The kantele is the national instrument of Finland and a symbol of national identity often depicted in national romantic art. It’s not closely related to the harp or dulcimer although there are similarities. The closest relatives to the kantele can be found e.g. in the Baltic countries and Russia. The instrument has been estimated to have existed for some 2000 years. The earliest forms have probably featured a small amount of strings – perhaps five. The five stringed kantele still remains the basic form of the modern kantele.
The kantele is a diatonic instrument. This means that the instruments have been tuned to a certain key or mode. Notes that don’t belong to the key can thus not be played without re-tuning the instrument. An exception for this is the concert kantele with a mechanism to produce all missing half steps by turning special metal slides. Normally a kantele is tuned so that each note of the key can be found in correct order. E.g. an 11 stringed instrument’s lowest string would be tuned to a whereas the higher ones would be tuned respectively to h, c#1, d1, e1, f#1, g1, a1, h1, c#2, d2.
Small kanteles which feature some 5 to 20 strings are usually played with the shortest string closest to the player. Plucking is the most common tehnique which can be used to play melodies often added with accompanying notes. In this technique both hands of the player have an equal role producing both melody and accompaniment notes.
Chords can be played by pulling multiple strings with the fingers of the right hand or a plectrum. The left hand is used to mute strings that don’t belong to the chords.
The big kanteles which feature over 30 strings are played with a different technique. They are played eather from the short side with the shortest string facing the player or from the long side with the longest string facing the player. The string is not picked upwards as one would pick the string of a small kantele but it’s rather pulled towards the player with the finger ending up on the string next to the one being sounded. Each hand has a special role: usually the right hand playes the melody whereas the left hand plays chords. Big kanteles (a.k.a box kanteles) were developed during the 19th century when the kantele players begun to want more strings to be able to play modern music. At this point the building technique had to be changed also. Whereas small kanteles were usually built from a single piece of wood by carving, big kanteles require construction from several pieces of board. The kantele with halftone mechanics was developed by Paul Salminen in the 1920’s. This made the use of kantele possible in e.g. classical and pop music. The ambitus of a big kantele nowadays ranges from C to c4.
The sound of a kantele is quiet compared to modern instruments like violin or accordion. In earlier days the world was not as noisy as it is now and instruments were not required to be loud. This is a reason why kantele was in danger of extinction when new instruments became popular. Nowadays kanteles are often amplified with microphones to reinforce the sound in concert situations.
In Perhonjokilaakso of the Finnish Ostrobothnia the traditional style of playing the big kantele has been preserved to these days but the tradition of the small kantele has been revived much relying on archive tapes recorded in the beginning of the 20th century in Eastern Finland and Karelia. Nowaday the kantele, however, is alive and well. There are thousands of kantele players and dozens of professional kantele musicians in Finland and the instrument has friends abroad also.
Kardemimmit play 15 stringed instruments which have 4 stringed mostly used for accompaniment (D, d, a, a) and 11 normal strings (a-d2). These instruments differ from the traditional small kanteles which don’t feature special accompaniment strings. In most of the tunes a 38-stringed concert kantele is also used, often as the instrument providing the bass tones.