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The Kantele Day – Dynamic, modern, and persistently national

by Heidi Henriikka Mäkelä

The first ever Kantele Day was celebrated in Finland on Saturday 16 September 2023. The celebrations – including a flash mob, concerts and gala – were organised by the Kantele Association, a community for amateur and professional kantele players and anyone else interested in the instrument. What is the status of the kantele in today’s Finland?

The kantele enjoys a venerable and powerfully symbolic presence in Finnish music, having been elevated to the status of our national instrument in the 19th century. In National Romantic art, the kantele was seen as the visual symbol of a bygone mythical age. In Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, the old wizard Väinämöinen builds a kantele and plays it so beautifully that it makes people laugh and cry, trees bend down and the very rocks tremble. The kantele has also been adopted as an important instrument in Finnish music pedagogy, from music playschool to comprehensive school. 

Because it is such a hugely significant national symbol, the kantele is often thought to be a uniquely Finnish instrument. However, similar instruments in the zither family have been prominent all around the Baltic Sea and further in eastern Europe – in Karelia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Relatives of the kantele remain popular in many of these regions. Moreover, Finland is not alone in investing the kantele with symbolic value: folklorist Joonas Ahola has noted in a scholarly article from 2020 that in Soviet Karelia the kantele was regarded as a symbol for the Karelian ethnic identity and thus the emblem of the Karelians among the multitude of nationalities in the Soviet Union.  

Multiculturalism with a national twist  

The events of the Kantele Day, held at the Oodi Central Library in Helsinki and also accessible via remote connection, focused, however, on the Finnish-ness of the kantele in particular. Yet here this was not seen as a narrow and exclusive conception of national identity but rather as an aspect of cultural sharing and openness. This is an approach typical particularly among Finnish contemporary folk music professionals, who view multiculturalism and cultural openness as important values. The Kantele Day was thus not about polarisation in society at large or the conflicts inherent in nationalist meanings.

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The Kantele Day was about cultural sharing and openness. Photo: Anne Saario

A good example of the multiculturalism of the kantele is the fact that, as a result of an extensive history of cultural exchange, the kantele is quite a popular instrument among amateur musicians in Japan, and many Finnish musicians visit Japan each year to teach the kantele. Taiwanese scholar Ying-Hsien Chen argues in her dissertation Plucking the Forest Sound (2023) that Japanese musicians associate the sound of the kantele with the healing power of nature and with Finnish forests. Japanese musicians thus seek the exotic North in the kantele, but they have also adopted the instrument as part of their own identity and use it for performing music from the Japanese cultural sphere as well. 

Having said that, it must be noted that despite all the cultural openness among kantele aficionados in Finland, discourse on the kantele still echoes the nationalist thinking of the 19th century. A message from the Patron of the Festival, Dr Jenni Haukio – spouse of the President of the Republic – was read out at the gala at Oodi; in this, she noted that the sound of the kantele “penetrates the Finnish soul”. She also expressed her desire for an official flag day to be declared for the instrument – that one day “we will see the Finnish flag flying in celebration of our beloved kantele”. Both these statements could well have come from gala speeches made in the 1950s or even in the 1890s, and it would be interesting to ponder why this phraseology still recurs in the 2020s. To be sure, the President’s wife is obliged by virtue of her position to fly the flag, so to speak, but beyond that the kantele does seem to embody a profound emotional appeal that fuels the persistence of this elevated national rhetoric. 

One reason why the kantele and the Finnish identity are so firmly intertwined is that talking about the kantele is patriotic in a solemn but mundane way – not ardently ultra-nationalist or politically inflammatory. The expressions used in connection with the kantele are generally accepted; we learn them in childhood at school and in music education, and they associate in our minds with an attractive, pure and innocent national community. As such, the feelings stimulated are positive and conducive to experiences of something solemn, noble and sacred. Haukio’s reference to the “Finnish soul” must strike a chord with many kantele players and listeners, not dissimilarly with the way in which the Japanese perceive the sound of the instrument: soulful, “natural” and elevated. The Kantele Day is rooted in such a context, mild and mundane on the one hand but noble and solemn on the other. In an era of volatile discourse and violently polarised public debate, the kantele envelops the listener in a benign sort of Finnish-ness, a fabric woven of cultural encounters, sounds of the “Finnish soul” and the innumerable shades of green of the forest.  

This is not to say that this image has remained entirely undented in the era of social media. Karelian-language activists and scholars, for instance, have pointed out that the Kalevala and the kantele were used to shape Finnish culture with no reference to Karelian culture which straddles the border between Finland and Russia, or indeed of the Karelian language. Although the kantele was not unknown in the past in western Finland, the adoption of the five-string “kantele of Väinämöinen” and the poetry in Kalevala metre in particular as the emblems of Finnish identity glossed over the Karelian culture to the east in the interests of promulgating the unified hegemony of Finnish culture. Many Finnish listeners will also have been unaware of how important a symbol the kantele was in Soviet Karelia.  

It remains to be seen how these discussions will affect the celebrating of the Kantele Day; this year, they were not prominently featured at all.

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Timo Väänänen and Hanna Ryynänen performing together. Photo: Pasi Virta

What does the Kantele Day sound like right now?  

To declare a Kantele Day and to talk about the instrument may be an exercise in soft high-sounding platitudes and mundane national feeling, but the field of music in Finland is rich and varied and not only rooted in folk music or nostalgia. The gala concert of the Kantele Day featured such items as the music of Jutta Rahmel, which brings the combination of voice and kantele smoothly into the world of stylish indie pop. Kantele player Eija Kankaanranta and flautist Kaisa Kortelainen on bass flute performed Light still and moving (2016) by Kaija Saariaho, bringing all the colours of the world to the darkened hall at Oodi and sending shivers down listeners’ spines. Kave, with Hanna Ryynänen and Timo Väänänen, brought to the stage a sparse but rich sound with the western Siberian lyre nars-yuh as an integral element. It goes without saying that the field of kantele music is – despite its national status or perhaps because of it – incredibly diverse and certainly not caught up in stereotypical representations of the past. The people involved with the kantele are also savvy about what it takes to shape a media presence and an artist profile these days: the visual appearance of the Kantele Day in general and of the participating kantele players in particular was professionally done and well in tune with the imagery of the 21st century. 

The conclusion of all this is that the Kantele Day is, interestingly, dynamic and modern on the one hand and firmly rooted in centuries of history on the other. Both aspects manifested themselves in the events of the day, and it will be interesting to see how this festival will evolve in the future. If Dr Jenni Haukio has her wish and Finland declares a flag day for the kantele, the dynamic modern aspect of the celebration will acquire a further layer of meaning. Flying the flag may resuscitate National Romantic discussions and images, evoking the ghost of Väinämöinen once again to loom over all the conflicting and complex meanings assigned to the instrument. Giving the kantele a flag day might, at least momentarily, ossify public discourse about the instrument, but would it ossify the instrument itself or the music created on it?  

This seems unlikely, because kantele music today is so fully immersed in the conventions of art music, world music, pop music and all sorts of genre-hopping phenomena that it can no longer be restricted to having a purely national meaning.  

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Featured photo: Anne Saario.