä
Photo: Maurice Guerard

Järvelä family players

Esko Järvelä comes from a folk music family where all five siblings play the violin. Both their father Mauno Järvelä, known from the ensemble JPP and for his famed Näppäri teaching method, and their grandfather Johannes are recipients of the Master Folk Musician title. While Esko is now known as a violinist, his first instrument was the harmonium.

”In day care, I started improvising on the harmonium and when my father discovered this, he taught me some basic chords. Soon I was accompanying traditional tunes which were already familiar to me, with music being such an organic part of our family life. Some of my favourite tapes as a child were of my grandpa playing the fiddle, with his mate Arvo Myllykangas accompanying him on the harmonium. I could not imagine better music than that.”

The playing tradition continues with the children of Esko and his wife, keyboard player Pilvi Järvelä:

”Sometimes they get excited about something outside the daily grind of their set lesson pieces, and I try to support them as much as I can. Last summer, our oldest got interested in the Kaustinen purppuri dance sequence. The first rehearsal was challenging, but he managed to learn everything in time for the festival. In the end he kept on playing the pieces late at night, long after the performance had finished”, Järvelä smiles. [Read more about one of the Järvelä siblings, Alina, here.]

Flowing with music

”Because I learned the Kaustinen playing style when I was very young, traditional music now stems from somewhere so deep within me that no amount of formal education with its critical approach has managed to touch it. When I play art music, I try to get into a headspace where music flows as freely and independently as when I play folk music”, says violinist Kreeta-Maria Kentala about the effects of tradition.

Music was always present in Kentala’s childhood home. Her mother Anni Kentala was a classically trained singer, while her father Aaro Kentala was a church musician and music teacher who is best known for his long-term work with the Kaustinen Wedding Choir. He was a tutor for the folk music groups at the Perhonjokilaakso Community College and a curator for the local program contributions for the Folk Music Festival.

“My father learned to play the fiddle as an adult, taught by my mother’s father Wiljami Niittykoski, one of Kaustinen’s best known folk music composers. I think my father was hoping for a boy after three girls, but when I was born instead, he decided to teach me to play the violin and took me along to all his folk music activities, all summer and all winter long. When my playing started to improve, we would visit my grandpa Wiljami every second Sunday. The afternoon included a couple of hours of fiddling, accompanied on the harmonium by my mother and my aunt Airi. I gradually learned all my grandfather’s pieces, as well as a range of art and popular music tunes. Family music making at its best!”

At that time, the late 1960s, it was not yet common for girls to play the fiddle. Kantele and harmonium were offered for girls, but the fiddle was considered too boisterous for them.

”It looks like it will take quite some time for this to change, and that is the reason I have made a conscious decision to also be active in the folk music field – there are still not too many female folk players”, Kentala says.

Out of all the many Kaustinen ensembles, my favourite is probably Kentala’s all-female line-up Akkapelimannit who mix larrikin humour with virtuosic and masterful playing. Their interpretations, especially of Niittykoski’s tunes, are unparalleled. 

Kreeta Maria Kentala6 Kuva Ulla Nikula
Kreeta-Maria Kentala
Photo: Ulla Nikula

Genre-free Kaustinen

Kentala’s maternal grandfather Wiljami Niittykoski is also a relation of young Vilja Rautiainen. “I have not played my great-great-grandfather’s compositions yet, but I could start learning them soon”, she muses. “At home, we listen to a lot of music. My mum plays the violin, and my dad makes ambient music. My dream is to start a rock and heavy metal band, where I would sing and play the keyboard. I could even play the violin if needed”, the 11-year-old instrumentalist plans.

The band would no doubt be well received in Kaustinen. “All music is appreciated here, regardless of the genre”, Matti Hakamäki explains. “Perhaps the fact that different musical styles have not had to compete against each other has enabled our tradition to remain alive. For folk musicians, it has always been equally natural to play classical music pieces and traditional wedding tunes. Good playing skills are valued.”

”Kaustinen tunes are structurally quite complex, with finnicky melodies and witty harmonic progressions. Once these tunes have been played and heard since childhood, the step towards classical music is not such a stretch in the end”, Kentala adds.  

What next?

My best Kaustinen memory is from a few years ago, when I got to participate in a guided walk in the nearby nature, as a prelude to the festival. The unique geological formations, the folk myths around the Pööskallio rock and the special Kaustinen way of storytelling made a lasting impression and further deepened my experience of the local traditions. Perhaps this treasure trove can be experienced by more and more festival guests in the future.

“My wish is that the UNESCO endorsement would help create more tourism and work opportunities for the cultural sector. The Folk Musicians’ House could become the centre for the town’s folk music scene and offer an annual season of performances open to the general public. I hope that the endorsement will also lead to increased financial support, because investment is required to keep the tradition going”, Kentala reflects.

”In a way, this is only the beginning of our journey”, Hakamäki says. “We must be able to utilise the endorsement, both locally and nationally, to give a proper boost to folk music, folk dance and education, and to build the public profile of our living tradition. But we must be smart in our efforts so that we preserve our traditions for the next generations in a format that the Kaustinen community can identify with. If the ties with players get broken, our connection to the living tradition will be broken as well.” 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo by Leo Torppa / 
Finnish Folk Music Institute Archive: Konsta Jylhä and Jari Valo.