Ann Maria Piho and Eva Väljaots are Estonian kantele artists studying folk music at Sibelius-Academy. In this interview they tell about their experiences as musicians and how they found the instrument. The word kannel is also used in Finland, but in Estonia it is the official name of the instrument. In this article I refer to Estonian kanteles as either Estonian kantele or kannel. It was very interesting meeting these fantastic musicians and hearing about the Estonian kantele and culture, which is quite similar, but enchantingly different.

Ann Maria Piho comes from the countryside of Southern Estonia near the villages of Haanja andRõuge. Her father has a farm which lodges and entertains tourists, so she has heard folk music since her early childhood. Later she played music and accompanied folk dances that were performed for the turists. Her choice of kannel as an instrument happened by accident: when Ann Maria was 11 years old her school used an educational method by folklorist Celia Roose using folk music instruments in small country villages. The program has 3 choices of instrument: small kannel “väikekannel”, diatonic Estonian accordion lõõts, and Estonian bagpipes “torupilli”. Eva and Ann Maria told that torupill was once the most common instrument in all of Estonia.

Ann Maria remembers that as a child she thought that bagpipes are strongly related to Scotland. She thought that the accordion was too masculine and it looked heavy, so she wondered how she could play it. But “ooh, kannel, that is good!” Her brother played the chromatic kannel and Ann Maria thought that she was beginning to learn it, only to be surprised at her first lesson that the instrument was väikekannel. “So I went to the first lesson to find out what instrument it is, not knowing that that sort of kannel existed.” It was a rare chance to study folk music, since often the only Estonian kannel choice is the chromatic kannel, which is used in classical or “art” music. Ann Maria’s first kannel had 6 strings. In Estonia that is the normal number of strings compared to 5 in Finland. Eva and Ann Maria tell that this is a mystery that folklorists haven’t found an answer to.

Later Ann Maria chose to also play diatonic 2-row button accordion and that is now her side instrument at Sibelius-Akatemia. Ann Maria’s first kannel teacher was Katrin Soon, who taught her Estonian and Latvian folk tunes. ”I remember that my first piece was 5 Sandy Yellow Foals”. Her next teacher was Kadri Lepasson. Then 6-string was replaced by 8-, 10-, 12- and 15-strings. Ann Maria was one of the first student that studied the 7 year program of folk music in the music school system. When this ended, her teachers didn’t want her to stop playin so they invited her to perform and that was the beginning of the Estonian kantele trio Soon/Piho/Lepasson, which published the CD Tempo di Vals in 2016. The trio still performs, and is planning a new recording.

Eva Väljaots also has a touching and interesting history with kantele. She learned to play by herself and improvised for hours. Eva plays according to older tradition that improvises by making variations of different themes. Eva was born in Talinn, where she spent her early years, but she feels more at home in northern Estonia. Her parents are from west and central Estonia. As a child she had no opportunity to start studying music, but when she went to Tartu to study semiotics and culturology she became interested in the Estonian kantele. Her friends told her about a kannel camp where she could build her own instrument. Eva built a 7-string Estonian kantele and within a week she learned to play a few pieces. “I started play lots. I didn’t know other pieces so I just improvised. I also taught myself to read notes.” Eva hadn’t heard of older folk music when she started, but she was familiar with newer folk music. Only later she learned that her own esthetics were actually a one traditional style, like the players in Carelia at the beginning of the 1900s. Eva fell in love with the imitations of church bells and played them a lot. She had heard Arja Kastinen, and was inspired by her. Later Arja became Eva’s teacher. ”When Arja Kastinen told me about the Carelian kantele tradition and I learned more about it, I felt like I had come home!

Eva also learned that there had been other Estonian kantele players in her family: her great grandfather had played külakannel, a traditional large Estonian kantele. Eva got that instrument from her grandfather and learned to play it. The number of strings varies, but hers has 33. The kannel is diatonic without levers to change the pitches. The bass and discant strings are arranged the same way as on Finnish kanteles. The other traditional large kannel is “rahvakannel”. It is a newer version of kyläkannel, developed at a piano factory, and has strings arranged according to chords.

