Maija Kauhanen – Unorthodox kantele antics

Maija Kauhanen is not just an enormously gifted kantele prodigy, but also a versatile multi-instrumentalist and a singer-songwriter, who has just released her second solo album "Menneet". In this interview she speaks about touring, breaking barriers as a kantele player and cooking food for an audience.

In a week Maija Kauhanen will be off to the United States for a tour with her band Okra Playground.

“It’s called the Arts Midwest World Fest tour”, she tells me.

“A bunch of Nordic bands have played there during the years. We’re going to do gigs in both schools and concert halls. We’re playing in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.”

The tour is an educational leg with workshops, teaching and meeting lots of new people, mostly elementary and upper secondary school children.

“We filmed some educational videos in advance. We told the kids about the kantele, taught them some easy body percussion rhythms and even showed them some ice skating and taught them how to bake Finnish pancakes”, she laughs.

Many Midwest states such as Wisconsin and Michigan have Finnish American inhabitants. Thus, Kauhanen says that her band also has a role as Finnish cultural ambassadors.

“People over there have always been very interested in Finnish bands. [The vocal group] Tuuletar and [kantele quartet] Kardemimmit have done similar tours with workshops as well.”

It takes a pro to do all this

Kauhanen also mentions the huge international art festival WOMAD in the UK, which she participated in 2019. Apart from playing it also included a segment called “Cooking with artists”, where the musicians prepared a cooking show where they make food from their home country. Who knew?

“I was supposed to make a blueberry pie, but I’m a lousy cook. So instead [Kauhanen’s audio engineer] Samuli Volanto baked the pie and I played some kantele!”

Kauhanen thinks that it takes a certain kind of person to be able to do all this. A professional, who is not only a gifted musician, but who has some social skills as well.

I was supposed to make a blueberry pie, but I’m a lousy cook. So instead my audio engineer Samuli baked the pie and I played some kantele!

“You’re treated as a guest from dawn to dusk: In the morning you do a school gig and a workshop, in the evening you play at the club or at the hall. After that you’re invited for dinner with the organizers. You answer different questions from culture to politics. You are constantly in contact with other people.”

Being a pedagogical pro is required as well. Bands and artists who do workshops get better tours.

“You never know what kind of people show up to your workshop. One day it might be a choir, the other day a group of fiddlers. The participants are of all ages and skill levels. Situations vary from day to day so you have to be able to change your teaching style on the go.”

No prophet in her own land

These kinds of tours differ a whole lot from the ones that pop and rock artists do. Finnish folk artists have been taking over foreign continents for years, but it’s not something the average Finnish audience would know of.

Kauhanen has found herself overseas playing on large festivals for crowds of thousands, whe in Finland her audience may consist of some fifty people.

“Of course I love playing for all kinds of audiences, but sometimes it feels that the people in Finland don’t really acknowledge the success our folk music bands have abroad.”

Sometimes it feels that the people in Finland don’t really acknowledge the success our folk music bands have abroad.

Luckily for instance the Helsinki-based Flow Festival has recognized the domestic scene, she compliments. The festival did some collaborative booking with The University of the Arts Helsinki a few years back. Kauhanen’s band Okra Playground, the six-piece progressive folk pop powerhouse, got booked as well.

“It was great. The stage was always packed and people were really mesmerized to find out about music like this. They didn’t even know this kind of stuff existed!”

The Saarijärvi kantele

Maija Kauhanen’s weapon of choice is the Saarijärvi kantele. It’s smaller than the lavish concert kantele but more versatile than the kanteles she’s playing with in Okra Playground. The one she uses right now has 23 strings and is built by her father.

Saarijärvi is a town in Central Finland with a folk music tradition of its own. The instrument has a distinct playing style: Instead of using your fingers you pluck it with a short wooden stick – a plectrum of sorts.

Kauhanen admits she doesn’t have any personal connections to Saarijärvi. She’s lived in Southern Finland for almost her whole life. But after high school she moved to Kaustinen to study folk music in a community college. Her teacher was Pauliina Syrjälä, a master of the Saarijärvi kantele.

If you can tell that my music sounds like it’s played by one person, I get bored and try to challenge myself.

“It was thanks to her I got fond of the instrument. It has a loud, gritty sound, and it’s quite light. My kantele weighs about three kilos.”

Kauhanen’s style is unique. She’s incorporated a wide range of percussive elements to her sound. This makes her a fascinating live artist: on the stage she is surrounded by a set of percussion from bells and cymbals to a bass drum. Then she starts to move all of her limbs, creating a multi-layered sound image of twinkling strings, percussive snaps and crackles and her own voice.

“I record my own playing and analyze it relentlessly. If you can tell that it sounds like it’s played by one person, I get bored and try to challenge myself. At the same time I’m trying not to make it too technical or difficult.”

Finding your voice in isolation

Kauhanen released her second solo album "Menneet" in May. It’s a collection of very personal songs that have escaped the traditional form of a Finnish folk song.

For the first time Kauhanen has written a set of lyrics completely of her own. The songs deal with love, people and atmospheres gone past. The album has a beautiful, melancholic tone.

“I moved to a cabin in the woods in Espoo when the pandemic hit. I guess I had to be in isolation for a while to get these songs out of my system.”

Yet Kauhanen ruminated, if she actually is allowed to do it all in her own way. At times her idiosyncratic approach to her instrument is something some hardcore traditionalists have shunned. Her current kantele has a striking pink color and she’s known for her flamboyant performance outfits. That seems to be a no-no in some people’s books.

“I’ve been dealing a lot with questions about what I’m ‘allowed’ to do. People have come up to me after shows saying that they don’t understand what my thing is all about. I’ve even got phone calls telling me that I shouldn’t be this experimental.”

People have come up to me after shows saying that they don’t understand what my thing is all about.

It feels hard to understand this kind of feedback. But apparently there is no business like strictly traditional old school kantele business.

Luckily Kauhanen didn’t have to seek her personal voice completely on her own. She thanks her dear friend Helmi Camus, her colleague from her other band Rönsy, who encouraged her to keep going. Camus ended up as the album’s artistic advisor.

“Helmi came over to Espoo several times. I played my songs to her and she gave her poignant feedback and ideas. She’s a person I truly can trust: If she says she likes something, I know it has to be good.”

Most of the reactions Kauhanen evokes with her unorthodox kantele antics are highly excited. She tells me about videos of young kids playing the kantele in creative ways and clanking some metal pots in the process – something she has directly inspired.

“I’m like ‘yeah, that’s the spirit’”, she cheers.


Maija Kauhanen: Menneet

(Nordic Notes, 2022)