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Spells, blood and bliss

by Riikka Hiltunen

Singing with the voice of old men and playing the jouhikko, an ancient bowed lyre, Pekko Käppi is hot stuff in Finland and abroad with his band. The archaic boogie performed by K:H:H:L seems to resonate with an incredible variety of audiences. Käppi is on the front line in the resurrection of one of Finland’s oldest instruments.

“If there were any sense in the world at all, this extremely catchy and compelling music would top the charts, all charts,” wrote Ville Pirinen in his review of Pekko Käppi’s album Rammat jumalat (Lame gods, 2013) in Soundi, a Finnish rock magazine.

Topping all the charts seems like an insane challenge for a musician who plays an ancient stringed instrument and finds inspiration in folklore archives, but developments in spring and summer 2015 have proved that there is actually some sense in the world.

Käppi’s most recent album, recorded with his group K:H:H:L, is Sanguis meus, mama! (My blood, mama!, 2015). It has received rave reviews in Finland and internationally, and Käppi’s performing schedule is so packed that this summer he had exactly one free weekend. Pekko Käppi has steadily worked his way into the awareness of the general public album by album and is now in a place where his name is familiar, if not to the man in the street then at least to every well-informed music enthusiast in Finland, regardless of their genre.

In certain circles, of course, this jouhikko player and singer has been a person of interest for quite some time. Folk-music and experimental-music aficionados have been following Käppi’s career with fascination ever since his first solo EP, Kalastajia ja kaivostyöläisiä (Fishermen and miners, 2001). He combines the archaic with the experimental in idiosyncratic ways, and even his rare choice of instrument alone would be enough to justify the claim that there is simply no other performer on earth who sounds like him.

The bowed lyre epiphany

Pekko Käppi (b. 1976) was in his twenties before he ever laid hands on a jouhikko. He grew up in the small town of Parainen in south-western Finland and spent his youth playing guitar in a variety of rock combos. He had a formative musical experience during his year as an exchange student in the USA (1993–1994), where he went to a series of Grateful Dead gigs with his exchange family brother Vincent di Pasquale, who subsequently became a distinguished music producer on his side of the pond.

“That was the first time I came into contact with traditional music and improvised music. When I got back home, I began playing these hugely long improvised gigs at school parties. But everyone was outside smoking all the time when that was going on, and it took me a while to realise that I still needed a bit of practice,” Käppi recalls with amusement.

Käppi broadened his musical horizons at a folk club in Turku that had an open stage, where he got up to perform some of his Finnish-language songs. At the club, he heard a lot of folk performances, and the lecture-cum-performance on folk music given by instrument builder Jyrki Pölkki left a lasting impression.

“I was at an impressionable age. I began to find out what I could about folk music. I had rather a shallow conception of the genre at the time. It was in the book Kansanmusiikki (Folk music, 1981) by Matti Hako and Anneli Asplund that I read about the jouhikko. There was a kind of epiphany there, a sudden realisation that that would be my instrument.”

Instrument on a drawing board

The jouhikko is a bowed lyre that can be traced back thousands of years. It fell into almost complete obscurity in Finland in the early 20th century when the kantele was raised to the status of national instrument. However, the jouhikko has been making a comeback in its home country since the turn of the millennium, thanks in no small way to Käppi’s efforts.

It was the limitations of the instrument that appealed to Käppi. A jouhikko has two to four strings and a very narrow range: traditionally only five or six pitches are used, although the full range, if pressed, will extend to an octave and a half. The backs of the fingers of the left hand are pressed against one or two of the strings to change the pitch, while the bowing motion of the right hand creates the rhythmic swing typical of the instrument. An unstopped string provides the drone under the melody.

Käppi has not only raised the jouhikko from obscurity but also revitalised its performing traditions and developed the instrument itself. The jouhikko has a quiet sound, to which electric amplification is an obvious solution. Käppi partnered with master instrument builder Rauno Nieminen to work on the design of the jouhikko; the two men also played together in the Jouhiorkesteri combo, currently on a break (see the feature article in FMQ 2::2009). Käppi’s primary instruments at the moment are a skull-shaped jouhikko built by Nieminen and named “FG Retzius” and another named “T(ii)T(i)” that is decorated with pentagrams and stick-figure shamans.

“Every year we’ve made some slight change to an instrument or to its playing technique. The electric jouhikkos developed with Rauno have made life so much easier. Now I have two wonderful instruments on which I can play music exactly the way I want, at least for a while. But the way my mind works is that I’ll soon come up with some new idea or problem that needs solving. And then it’s back to the drawing board.”

From archive to arena

Just about one year after discovering the jouhikko, Käppi enrolled in the one-year folk music programme at the Ala-Könni college in Kaustinen, which he says pointed the way forwards for him. He once applied to study at the Department of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy, which offered actual tuition on the jouhikko, but he was not accepted despite his unusual approach to the entrance examination.