Pärimusmuusika education in Viljandi

Both Eva and Ann Maria were accepted to study pärimusmuusika (folk music) at the Viljandi Culture Academy in the 4-year program, so they knew each other before studying in Finland. Eva had already switched from 7-string to 15-string and taken lessons. She decided to be brave and audition to Viljandi. “I was very happy when I was accepted!” At the moment Ann Maria’s main instrument is a 15-string kantele built by Jyrki Pölkki, so it can really be called a kantele. Ann Maria says that she loves little kanteles, and focuses on playing them rather than the large kanteles. She also plays an Estonian kannel with 12 strings.  Her favorite changes with her mood. Eva feels a particular bond with 15-string Estonian kantele. ”I bond with an instrument that sounds beautiful.” Eva also has a 16-string kannel, and she was the first to order a 16-string instrument from an Estonian luthier. Eva had the good fortune to study the kyläkantele with folk musician Heino Sõna.

During her studies in Viljandi in 2014, Eva participated in a folklore society project bringing young and old folk musicians together. Eva learned that Heino Sõnawas almost the only living master of the old kyläkantele tradition. That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and Eva got to learn old repertoire on her greatgrandfather’s instrument.

Kannel and kantele

We discussed the difference between Finnish and Estonian kanteles. Eva believes that the styles and pieces are more different than the instruments. She feels that the instruments are very close to each other. “Perhaps Finns play more with their fingers while Estonians use more chords”, the musicians decide. “In Finland the kantele has maybe been developed more, Finnish kanteles are more high tech”, Ann Maria laughs. The new rise of folk music and Estonian kantele was not long ago: it has happened within the last 20 years, and Finland showed an example. Ann Maria adds: “New luthiers have started. They took the historic models and started making replicas of Estonian kanteles like in the museums.”

Kannel and bluegrass

Estonian folk music is very popular at the moment. For example, almost all the radio stations play music by Trad.Attack! and Curly Strings, ensembles that have won distinguished music awards. Estonian folk music is really heard and seen in the media. Hopefully this situation will occur in Finland too! Eva and Ann Maria think that the Viljandi folk music festival is the largest music festival in Estonia, something great! Both Eva and Ann Maria have performed there many times. They have also been students of Villu Talsi, who plays mandolin in Curly Strings. Ann Maria wanted to learn about the “chopping” style of accompaniment that Talsi uses. “It doesn’t have to be the same instrument, just a good teacher.” Eva and Ann Maria say that they are quite different musicians but they both like bluegrass. It is diverse fine music that they still like. “Some pieces work on kantele and you can use both melody and chords with them”, says Eva. It would be great to hear a kantele duo that plays bluegrass!

Studying in Finland

Eva was an exchange student in folk music at Sibelius Academy during 2016-2017, and graduated from Viljandi that spring. Afterwards she studied music at Tallinn university one year, during which she also studied in Finland with Arja Kastinen. Eva wanted to return to Finland, and she returned to Sibelius Academy in the fall of 2018. After two study years in Viljandi Ann Maria had a cap year which she spent in Norway. There she learned lots of Norwegian 2-row accordion pieces from the people she met. Ann Maria says: “The kantele also gathered admiration among people who she played it to. After the cap year and another year in Viljandi Ann Maria wanted to go to Finland because of kantele. Now she is an exchange student at Sibelius Academy, and will also graduate from her studies in Viljandi this year.

“The best in studying in Finland are the teachers! I’m always so happy when I come from my kantele lesson! My kantele lessons always make the day great!”

Ann Maria’s teachers are Maija Pokela, Pauliina Syrjäläand Arja Kastinen. Eva continues: ”Arja Kastinen, Timo Väänänenand Pauliina Syrjälä are incredible, I really appreciate them.

For the first time I now how it feels to have a kantele teacher.” Both Eva and Ann Maria praise their fellow students and the rapport in their study groups.

They both have performed in Finland, lastly at the Perinnearkkuklubi last fall.

Their own unique styles of playing

Both musicians often play solo and both Estonian and Finnish folk music have influenced their own compositions.  Ann Maria characterizes her style of composing as melodic: “I use all the strings that I have!”. Eva feels that it is difficult to add words but she loves rhythm, rhythmic variations, improvisation and continuity. According to Eva, her pieces are a realization of both long and short esthetics: in a short period of time music can change a lot, but the pieces can be long. “My playing is always improvisation. I’ve never really succeeding in composing, I always improvise in my performances as well”, she laughs. “I don’t think of tradition when I play, the music just comes from me. I don’t try to play according to any particular tradition, but of course the tradition is there.” Both like plucking with their fingers more than playing chords, and they also use sekatyyli (mixed style). They like the sound of kantele. “I like how the kantele fits in my lap”, says Ann Maria. Eva sums her fascination into one word: ”Vibration – the specialty of kantele”.

