The living tradition: Kantele in the 21st century

Sanni Virta, a kantele musician, producer and editor-in-chief of Kantele magazine, digs deep into the present-day culture of the kantele. She has also curated a playlist of her favorite modern kantele songs, which you can find after the article.

Kalevala Day, also named the Day of Finnish culture is celebrated in Finland on the 28th of February. Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, introduces us to the traditional Finnish plucked string instrument kantele played by one of Kalevala's central character, the demigod Väinämöinen.

How does the Finnish traditional instrument kantele sound in 2020? You may be surprised if you give it a chance. 

Living the tradition

Kantele is flourishing – thanks to many new, innovative, brave and visionary kantele musicians. Ancient and modern kantele sounds can be heard side by side, merging in pulsating rhythms of the new decade. You can hear the sounds of kantele in Disney's new hit animation Frozen 2, huge domestic pop artist Vesala brought kantele to prime-time television with her trio and rapper Paleface recorded a duet combining his rhymes with kantele and vocals performed by super-talented Maija Kauhanen (both two also included in the playlist below!).

By the hands of these new Finnish kantele artists, any kind of music can be played. You can call this concept living tradition – respecting the past but creating new all the time. 

Even heavy metal is no stranger to kantele: Finnish big league names like Nightwish and Amorphis have used this instrument in their music – the 1996 classic My Kantele by Amorphis being probably the most famous example.

Kantele has its roots deep in Finnish history but these days the instrument's sound has been strongly modernized. So, at the same time, you can hear all the time periods – both the old and the new influences – in its exceptional sound. 

By the hands of these new Finnish kantele artists, basically any kind of music can be played. You can call this concept living tradition – respecting the past but creating new all the time. 

Kantele goes global

Kantele as a Finnish national instrument is part of our heritage, its voice speaks and chimes in the Nordic dna. Besides Finland, the music market for kantele artists and ensembles has been constantly growing abroad. For example, all the performers in our playlist are touring a lot in different continents.

Traditionally kantele has been played acoustically – but besides that it can also fit even in big festival and arena stages. Playing techniques vary: the most common way is picking and chords are usually played with a plectrum. Also wooden sticks have been used to play it – which is the traditional way to play Saarijärvi’s kantele, a special kantele model from middle-Finland which for example Maija Kauhanen plays.

"Kantele is doing better than ever, nobody just knows about it!". Fortunately this quote from professor and kantele musician Hannu Saha is not completely valid anymore. The amount of kantele players in Finland and around the world has never been as high as now. Besides Japan, the United States and Europe has a lot of kantele enthusiasts. Kantele has been the topic of many artistic and scientific doctoral theses and lot of high-quality research is published all the time. Kantele albums have gotten awards in Finland’s most recognized music gala Emma Gaala. In most music schools, conservatories and Sibelius Academy it’s possible to study kantele, both classical and folk music. 

The amount of kantele players in Finland and around the world has never been as high as now. 

Composers create original contemporary music made for kantele and instrument makers have refreshed the design; these instruments are Finnish top-notch design items that can shine in all colors of the rainbow. It’s an easily approachable instrument and basically anyone can get a beautiful sound out of it. That’s why the five-stringed kantele is a great choice for a first instrument for people in all age groups. 

Kantele has many faces: at the same time it's a well-known instrument used in schools and kindergartens and also a tool for performing modern music in high profile concert places. Both sides are equally important and live side by side in the Finnish musical society. The five-stringed kantele is not just a children's instrument: you can play for example tango and contemporary music with it.

”Can you play rock music with your kantele?” 

As touring as a kantele musician you hear this question a lot. The answer is that any kind of music can be played with a kantele! The playlist below illuminates the vast range of today's Finnish kantele music.

New Finnish Tones of Kantele playlist

Take a listen to our New Finnish Tones of Kantele playlist and acquainted with some of today’s top kantele artists’ music!

Pop, folk, jazz and world music are all present in this playlist – and it also includes fusions of all those genres. There are virtuoso solo performers and ensembles with rousing musical experiences. There are kanteles with various amounts of strings to create a large spectrum of sounds: small kanteles, concert kanteles and electric kanteles. 

Maija Kauhanen & Paleface: Tietäjän tie

This piece can be found on the project album Kalevala Elävänä tai kuolleena. The project aims to give back everyman’s rights to Kalevala. The name of the project (which translates to Kalevala dead or alive) refers to the idea of refreshing Kalevala, the Finnish National Epic, whether its tradition is dead or alive. Finnish singer-songwriter-musician Tuomari Nurmio and author Juha Hurme are in charge of this project. Tietäjän tie (A Road for a Sage) combines kantele artist Maija Kauhanen’s amazing kantele playing and vocals with Paleface’s insightful rap rhymes.

Vesala, Järvelä & Rahmel: Tulkoon mitä vaan

Kantele artist Jutta Rahmel, singer Aili Järvelä, a great pump organ player and famous Finnish pop-artist Vesala performed this beautiful version of Tulkoon mitä vaan – a song by domestic megastar Lauri Tähkä. How different and fresh it sounds as an acoustic version! The lyrics describe the feelings caused by the ending of love and going into different directions. All three voices melt together in a totally disarming way. This trio will play some festival concerts during the summer 2020, for example Kaustinen Folk Music Festival – really looking forward to that!