“I decided not to wash myself for two weeks before the exam so that I would bring a whiff of the past with me,” he says and laughs.

After the Ala-Könni college, Käppi ended up studying ethnomusicology at the University of Tampere. The basement archives of the folklore department and the archive tapes made by folklorist Erkki Ala-Könni stuck with him.

“Yes, there’s something of that aesthetic on my albums: the sound world, the sound of the tape recorder and the singers and of Ala-Könni’s voice. You cannot quite make out the words in those field recordings, so listening to them is a continuous process of interpretation.”

The hours spent in the archives can be heard in Käppi’s singing style. When he opens his mouth, it is as if the reedy voices of the doddery old men featured on scratchy archival recordings had been brought back from the hereafter to live again in this young gentleman. Folklore more broadly is a source of thematic inspiration in Käppi’s music. He notes that he is always reading some book or other on a folklore topic, “whether casually or intensely”. How his reading filters through into his music varies greatly.

The most recent album was inspired by the Finnish tradition of spells and magic. The lyrics paint a picture of an ancient world that is a far cry from lyrical loveliness. “Piika Kaarin” (Maid Kaarin) is a tale partly based on an actual person who was accused of witchcraft 300 years ago. The magnificent “Veri verestä” (Blood for blood) is a song of vengeance with lyrics by author and musician Kauko Röyhkä. Blood, bodies and bugbears abound in the other songs on the album too.

Broad musical horizons

Käppi kept his musical horizons broad during his years of studying in Tampere by associating with a variety of musicians. In addition to developing his solo career, Käppi has played with a number of folk and pop ensembles such as Kiila, Office Building and Äijä, and he has made guest appearances on albums by Lau Nau, Ville Leinonen, Asa, Death Hawks, Paleface, Risto and Vilddas, among others. For him, being “genre-neutral” is self-evident, though not an end in itself.

Käppi’s first album Jos ken pahoin uneksii (If any should have bad dreams, 2007) sounds like, well, like Pekko Käppi. It was largely built around Käppi’s singing and jouhikko-playing, but an interest in the roots music of North America was detectable under the traditional Finnish material. His second album may have outraged the most conservative folk music aficionados in his audience: Vuonna ’86 (In 1986, 2010), released on the English label Singing Knives, was a blast of industrial noise. It was nevertheless declared Folk Music Album of the Year in Finland, and The Wire magazine enthused in describing it as an ethnomusical alternative reality well worth spending time in.

Käppi has even turned his hand to punk rock with his jouhikko. Mun Paras Ystävä (My best friend, 2012), recorded with Juhana Nyrhinen, consists of cover versions of Finnish punk-rock classics (see the review in FMQ 4::2012).

Happy together

A turning point in Käppi’s musical career came with the album Rammat Jumalat (2013), which saw the emergence of the ensemble K:H:H:L – an acronym of Kuolleitten Hillittömien Hevoisten Luut (Bones of dead unruly horses). Nuutti Vapaavuori produced the album, and one of the musicians involved in the sessions was Tommi Laine, a member of Markku Peltola’s Buster Keaton orchestra, whom Käppi knew to be a musician with vision.

On the following album, Sanguis meus, mama!, Käppi’s jouhikko and voice were joined by Laine’s cigar-box guitars and Vapaavuori’s cigar-box bass, beside a whole slew of other acoustic and electric instruments. The trio fell naturally into place as a vehicle for making music, and out of solidarity the two newcomers even reduced the number of strings on their instruments. This combo showcases Käppi’s jouhikko swing to great effect. The pieces written with this group bear a closer resemblance to familiar forms of popular music, which serves to make the content more accessible to those listeners who are not completely at home with jouhikko improvisations or the buzzing aesthetics.

“Sure, some people will more readily appreciate pieces to which you can snap your fingers from beginning to end. But it was never about pleasing the crowd for me; it was just fun to create pieces like that at this particular time.”

It is easy to believe that what happened on this album was not about commercialism but about a clear vision, a crystallisation of musical expression and good clean fun with like-minded musicians. However, even in ensemble work Käppi wants to retain some flexibility in his expression.

“When you play music alone, you can make quick decisions on the fly. My goal is to bring that sort of approach to a band, so that everyone knows all the time where we are, even with abrupt changes in direction.”

Mixer Pauliina Saarman has joined the band’s lineup for live performances, with a profound impact on the live versions of their pieces.

The social aspect is naturally a huge bonus in playing in a band. Fellow band members provide support in low moments, and the highs seem even higher when there are other people to share them with. It is even easier to argue with other people than with oneself.

