Text by Andrew Cronshaw
Photos: Alex Gaspar
The editor has asked me to write about my relationship with kantele. It’s been quite a long and winding story, and I’ve had to check back to clarify some hazy memories and dates, but here’s what I recall of some of the bigger episodes.
Kanteles first really came into my life in 1989-90 as a result of being sent, by what was then called Folk Roots magazine (later renamed fRoots), three Finnish albums, including the first album by Salamakannel, for me to review. (I’ve put the text of that review online here: http://www.cloudvalley.com/reviews/REVPirnalesNiekkuSalama.htm).
I wrote to the label, a pioneer in Finnish folk recordings, Olarin Musiikki, to say “Hello – nice to get something from Finland, and please say ‘hi’ to Salamakannel for me”. Olarin owner Timo Närväinen wrote back saying he knew of me because he’d been the Finnish representative of Transatlantic, a UK label I’d recorded for back in the 1970s.
Here I‘ll digress for a bit of background. What had got me signed to Transatlantic to make my first album, (embarrassingly titled “A Is For Andrew, Z Is For Zither” and with an equally embarrassing sleeve design that spurred me ever after to design my own sleeves and make my own titles) was being seen by Transatlantic producer Laurence Aston playing, in the open-mic ‘club tent’ at Cambridge Folk Festival, what is still my main instrument, a chord zither.
Mine has six sets of chord strings and two chromatic octaves of melody strings, was made in Germany probably in the 1940s, and I bought it in Edinburgh at the end of the 1960s. Actually my first was a 49-string model from a closing-down music shop in Cockburn Street, and some time later, from another long-gone shop further down the same street, I bought the 74-string one with doubled melody strings that I use now. Playing it on a table, as was intended to boost the bass, wasn’t practical for me in most circumstances, so to amplify it Phil Taylor made an experimental prototype magnetic pickup that proved amazingly effective and I still use. In those days PA systems were very rare in folk clubs, so he also made an amplifier, and with that amp I did my first gigs (and one track on my first album; despite its sub-title “Electric zither”, the producer and engineer insisted on recording the rest entirely acoustic with mics, but ever since then I’ve only used the electric sound on my albums).
Anyway, back to Salamakannel. Timo passed my letter to the band’s kantele-playing leader, Hannu Saha, who responded by sending me some LPs of Finnish traditional music. I didn’t realise it until later, but Hannu was the director of Kansanmusiikki-instituutti, and the next thing he sent me was a Kaustinen-made 5-string kantele, personally delivered by Kaustinen festival director Jyrki Heiskanen, who showed up with it in my local pub in London. (I used that kantele, in a simple way, on a track of my 1993 album “The Language of Snakes”). I also received an invitation to come to Kaustinen in 1990 to teach an Ala-Könni Opisto summer ‘mestarikurssi’ and play at the festival.
So a door was opened, by my writing and my zither, that had a strong effect in my life. I felt welcome, and soon was coming back to Finland most years, including producing in 1991 Salamakannel’s third album, “Koivunrunkorakkautta” (on which I first met, and was greatly impressed by, Sanna Kurki-Suonio, who was guest singer on the album; that meeting, of course, led two decades later to SANS). Later, in 1999, I produced the mix of Hannu’s “Mahla” album. In 1995 I’d also produced, at Sibelius Academy’s studio, Nikolai Blad’s wonderfully quirky first album, which while not specifically kantele-focused does include some kantele from Minna Raskinen.
Over the years I’ve been in involved in other recordings and performances in Finland, and kanteles have appeared in most of them.
The team on my 7th album “On The Shoulders Of The Great Bear”, recorded in Kaustinen in the winter of 1998-9, featured, among others, Hannu and Minna Raskinen on various kanteles. (Hear it, and other more recent albums, at https://andrewcronshaw.bandcamp.com)
Out of that CD, in 2002 came a live show that rehearsed and debuted at Kaustinen’s Kansantaiteenkeskus and then toured in the UK. The team was Hannu, Heikki Laitinen, Reijo Kela, Jenny Wilhelms, Ian Blake, Bernard O’Neill and me, with sound engineer Antti Rintämäki (who’d engineered and mastered the CD), lighting designer Ari ‘Valo’ Virtanen and director Vesa Tapio Valo. (See some photos of the show at http://cloudvalley.com/gallery.htm). Jenny wasn’t available for the final show, at Kaustinen festival, so Natacha Atlas depped for her.
