What is the kantele? The short answer is the national instrument of Finland, a lap harp traditionally with five strings. Of course, that has changed much over the centuries: 5, 10 and 15-string kanteles are common (and often electric!) and there are even grand concert kanteles. Above is a picture of my very first kantele, Louhi, a 10-string made by the wonderful craftsman Gerry Henkel. That's our cat Kipper sitting in the case my dad made with just an outline of the instrument. It fits perfectly! I now have six kanteles, including one I built myself (with a lot of help).
You can hear and see a kantele in this Kantele-TV video by Outi Sané (I helped edit the English subtitles). She explains a little more of the history, too.
In The Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot's collection of Finnish folklore (more about that very soon), we learn that the first kantele was made from the jawbone of a pike, with a maiden's hair for strings. When the ancient sage, Väinämöinen played it for the first time, not only did all the people stop and listen, but even all the forest creatures gathered, too, unable to tear themselves away from the magic in its strings.
Here's Gerry's kantele that captures the look of the jawbone kantele. He sent it to me while I was at a writer's colony working on some of these stories. It was one of the most wonderful gifts I have received.
I have learned over the years, partly with the help of my first teacher, Kasha Breau, with whom I later played in a group called Louhi's Daughters with our friend Minna Popkin; then as a part of the Maine Kantele Workshop, where I learned an awful lot in a very short and intense time -- and made a lot of new friends as well as that kantele.
But as my pal Lani has noted, the kantele itself is an amazing teacher. With the five string it is not possible to play a wrong note, and you can learn much from just noodling on it. I'm no professional, but I love to play and will be doing so at my signing later this month.
One of the stories in Unikirja, simply entitled "The Kantele," demonstrates this magic. But when a little girl seems to develop a preternatural skill at playing the instrument, her mother begins to worry -- particularly as she seems to have also developed an invisible playmate...