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Rauno Nieminen: Back to the Future

by Simon Broughton

Rauno Nieminen turned the jouhikko and kantele into contemporary marvels. Recently awarded a lifetime achievement for his work, Nieminen’s work isn’t just about instruments – it’s a bridge between eras. In this article, Nieminen unveils the unexpected convergence of the old and new in the world of folk music.

On this year’s Folklandia cruise in January, instrument maker and musician Rauno Nieminen was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Promotion Centre for Finnish Folk Music and Folk Dance (KEK). “It was very nice to get it while I am still alive,” he chuckles from his instrument-filled home in Ikaalinen, near Tampere. The commendation was for making folk instruments – primarily kantele and jouhikko – but also giving new life to instruments that had largely disappeared.  

The jouhikko, on which Neminen has written a substantial book in Finnish and English, is a bowed lyre with two, three or four strings. The jouhikko is hardly a virtuoso instrument, is awkward to play and had largely died out by the 1920s. Yet, it’s now enjoying a remarkable revival – largely thanks to Nieminen, who has played the instrument in 700 concerts in 28 countries.  

“The horsehair string gives a unique sound,” Nieminen says. “It’s a message from somewhere far in the Finno-Ugric past. But as hundreds of musicians have shown, it can work in current music genres as well as the traditional music preserved by a few players in modern times.”  

KEK’s press release says “Rauno Nieminen's decades-long revitalisation work with folk instruments is unique in the field of folk music.” He reckons he has made 300 jouhikko and over 30 different models of kantele since he began in the late 1970s. There was clearly something in the air in Finland as a new interest in folk music led to the founding of the Folk Music Department of the Sibelius Academy in 1983 and the instrument making school in Ikaalinen in 1984. Both are now celebrating their 40th anniversaries.  


Nieminen, 68, is a third generation kantele player, although none of his predecessors on his father’s and mother’s side were professionals. And his first interest in the late 1960s was the electric guitar.  

“My family were very poor and didn’t have money to buy an electric guitar, but my elder brother had one and left to study and I learned to play myself. But then he came back and took it away,” Nieminen remembers. Luckily he found an article in a Finnish magazine called ‘How to make an electric guitar for 150 Finnish marks’. And that’s what the 14-year-old did. 

Nieminen has always had a left-field approach. With electronic and ambient music artist Heikki Lindgren, he’s recently released Kantele Voices featuring instruments from Saarijärvi in central Finland – from 1890–1910 the most productive kantele area with 100 makers and eight people transporting them by train across the country – Novgorod in Russia, and Namibia. But although the instruments are played acoustically there are no melodies – “because we have no idea what they played in Novgorord in 1200” – and it sounds more like an electronic album. 


Namibian otsihumba. Photo by Rauno Nieminen.

The Namibian instrument is called an otsihumba and doesn’t look like a kantele. It’s not flat but a boat-shaped harp with five strings (like the simplest form of kantele). Nieminen went to Namibia with Hannu Saha from the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department to help the university digitise their traditional instrument recordings. “I went because of the folk instruments,” explains Nieminen. “It was just like in Finnish Karelia, there were almost no instruments left. The scientists had gone there and bought all the instruments so they couldn’t play anymore. Most of the Namibian instruments are in Western museums!” 

Nieminen recalls that they eventually found one otsihumba player. 

“And after two years we learned how to make the instrument and we went back to teach the local people how to make it. The strings are made of cotton, not metal, with a very percussive sound. They don’t tune the notes which are not resonant so don’t sound long.” 


When I ask what inspired him to start making instruments and particularly jouhikkos, he picks up a record released in 1971 called Suomi Pop (Finnish Pop). It was a folk-rock album made by Paroni Paakkunainen and Edward Vesalapossibly inspired by Fairport Convention and the folk-rock movement in Britain.  

“It was a very important recording because at that time only old people in the countryside played folk music. And they were amongst the first jazz musicians to start to play folk music, so it was very influential.” There were a couple of jouhikko tunes on the album, but played on the violin while on the cover Paakkunainen is shown playing a birch bark flute, but actually played a normal recorder. 

Nieminen based his first jouhikkos on instruments in the Tampere museum collected from Karelia by Finnish ethnomusicologist Armas Otto Väisänen. The first Nieminen made from just a photograph and the second from a physical copy. There was also an important book by Otto AnderssonThe Bowed Harp, published in Swedish (1923) and English (1930). Nieminen found it in an antiquarian bookshop in Helsinki and he also heard recordings by Swedish musician Styrbjörn Bergelt, whose father was a friend of Otto Andersson and gave him both the book and a jouhikko. Bergelt had learned to play from musicians who came from Vormsi island in Estonia during WWII (more on Vormsi later).