The Great Bear project – the CD and then the show – were very much built around (in my mind at least – the show had a mysterious, pleasingly elusive mind of its own), the idea of runolaulu, kantele, the old, pre-classical layer of European musical culture, and music as an animator of silence rather than a competitor in today’s audio hubbub.
On the album, and in the show, I used a new instrument, which became called the marovantele because it was a hybrid between Finnish kantele and the Madagascan marovany. Here’s the story of that:
During the 1990s I’d been touring worldwide as sound engineer and tour manager with the Madagascan band Tarika, who used the range of Malagasy traditional instruments including the bamboo tube zither valiha and its box-zither development, the marovany. The valiha is a wide-bore bamboo cylinder with strings all round; the marovany is a box, of varying shapes and materials, with strings on each side. Tarika played both of these standing up, held by a strap, and so were able to move and dance while playing. I’d noticed that the playing position of Finnish kanteles was rather sedentary, and with the big kanteles played flat on a table an audience sitting level with or below an on-stage player couldn’t usually see the strings or what the player was doing. I wanted to borrow from Madagascar to get the kantele up and about.
(Hannu had already, many years before, made a point about the iconic 5-string kantele at Kaustinen festival by playing one challengingly fitted with electric guitar-like volume control and white plastic scratch-plate. And in recent years playing the small kanteles while standing up, and tilting the big kanteles towards the audience, and electrifying both, has become common.)
At Kaustinen I’d met a promising young luthier, Kimmo Sarja, who was doing fine work on electric guitars and just beginning to make kanteles, and I thought he’d appreciate a challenge, so I sketched out the sort of double-sided kantele I’d like. 11 strings on each side, and with the curve of the peg-end rather like the curve on a ski-slope, or the Leningrad Cowboys’ quiff and boots, which seemed to me an appropriately and evocatively Finnish shape! Kimmo has a brilliant sense of design, so what he came up with, like two mirror-image kanteles back-to-back, but open inside with no bottom to either, was beautifully designed and meticulously constructed. In 1995 he made two prototypes; one with wooden pegs, one with metal zither-pins.
In fact recently I used the wooden-peg one, as a putative form of psaltery (evidence of the period’s range of instruments and music is sparse, so why not?) in a Netflix film, ‘Outlaw King’, directed by David Mackenzie, set in 14th century Scotland with me, splendidly attired in long beard, robes and striped woollen tights – excellent in Scotland’s winter cold – as bard to king Robert the Bruce. But disappointingly, because of the pressures of length and commercial film-making, together with much of the very fine and extensive diagetic music (music the characters can hear) put together by SANS producer Jim Sutherland featuring large numbers of Scottish, Swedish and other roots musicians and singers, those scenes had to end up on the cutting-room floor.
And, while we’re on the subject of films, I played kantele – a 29-string by Pekka Lovikka – in the soundtrack of Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s lovely 2019 film “Tolkien”. Not having been able to fit into the film script itself anything about the influence of Kalevala myth on the writer of Lord of the Rings, to complete his film Dome wanted kantele in the soundtrack to make that reference. I suggested what I might play to make the Finnish point, Dome and composer Thomas Newman liked it, and so right at the end, as the credits roll, you’ll hear a familiar Finnish traditional lullaby tune.
Back to the marovantele. On a normal wooden-peg kantele the heads of the tuning pegs are underneath the headstock, with just the stubs protruding to attach the strings. But on the wooden-peg marovantele, because of the back-to-back construction the tuning pegs had to be on the outside, which meant the strings were attached just below the peg heads. While the forest of wooden peg-heads looked great, that made it difficult to tune, so I chose the metal-peg one.
I hadn’t even decided which way up to play it – short strings or long strings at the top – how to hold it, nor how it should be tuned. I settled on short at the top, and a diatonic scale on each side, both scales the same except for one or two notes. I lived with it for the late 1990s, taking it on tour with Tarika as something to experiment on in my hotel room, and used it on the Great Bear album and show.
In the show I also played a blue electric 5-string kantele, beautifully designed by Kimmo, who patented it under the ingenious name Elfin. As far as I know, it’s the only one in existence. There are touches of it on 2011’s “The Unbroken Surface Of Snow” and on most gigs it’s beside me, adding an occasional extra tone colour to the zither.