ENKEL: Lempi-ihmisille

Traditional girl power from Finland: four women with one kantele, one viola and two melodeons. ENKEL is a charming girl band from Finland that plays traditional folk music. This band’s superpower is tradition – and their funny superhero theme can be seen also in the band’s promo material. One part of the quartet is well-known kantele artist and singer Maija Pokela, who also plays in several other folk bands, such as Kardemimmit. Lempi-ihmisille is a tune made for their favorite people. This tune definitely puts a smile on your face and tempts you to dance with your favorite persons. 

Anna-Karin Korhonen & Avertere: Kipinä

One might say this really is a sparky (Kipinä translates to "a spark") tune! By the band's sound, you may think that there’s a bass player also in the mix, but this isn’t quite the truth: instead of electric bass, the bass notes are played by a bass kantele. With a 39-stringed concert kantele it’s possible to play like a whole band (bass, harmonies and melodies) by yourself since this instrument’s range is over four octaves. Kantele artist Anna-Karin Korhonen composes music that combines jazz and folk music and her band Avertere interprets her pieces. You can even hear funk rhythms on this album! 

Juurakko: Sleet and Slush

Juurakko was awarded for the Artist of the Year at the Finnish Etnogala 2020. With their down-to-earth attitude, a combination of Afro-American and Finnish roots music, strong voices, rakish skiffle spirit and creative instruments made of everyday-life items, Juurakko is definitely unique! The theme of the song describes the lovely Finnish weather during winter, so this tune can be ironically dedicated to those who really enjoy it!  Juurakko's kantele player is the highly distinguished kantele artist Eija Kankaanranta, who also plays Kaija Saariaho’s music made for kantele. For example in Saariaho's opera Only the Sound Remains kanteles play an important role.  

Okra Playground: Yhdeksän kuuta

Okra Playground’s music awakes you passion to dance! This superb electro-folk ensemble is touring actively around the world. In their music, traditional acoustic instruments like small kanteles played by Maija Kauhanen and Essi Muikku and bowed lyre coexist in symbiosis with modern band instruments. Tunes made by this innovative band also include samples, synthesizer sounds and electric bass tones. Lyrics of the song are inspired by the old runosong tradition and meter, which also can be found in Kalevala. Old runosong poetry has a strong effect even in 21st century, as ancient themes concerning humanity are still present in our time. In this case the lyrics describe having a child and how nine moons must pass before that.

Duo Riikka Timonen ja Senni Eskelinen: Perillä

Jazz singer Riikka Timonen and kantele artist Senni Eskelinen form a lovely duo together. Perillä (which translates to "At the Destination"), a song made by Milla Viljamaa exudes deep calmness – just close your eyes and enjoy! Senni Eskelinen is known from many projects, especially Senni Eskelinen Stringpurée Band in which her instrument is a 39-stringed electric kantele. 

Arja Kastinen: Laulopa

Kantele-player Arja Kastinen was the first Finnish Folk Musician to take the Doctor of Music examination in artistic study programme in Sibelius Academy. Her topic was kanteles and Karelian kantele improvisation. Laulopa refers to singing and it’s played by soft-sounded bronze-stringed kantele. The changing of micro variations and thousand shades of kantele’s sound makes the listener really hold their breath. In the beginning of the 18th century, Karelian kantele players would improvise with same melody for hours involving themselves deeply in music. The sound of kantele is also very relaxing – it can calm one’s heart and mind at the same time.   

Eva Alkula & Tomoya Nakai: Humma

In this open-minded duo’s music, voices from Finland and Japan sing together in a fascinating way! A concert kantele played by Eva Alkula and Japanese koto played by Tomoya Nakai create a unique sound combination. Humma is newly arranged version of traditional Finnish folk song, which amusingly is about a horse.

Sarah Palu: Alkuääni

Sneak peek to Ikivirta, an album coming out in spring 2020 made by kantele artist and composer Sarah Palu. This is all about cinematic landscapes played by kanteles, a harp and string instruments. The production also includes soundscapes and programming. Hear the first tone of ancient times in Earth!

Bonus tracks (not on the streaming services):

Ida Elina: Dancing Queen

Yet another side of kantele! It’s amazing how same instrument can have a thousand different aspects. Kantele is pop – modern pop kantele player Ida Elina can definitely prove that! She has invented her own playing technique in which kantele is also used as percussion instrument. Her new video and version of iconic Dancing Queen shows how this all can be done by one lady and one kantele!


Rauma: Deep Ocean

In January, President Tarja Halonen chose an album called "Deep Ocean" by RAUMA as the album of the year – an acknowledgment which Finnish Kantele Association gives out yearly. The album is a proof that Kantele is widely spread globally: there’s a vital kantele culture in Japan and Japanese Hiroko Ara plays kantele in this duo. So congratulations also go to the Japan Kantele Society (Nihon Kantele tomo-no-kai) for its 10-year Anniversary celebration!

Listen to the New Finnish Tones of Kantele playlist on Spotify:


Listen to the New Finnish Tones of Kantele playlist on Apple Music:
About the author

Sanni Virta

Sanni Virta is a kantele musician, producer and editor-in-chief of Kantele magazine. Finnish Kantele Association provides information, education and news concerning kantele in Finland and worldwide. Association organizes different kind of events: International Kantele Competitions and concerts. Kantele podcast will be released in spring 2020, stay tuned!