Rauno Nieminen. Photo by Pauli Nieminen

In 1978 Nieminen quit his job as an electrician in a paper factory – “if the machines were working you’d have nothing to do for eight hours” – and began to make instruments.  

“I started making folk instruments inspired by the Chilean musicians giving concerts in Finland” [after the Pinochet coup in 1973], says Nieminen. “I got to know Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun, and I made quena flutes, charangos and acoustic guitars. The problem with Finnish instruments was very few customers, because nobody knew how to play them. So I started to teach people to play kantele, jouhikko and wind instruments. I taught in a kantele camp in 1979 and 10 people came to order instruments from me.” 

Perhaps the most important energy of the revival came from Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, which had started in 1968. Rauno Nieminen first went in 1979. “They asked me to have a workshop where I made instruments and played. At this festival I met [kantele player] Hannu Saha and [kantele player and singer] Heikki Laitinen and we made this Primitiivisen Musiikin Orkesteri (Primitive Music Orchestra) with kantele, jouhikko and singing.”  

Nieminen also got to meet and play with Martti Pokela (1924–2007) one of the players that kept the kantele alive through its declining years. He and Heikki Laitinen were key in setting up the folk music department of the Sibelius Academy in 1983. Nieminen taught there and did a doctorate, despite only having qualified as an electrician! 

One of the most significant things Nieminen has learned is about thermally aging the wood for making instruments. Natural seasoning takes 10–50 years and a speedy aging process was devised by heating it to 180–230 degrees. But Rauno and Pertti Nieminen have shown that lower temperatures are better for making musical instruments from woods like spruce, elder and birch – or ‘tonewood’ as it’s called. “This process was devised for timber to make houses and it spoils many properties of the wood. We heat the wood to 160–180 degrees for two hours and the same things happen as drying the wood for 40 years.” 

Typically Finnish, I joke. You give the wood a sauna? And Nieminen confirms it’s a sauna heating element they use in their device, although I don’t think taking a sauna ages you by 40 years. And this wood treating process has been adopted by guitar manufactures around the world including Martin, Taylor, Ibanez and Yamaha. 


A major event in the jouhikko revival was the Jouhiorkesteri (Horse Hair Orchestra; a pun on “jousiorkesteri” or string orchestra) who I first saw at the Sommelo Festival in 2008 when they released their only album Nikodemus. Rauno Nieminen, Marianne MaansPekko Käppi and Ilkka Heinonen play various formations of jouhikko from low to high – in effect forming a jouhikko string quartet. Hearing them in a cosy wooden hut in Haikola in Russian Karelia as rain was drizzling outside underlined the way these ancient scratchy instruments could be absolutely contemporary.  

Pekko Käppi and Ilkka Heinonen have become the leading jouhikko players of today with instruments made by Nieminen. On last year’s Käki album, Heinonen plays five different instruments built by Nieminen. As instrument-maker to the stars, he’s also made jouhikkos (or talharpa) for the Estonian duo Puuluup who have surprisingly taken these instruments to the mainstream playing at festivals all over the world. Not only have they taken jouhikkos and their loop station to international audiences, but with Estonian rap group 5Miinust they will represent Estonia at Eurovision this year.  

The Jouhiorkesteri with the musical saw player Alexander Leonov in Haikola in 2008 (Rauno Nieminen third from the right). Photo by Simon Broughton

“I was teaching a jouhikko masterclass at Viljandi Folk Academy in 2008,” Nieminen remembers. Ramo Teder and Marko Veisson – the Puuluup musicians – were amongst his students and commissioned their jouhikkos from him. “We have met each other in the Vormsi jouhikko camp almost every year. But I have to repair their instruments a lot because they play them very strong.” 

Vormsi, an island inhabited by Swedes off northwest Estonia, was the centre of talharpa (as the Swedes call them) playing until the 1870s when a Swedish missionary, Lars Johan Österblom arrived. He said playing talharpa was sinful because it was used for dancing and was the devil's instrument. If you played it your hands would start moving in your grave. Österblom ordered a bonfire of talharpa and jouhikko in 1875. At the Vormsi jouhikko camp each year participants regularly piss on a memorial to the missionary.

Puuluup are jouhikko rock’n’roll. But so far Nieminen’s biggest international success is making a jouhikko for Einar Selvik of Norwegian ‘Viking’ band Wardruna who have a worldwide following. The Wardruna video for ‘Kvitravn’ (White Raven) has been viewed over 23 million times. But do we know if the Vikings played jouhikko? “Maybe they didn’t play it,” admits Nieminen, “but now most people know it as a Viking instrument. I have opened Pandora’s box and the jouhikko is now living its own life.” 

Featured photo: Rauno Nieminen in his workshop. Photo: Pauli Nieminen