When Eva was studying in Tallinn she founded a duo with singer-violinist Sänni Noormets, and they have performed together in Finland as well. “We have the same understanding of music. Our style is minimalist, we perform our own lyrics and compositions”, Eva explains. She also has Trio Sinitrii, which includes violin, Hang drum and kannel. They have released a record, but at the moment the members are situated very far apart. Eva also plays the violin, which she has always loved. Now she receives violin lessons from Emilia Lajunen. She has played jouhikko for years and learned to play it on her own. She plays karmoshka (Russian diatonic accordion) as well. It is played lots, especially as accompaniment for dancing in southern Estonia.

In addition to her trio Ann Maria plays in singer-songwriter Ann Taul’s group, which has released the recording Maagiline järv in 2018. In this group she plays material like pop music, and the group’s music has sometimes been played on commercial radio.


Your musical dreams for the future?

Eva: “I’m at my best as a musician, but I also like to teach.

Music easily takes us into the world, and if I travel somewhere with kantele I can easily find jams and musicians around the world. I really enjoy this folk music culture.”

Ann Maria wants to be an active musician, but cultural production and making folk music better known also interest her. “When I am at a folk music concert and hear great ensembles, I think that more people should hear this!” Ann Maria would also like to come back to Finland to study more after her year as an exchange student.


What is your fondest memory or experience that kantele has given you?

Ann Maria: My most wonderful experiences have been playing with my trio, the moments when different sounds unite as one. We like to play in churches, and some of our church concerts have been special in many ways, we have been so fulfilled.

Eva: “It is so easy to forget when you play, sometimes I start playing something and then I realize that I’ve been playing it for 15 minutes.”


How would you change the status of kantele in your homeland? How many players are there in Estonia?

Ann Maria: “There was a project where small kannel had to be introduced to school children

Because of this some may think of it as a simply children’s instrument. Everybody knows about kantele, but the status is quite low. When I learned to play, I arranged lots of pieces for played on other instruments because I couldn’t find kantele melodies. It would be wonderful if there would be more artists on little kanteles. It would be nice to get to perform more, and to show that kannel is an instrument like the others too.”

Eva: “I’ve been thinking the same way. At performances I have noticed that people don’t know about my kantele model. Folk music kanteles could be shown better to the public because not everyone knows that it can be studied too. Nowadays there are about 10 artists who perform on small Estonian kanteles. Classical kantele players play in orchestra pieces and new pieces are being composed for chromatic kantele.

Ann Maria told that Estonia has its own kannel society but it is more for players of chromatic kantele. There have been competitions but they were for children. Both Eva and Ann Maria have taught at folk music camps for children. So far there have not been camps just for Estonian kantele. In 2018 there was a festival for small kanteles in Tallinn where both Eva and Ann Maria performed. The day also included a workshop and a performance by Arja Kastinen. They hope that this will happen again. We still discussed cooperation between kanteleplayers from Finland and Baltic countries. It is important for them to know each other, but at the moment this is not happening. “It would be good for all of us to have joint events and conferences”, they said.

Ann Maria: “Many have a kannel at home, but it is hard to say how many play the kannel.”

Eva: “There are more professionals on chromatic kantele because it has been taught in music schools and conservatories.”

Finally we discussed the studies of Estonian kantele history and research of traditions. Ann Maria tells me that A. O. Väisänenpreserved not only about Finnish tradition but also Estonian kantele history. This material is kept in Finnish museums. “If you are a folk musician you are always doing research also” says Eva. She tells that jouhikko is “hiiu-kannel” in Estonian, even though it is played with a bow, since the word kannel in Estonian was a general word meaning instrument. This is a lovely thought, and tells about the importance of kantele in the history of Estonia, as well as the present and future with these new wonderful musicians.


Text: Sanni Virta

Translation: Jane Ilmola

Photo: Jimmy Träskelin

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