“If you’re on the road for two or three weeks and you tire of your own company, it’s rather heavy. How do you move on if you begin to quarrel with yourself before a gig somewhere in the middle of the English countryside?”

When Käppi is in a creative phase, he is usually not only reading a book but also playing an album on repeat. During the evolution of his most recent album, he found that source material through another band member. Tommi Laine is an expert in vintage rhythm music and introduced Käppi to Wild Magnolias, a band from New Orleans formed in the 1970s. Käppi also listened a lot to Dr. John’s album Gris-Gris (1968) while working on his own album.

“There was something about that Mardi-Gras-Indian-party mystic that gripped me. The lyrics can be very harsh, but the music is blissful and sweet. It left me with a sort of beat. The mixing owes something to Gris-Gris if you listen carefully, but Dr. John is outrageous in a very different way.”

K:H:H:L’s Finland-voodoo turned out to be ruggedly beautiful and full of contrasts in both music and lyrics. Käppi notes that the Finnish tradition of spells features interesting contrasts: there are spells for conjuring up fortune in fishing for yourself but also spells bringing misfortune to your neighbour.

Tolerable financial uncertainty

Käppi qualified for postgraduate studies at the University of Tampere, but his plans for a scientific career have taken a back seat to art. Financial uncertainty can be tolerated if it has to do with something about which one is passionate.

“With the world as uncertain as it is, in order to write a doctorate you would have to have a topic that you are really fired up about so that you can live with it for the next five years regardless of how it will affect your life after that. You should be able to approach it with the same enthusiasm as creative or performing art. Sure, every now and again I wonder whether there is any point in playing the jouhikko or making a deliberately poor-sounding album. Or in following any artistic whim. But I always come to the conclusion that this is what I would be doing whatever the circumstances.”

In recent years, his circumstances have been fairly good. He was awarded a three-year government artist grant in 2012, he has begun to receive copyright royalties through Teosto, and even gigs now leave something under the bottom line.

“The grants circuit is quirky. I am aware that I have to prepare for any number of possible futures. Anything could happen. You just have to learn to adapt.”

So far, Käppi has not set up a business for himself, but he does think regularly about officially becoming an entrepreneur.

“I am already pretty much self-employed. I design and plan things myself, do fund-raising, and so on. But on the other hand, I feel like I should have a broader profile in order for it to make sense to set up as a proper entrepreneur.”


Taking over the alternative music world

Many festival organisers already have Käppi on their radar, but it is still a wide world out there. Käppi notes that things are progressing so well in Finland that the band have not had time to focus on promoting themselves internationally. There are many things with a positive vibe in the pipeline, however. In July, the album was 11th on the World Music Charts Europe, but even in the international context the band is not limited to the world-music market.

“For some time now, the trend has been towards the more adventurous popular music festivals being willing to consider things that are a bit strange. Actually, over the years I have had more gigs at alternative music events than at world music events.”

The audiences of both alternative music and world music are accustomed to hearing music performed in all sorts of languages, so the language barrier would certainly not be an issue in seeking a worldwide breakthrough.

K:H:H:L is going full steam ahead, and Käppi’s other bands are on hold for the moment, but he still finds time to do guest appearances. For instance, he has played the jouhikko with the Vapaat Radikaalit (Free radicals) band run by sax player Hepa Halme and author Hannu Salama, with the internationally oriented singer-songwriter Lau Nau’s band and in film music projects. He is working on a new album with K:H:H:L, and the bar is set very high.

“My future plans include as many gigs as I can handle and, further afield, becoming big in Finland, breaking worldwide, recording new albums… I want to take my art as far as it will go, in new and unpredictable directions. I want to do this as long as I have the energy and while there is life in me. Appetite grows with eating but the music never stops!”

Pekko Käppi

  • Graduated with an MA degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Tampere in 2008.
  • Ala-Könni college, folk music programme 1997–1998.
  • Studied the jouhikko with Ritva Talvitie, Risto Hotakainen, Styrbjörn Bergelt, Rauno Nieminen and Tytti Metsä, among others.
  • Current active bands in addition to K:H:H:L: Lau Nau, Faarao & Kakspäinen narttu (Pharaoh & the two-headed bitch), Hepa Halme Prospekt, Kiila (new album in 2015, released by the English label Alt-Vinyl), Puhti’s Lempee & Lovee production.
  • Has appeared for instance at the following events: Womex 2013, Lifem, Ethno Port Poznan, Respect Festival, Garden of Sounds, Roadburn, Sideways.
  • Debut in Berlin 23 October 2015.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: AJ Savolainen

Pekko Käppi & K:H:H:L perform live at G Livelab Tampere on 10 September, 2021. The record release gig will also be streamed via G Livelab Tampere websites and G Livelab application. Streaming has 7 days on-demand rights.