I felt the marovantele could be improved, so asked Kimmo to make another, with metal pegs but with two strings per note, so 22 on each side. He made two, with slightly different woods; I bought one, he kept the other. Amplifying it was a problem, though; it sounded too thin and metallic just miked, and fed back too easily. Subsequently that was solved by fitting it with magnetic pickups, which Kimmo, having borrowed the idea from the pickup on my zither, was already making for kanteles. They worked well, giving rich warmth to the low and mid end of the sound, and eliminating feedback; and, as there’s one on each side, it’s in lovely wide stereo.
The sustain on the strings proved too long for anything other than slow music, so in the last couple of years or so I’ve borrowed an idea from kantele players and put Blue-Tack on the end of each string, which reduces the sustain and takes off the highest frequencies, giving a more gutty, less metallic sound. You can hear it treated like that on the SANS “Kulku” album, and as I write this I’m just working on a piece using it for my new solo album.
A little later in the 1990s I had another kantele idea, but it was rather larger. During the 1997 Baltic Psaltery Conference in Kaustinen, I think during a paper given by Lithuanian professor Romualdas Apanavicius, I saw a fanciful drawing of a kantele as a boat, being punted by a boatman standing on the ponsi. I thought it’d be fun to turn fancy into reality, so made a rough sketched storyboard to propose an event during Kaustinen festival that would involve a functioning huge 5-string kantele, played by Väinämöinen, being floated down the river Perho. It would be dragged out of the river onto a cart and taken, accompanied in procession by fiddlers and singers, to the Arena, where it would be set vertically on end like an obelisk, which would be a signal for a loud rock band, one of those emerging among Kaustinen’s dynamic new generation of musicians, to burst into huge, hypnotic playing, and there would be wild dancing.
I hoped that perhaps it would be an event repeated at irregular annual intervals, as a sort of ritual in times of need, like the tradition in some parts of Europe, an aspect of the Ship of Fools, in which (as I recall hearing or reading, but now can’t find an exact reference) a boat made in the woods would emerge into a village as a signal for licentiousness and the abandoning of the usual rules.
Amazingly, for Finland is a place where strange things can happen, my idea was taken up, a funding grant was got and the giant kantele was built, by the ever excellent Kimmo. Festival director Jyrki suggested to me that it be 3 metres long, but that seemed to me a bit Spinal Tap (remember the mini-Stonehenge scene?) so I replied “How about 7 metres?” And so it was. The world’s biggest kantele.
I was sent photos during the making, but didn’t see the finished article until the event itself, which had gained a name, Hauenleuka. I took time out in the middle of a Tarika tour of North America, and arrived on Kaustinen’s bridge in July 2000 just in time to see it approaching in the river. Floating had proved a problem – it was so heavy that it was only a few centimetres short of sinking – so it was aboard a church boat. And though I could see Väinämöinen (Kimmo again) playing the strings, it was virtually inaudible; at rehearsal the amplification system had worked well, I gathered, but had failed for the main event. And, again because of its weight, getting the mighty beast off the boat took many hands and quite some time. (Photos at https://photos.app.goo.gl/2aGJANm4TchUXHcQA)
Eventually it arrived with its procession at the Arena, and, again because of the weight, it was laid horizontal rather than as a vertical obelisk. The rock band idea hadn’t been taken up, but there was music and dancing. And the kantele looked, and still looks, great; Kimmo had done an amazing job, and if one saw a photo of it without a reference as to scale, one would assume it was a normal-sized 5-string kantele. It has real strings, tuned by its huge wooden tuning pegs. You can see it at Kansantaiteenkeskus; for a while it was near the entrance, now it lurks in the basement. Perhaps one day, in a time of need, it will emerge again, like the Ship of Fools.
Recent CDs are listenable at Bandcamp: https://andrewcronshaw.bandcamp.com
Andrew Cronshaw is a British zitherist and multi-instrumentalist, producer and roots music journalist. His connection with Finland and kanteles began in 1990 with receiving a Salamakannel LP for review. Several of his nine solo albums so far, and two as leader of the Finnish/British/Armenian band SANS, have included kanteles and his innovation the marovantele. He’s also written hundreds of reviews and features about Finnish music in fRoots magazine, The Rough Guide To World Music and other media.