Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My Kantele

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...


joe doaks-Author said...

This is the second post I've read this morning on a topic about which I knew nothing. That's a great thing. (Karen B wrote one about canning jars.) Thanks for sharing and teaching, me at least, about a Kantele. Maybe it will make its way into one of my future novels.

Oh, the first picture didn't show, little red x instead. Path problem maybe? I particularly miss seeing the cat!

Best Regards, Galen

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Well I certainly learned something new today! Interesting post. Thanks.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

C. Margery Kempe said...

Thanks for the comments, Jane and Galen. I'm not sure what the deal might have been with the picture, but it's there now. Chances are just a slight hiccough. He's a cutie cat!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is the first I've read or heard about a kantele, and I really enjoyed learning something new. Cute picture of your furry child!


KK Brees said...

Fascinating stuff. I couldn't get into your site yesterday and am so happy it opened up for me today. I'm taking that as a favorable omen for the rest of the day.

Alexis Grant said...

I learned something today! That's the best thing you can do while blogging -- Teach me something I didn't know. I'll be back for that reason!

Elle Parker said...

Very interesting post, I've never heard of these before. I wish I could hear you play.

Elle Parker

C. Margery Kempe said...

Hmmm -- maybe I can put up an short example of me playing tomorrow!

Isabel Roman said...

Wow. I had no idea! I doubt very much there are people in my neck of the woods that play this, but the video was great! Oe day I'd love to hear you play. My instrumets leaned more toward the flute and also sax. :)

Jina Bacarr said...

Intriguing post with many fascinating details! I believe that myths are more important than ever in the technological world we live...they allow us to continue to dream and create.

It would be cool if someone could video you playing your kantele at your booksigning then you could post it on your blog.



Julie Lomoe said...

Hi Kate,
Your work sounds fascinating, and I look forward to learning more about you. Sounds like we're neighbors, almost - I live in Rensselaer County. We seem to have a hotbed of creativity here in the upper Hudson Valley.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Isabel -- how lovely of you to come by! I lack air, so I'm always impressed with folks who play wind instruments.

Jina -- I completely agree! Myth is so fundamental.

Julie -- yes, I think we are neighbours. Let's hope we can meet up at some writerly events in town.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I also would enjoy seeing you play this instrument. Had never seen one before. Like the others posting earlier, it's nice to learn something new in these blogs.


N A Sharpe said...

Wow, I can see how that instrument fits in so perfectly with myth and legend - it is simply mesmerizing!

Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed this very much!

NA Sharpe