The kantele empress strikes back
Maija Kauhanen released her début album Raivopyörä [Rage wheel] in 2017. It was a near-perfect achievement and deservedly reaped a rich harvest of awards. Kauhanen’s one-woman-band concept, where she sings while playing the kantele and percussion, is hugely impressive, particularly in a live performance where you can see with your own eyes that she is actually doing everything at once. She has been working on her second solo album, Menneet [The past], with great care, over a period of several years.
Kauhanen’s principal instrument is the Saarijärvi kantele, which lends itself both to a soft touch and to percussive dance rhythms. Here, she also explores the limits of her instrument with experimental, even painful techniques, including using a bow.
Her singing voice is confident and wide-ranging, allowing for both belting and lyrical moments. Although her background is in folk music, her vocal aesthetics effortlessly accommodate tones of pop and jazz singing as well. I can even sense a rap feel in Käärme [Snake], although its lyrics draw on ancient spells preserved in archives. On several tracks, Kauhanen relies on expression without words, her instrumental colours blending with an expressive vocalise.
With songs in Finnish, Kauhanen occupies ground closer to the world of pop music than on her début album. This had the effect of making me miss that special something that shows that the performer is specifically Maija Kauhanen, with roots in contemporary folk music, rather than just any Finnish singer-songwriter. What impressed me on her début album was how she brought the timeless wisdom of folklore into the modern age and how she used the expansive arcs of archaic music. Here, we are more closely tied to the present and to tracks that fit a four-minute structure. My favourite on this disc is the funky and tight title track, Menneet, which brings an edge and even some craziness to the programme. The disc should be listened to in its entirety, because this yields a wider palette of musical colours than any individual track.
Maija Kauhanen: Menneet
Nordic Notes 2022
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi