Kindred of Kantele | Overview in English


by Timo Väänänen

from the first book of series: Baltian kantelekansat (Kindred of Kantele of Baltic peoples)

translation by Nathan Riki Thomson & Timo Väänänen

The Journey Begins

Latvialainen kanteleensoittaja Laima Jansone esiintyy kanteleillassa Riiassa | Latvian kokles player Laima Jansone.
Latvialainen kanteleensoittaja Laima Jansone esiintyy kanteleillassa Riiassa

We start our journey towards kindred of kantele in the Baltic countries, the area on the adjacent map that is maybe the most familiar to us Finns aside from Finland and Karelia. Weʼll travel to meet players, instrument builders, teachers, and researchers. The journey will take us to workshops, museums, schools, concert halls, and clubs where weʼll see and hear a diversity of instruments.

There are a lot of different kanteles in Finland. The various forms are different enough that in a sense they are separate instruments, but we see them as one – we call them collectively by the name kantele. There are also instruments similar to our kanteles elsewhere. After the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian instruments are introduced in this book, the journey continues in three more books, with the adjacent map as our guide.

Kantele-like instruments

There is no exact definition of what makes a kantele or a similar instrument, and creating one is not the aim of this book, either. The purpose instead is to get to know a rich group of string instruments in north-eastern Europe and western Siberia. The articles are founded on the experiences and thoughts of various players, builders, and researchers about their instruments. Included in the books are the peoples who both have a long history with Baltic psaltery, zither, and lyre instruments and also use and build the instruments today.

The material for the series of books comes from field trips and literature. Weʼre not trying to tell everything about each peopleʼs instrument – that would be an impossible task – instead we want to take the reader along to meet interesting people.

In the end of each peopleʼs chapter there is a densely packed introduction to the history, structure, literature, research, and music of their instrument. All the field trips needed for the books have not been made yet, so there will be new information in each consecutive volume.

Altogether the four books will present sixteen peoples and their instruments. The contents have been divided into the following volumes, loosely based on geography and language groups:

  1. Kindred of Kantele of Baltic peoples
  2. Kindred of Kantele of Volga peoples
  3. Kindred of Kantele of Slavic peoples
  4. Kindred of Kantele of Northern peoples

Peoples and the names of their instruments

Baltic Sea – Black Sea
  • Karelians: kantele
  • Finns: kantele, kannel
  • Vepsians: kandel, stribunik
  • Estonians: kannel
  • Latvians: kokle, kokles
  • Lithuanians: kanklės
  • Russians: gusli
  • Belarusians: gusli
  • Ukrainians: husli
  • Polish: gęśle
Volga area:
  • Udmurts: krez
  • Maris:   kärš, kysle
  • Tatars: göslä
  • Chuvash:   kesle, kösle, kysle
Western Siberia
  • Khanty: nars-juh, narkas-juh
  • Mansi: sangwyltäp

Field Trips

For our first field trip we went to Mikkeli in south-eastern Finland, where we had a chance to interview two Karelian kantele players and teachers with different backgrounds. Elli Sonkkanen arrived in Mikkeli as a refugee during the Second World War and has been teaching kantele for years at the Community College of Mikkeli. Valentina Matvejeva, on the other hand, moved to Mikkeli in the 1990s from The Republic of Karelia of the Russian Federation and has since worked as a kantele teacher in the Mikkeli Music Institute.

The destinations for the second field trip were Moscow and Udmurtia in 2008, when Leena Häkkinen, Kari Dahlblom and I made the first Kindred of Kantele radio feature for YLE Radio 1 Radioateljee. It was an unforgettable experience to get such a warm welcome in Udmurtia, as if we were old friends or relatives. The playing in Udmurtia was a mixture of exotic new and startlingly familiar. The playing style was very similar to the style of Finnish master folk player Toivo Alaspää (1929–2007), a representative of the traditional Perho River Valley style from Ostrobotnia in western Finland.

In Moscow we met the Kupina orchestra and professor Ljubov Zhuk, both at the Gnesinsʼs Academy of Music. We got to hear astonishingly virtuosic ensemble playing with developed wing-shaped guslis. We also visited The Glinka Museum of Musical Culture with Pavel Lukojanov, one of Kupinaʼs players, to see the kantele and the similar instruments on display.

The third field trip in the summer of 2010 led us to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. We interviewed a lot of people working in as many roles with kantele as possible.


Kanteleen kielin: Baltian kantelekansat | Luthier Egidijus Virbašius in the cover of the first book of the series.
Kanteleen kielin: Baltian kantelekansat | Luthier Egidijus Virbašius in the cover of the first book of the series.

In Lithuania we met Egidijus Virbašius, a luthier who builds traditional kanklėses: both replicas of old models and developed versions. He also builds concert instruments for the Lithuanian market and for export. He studied to be a musician, and in the interview he told us how he came to be a luthier. We also visited The Povilas Stulgas Museum of Lithuanian Folk Instruments in Kaunas and met Romualdas Apanavičius, a researcher there. In Vilnius we visited the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and  familiarized ourselves with the academic music education of kanklės. We also recorded a duo piece for kanklės and birbynė, a traditional wind instrument.

In Latvia our group was treated to a music club in Riga. There were folk musicians, classical players, and groups of children and teenagers performing in the club, and we heard traditional folk tunes, compositions, fusion music, bands, and soloists. In the end there was dancing; a group of several kokleses were jamming, and the members of a local folk dancing club led the dancers. In Latvia we also met Kaspars Bārbals, the kokle-playing member of the folk metal band Skyforger, with whom we talked about the power of the sound of a traditional kokles and the challenges of amplifying the kokles when the PA-system is cranked up to 110 decibels.


Quite Quiet Duo eli virolaiset Jaak Sooäär ja Tuule Kann kertovat kirjassa musiikistaan ja soittavat Baltian kantelekansat -äänitteellä. | Quite Quiet Duo: Tuule Kann & Jaak Sooäär in Estonia.
Quite Quiet Duo eli virolaiset Jaak Sooäär ja Tuule Kann kertovat kirjassa musiikistaan ja soittavat Baltian kantelekansat -äänitteellä. | Quite Quiet Duo: Tuule Kann & Jaak Sooäär in Estonia.

In Rapla in Estonia we witnessed a kannel building workshop in Kandlekoda. Pupils designed their own models and built them under the tutelage of Rait Pihlap. In Tallinn we interviewed Tuule Kann, who told us about her life as a professional kannel player. We also recorded a piece by Tuule Kann and Jaak Sooäär (electric guitar).

The destination of the fourth field trip was the Karelian Republic in the Russia Federation in 2010. We visited the music schools of Pryazha and Olonets and the rehearsals of the youth band Jeans Kantele in the children and youth palace of Petrozavotsk. In the National Museum of Karelia we got to see museum instruments. We also visited the new premises of the state dance and singing orchestra Kantele. We also met the Vepsian kantele player Juri Mugatchev, who told us stories of his life and also sang and played for our recording. We also saw new Vepsian and Karelian style kanteles made in the workshop of the teacher academy that we visited with Vladilen Tropin.


Marilainen koululainen soittaa kanteletta kouluaineena. | School ensemble playing kärsh in Mari El Republic, Russia.
Marilainen koululainen soittaa kanteletta kouluaineena. | School ensemble playing kärsh in Mari El Republic, Russia.

For the fifth field trip we headed to the Volga area in Tatarstan, Chuvashia, and the Mari El Republic in the autumn 2011. From the everyday Finnish perspective it sounds very exotic, but in truth we only needed to change trains once after leaving Helsinki and Lahti.

The Volga trip was a veritable treasure trove. We visited both the Tatarstan and Chuvashian national museums to see old kanteles. We saw several schools with kantele-like instruments, the Culture College in Yoshkar-Ola, among others. We got to see wonderful concerts; for example, we saw a sold-out concert of the State Folk Instrument Orchestra of the Tatarstan Republic in Kazan and the concert of Etnogenez and Sergei Starostin in Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia.


Puolalainen Robert Jaworski soittaa Gdanskin géşleä jousella. | Robert Jaworski playing gȩśle lyre with a bow in Warsaw.
Puolalainen Robert Jaworski soittaa Gdanskin géşleä jousella. | Robert Jaworski playing gȩśle lyre with a bow in Warsaw.

At the end of the year 2011 we made a sixth field trip to Poland to meet a player of the bowed lyre. Robert Jaworski has had a copy made of the old Gdańsk lyre, modified to be playable with a bow. Because of the short time available to us, some of us went to Gdańsk to see the remains of the original, and some stayed in Warsaw to see the concert of a band Robert plays in—in the Hard Rock Cafe Warsaw, no less.

The seventh field trip was a sort of surgical strike to meet one man we missed on our first trip to Baltia: Estonian folk player Aivar Arak. His charmingly uncomplicated attitude towards kannel and musicianship was very refreshing.

Single interviews in Finland have been made in addition to the actual field trips. In the autumn of 2012 kantele players visited Sibelius Academy from Udmurtia, and later we had another visit by the band Sornay from Tatarstan.

The trips to Khanty-Mansia, Belarus, and Ukraine have not been made yet. 

From the very beginning it was clear to our group that all the material from the field trips would be recorded with as high an audio quality as possible so as not to restrict the later use. One example where this principle paid off is the radio series in 17 parts made for YLE Radio 1 by Leena Häkkinen and myself. The series was broadcasted within The Night of Folk Music by Sirkka Halonen during the spring 2012. Also related to the book we have an album, edited by Matti Kontio and myself. The pieces of music in the album are marked on the corresponding pages in the book and summarised in the end. The album is being sold digitally in the iTunes store.

Kindred of Kantele

We have included four different instrument types in this book. They are all similar to Finnish kantele; its kindred. In Finnish we have named some of the types during the project because they donʼt have established Finnish names. The traditional instrument on the east coast of Baltic Sea is most often called the Baltic psaltery. In the Hornbostel–Sachs classification system these instruments are board zithers. Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, and Belarusian small zithers are of this type. They have traditionally been carved out of a single piece of wood, and the string placement is fan-like (with smaller gaps between the strings on one end and bigger gaps on the other). The strings are attached on one end to tuning pegs and on the other often to a metal rod. Modern versions are often built from smaller pieces of wood that has not been carved.

The lyre closely resembles the Baltic psaltery, but it has an opening that can be used for playing the instrument from the bottom side. The oldest lyre findings are from the ancient city of Novgorod in Russia and Gdańsk and Opole in Poland. In the area included in the book the folk tradition for lyres has broken and there is no old living tradition for lyre music in the area. However, the lyre is used again nowadays in folk music.

Before we interviewed culture historian Aaro Söderlund for our book and radio series, he prepared for the task by exploring the myth of Väinämöinen in the Kalevala and his first kantele, which he supposedly built out of a jawbone of an immense pike. Söderlund went to a fish seller in the market hall in Turku and asked for the biggest pike head available. At home he cooked it clean. He observed that it bore no resemblance to traditional carved Baltic psalteries. However, if you put strings on the jawbone from teeth on one side to the corresponding teeth on the other, you get a string placement that resembles the psalteriums of the Volga area and elsewhere.  

The psalterium is a symmetrical instrument that usually has parallel strings (as if attached to the teeth of a jawbone). Itʼs common in the Volga area among Tatars, Chuvash, Maris, and Udmurts. The string placement of developed zithers is often close to that of the psalterium. For example, the Finnish 19-string Kirjokansi, designed by Jyrki Pölkki and Ilari Ikävalko, has been influenced by psalteriums for its string placement. The stars in brackets in the accompanying table signify these new but relatively rare forms of psalteriums. [In Russian and sometimes in Finnish, too, these kinds of instruments are called helmet shape instruments.]

Slanted zither is our term for asymmetrical, often large instruments with parallel strings. These are usually a relatively new, developed form of zither. Examples of this group are the Finnish concert kantele and Estonian concert kannel.

Common and well known

The status of kantele-like instruments of different peoples varies greatly. In many places, however, the image of the instrument is very similar; itʼs thought of as a rare and almost extinct instrument. This image is false in most cases.

700 pianos were sold in Finland in 2003. If electric pianos are included, the total is 2200 pianos. Pianos are thought of as a very usual kind of instrument. 

Kanteles are made by many luthiers and instrument makers in Finland. The exact sales figures are not available, but itʼs estimated to be between 2 and 3 thousand a year. Thatʼs roughly the same amount of new kanteles every year as new pianos. The majority of kanteles are of the small 5-string variety, with sales figures proportional to the size and price of the model. The 5-string kanteles are widely used in music schools, which adds to the demand.

Of course, pianos and kanteles are not quite comparable, as  in most cases pianos are more expensive and always larger, but the example shows that kanteles seems to be much more widely used in reality than in our collective imagination.

If we count together the population of those peoples who have a kantele-like instrument, we end up with some 265 million people who might know a relative of kantele as their own traditional instrument. If we only count people with whom the official status of the instrument is strong, we still end up with 150 million people.

In Finland itʼs often thought that kantele is only a Finnish instrument, and the similar instruments are Finno-Ugric. This is at least partly a misconception. Most people with a kantele-like instrument speak Slavic languages, even if most of the peoples with kantele-related instruments belong to the Finno-Ugric language group. Then we have Baltic and Turkish languages as well. Actually, we should also include Swedish because at least in Finland some of the Swedish-speaking minority plays kantele and have probably done so for centuries. The same might be true in Estonia even if we donʼt have facts about that yet. The Swedish-speaking people in Estonia have played at least middle European zithers and bowed lyres.

The Official Status

The official status of kantele-like instruments seems to be quite varied; some people have given their instruments a strong official status while some have not. In this case official status means that there is research and education on an instrument, and due to this there are also professional players and teachers. Instrument building seems to be a special case that doesnʼt necessarily reflect the otherwise strong status of an instrument. Educational status may be strong but there may still be no professional instrument makers.


Marilainen kanteleensoittaja ja -tutkija Marina Eltemerova työskentelee Joškar-Olan kulttuurialan ammattiopistossa. | Researcher and kärsh player Marina Eletemerova is lecturer in the Culture College of Yoshkar-Ola in Mari Republic, Russia.
Marilainen kanteleensoittaja ja -tutkija Marina Eltemerova työskentelee Joškar-Olan kulttuurialan ammattiopistossa. | Researcher and kärsh player Marina Eletemerova is lecturer in the Culture College of Yoshkar-Ola in Mari Republic, Russia.

The official status of kantele and its kindred seems to be with the Finnish, Karelian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Chuvash, Udmurt, and Mari peoples.

For these last three, the Chuvash, Udmurt, and Mari people, the instrument building situation is worrying. The instruments are often in bad repair, there is no easily available maintenance, and even the strings are hard to get. With Udmurts the situation is a bit better, since thereʼs at least one luthier who makes the traditional krez in Udmurtia.

The status for kantele-like instruments seems to be weak with the Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Tatars, and Vepsian peoples. There are many different reasons for this for each people.

In Poland the lyre is making a comeback after a millennium long pause. There were archaeological findings of an ancient lyre in Gdańsk from the time before the Polish people moved to the area, so the Polish people have no folk tradition connected to the lyre found in their country. The same is true for the lyre of the area included in our project. As plucked instruments, ancient lyres have disappeared from northeastern Europe, and they have only been revived after archaeological findings, the most important of these possibly being the ones from Novgorod. However, lyres have survived in many places as bowed instruments; for example, jouhikko in Karelia and Finland, and hiiukannel in Estonia.

There are only a couple of players who know the lyres of Gdańsk in Poland. Without a tradition to lean on, itʼs been quite challenging to revive the instruments.

Since the field trips to Belarus and Ukraine have not been made yet, we donʼt know what kind of status the kantele-related instruments have there. The situation with the Ukrainian husli is especially unclear as the instrument seems to be quite rare.

Weʼve already received some information of the Belarusian gusli, mainly from a phone interview with musician and luthier Ales Chumakou. According to him the tradition for the Belarusian gusli was broken about a hundred years ago, but the revival is now going on. Know-how for instrument building has been learned among others from Latvian Donāts Vucins. The revival is based on the museum instruments, just like elsewhere. For example, Ales Chumakou has studied the instruments in the  Russian Museum of Ethnography in Saint Petersburg. They also have Belarusian guslis in their collection.

From our field trip, one might have drawn a conclusion that göslä, the traditional instrument of the Tatars, is no longer in use. After the trip we received new information; researcher Gennadi Makarov has made field trips to Tatar villages and found and recorded a still living göslä tradition.

The status of Vepsian kandel seems to relate to the small size of the people. It looks like a distinctly Vepsian tradition hasnʼt been maintained, but instead it has become part of the Karelian tradition. However, Vladilen Tropin and his woodworking teacher students are actively building the Vepsian kandels in Petrozavodsk.

The planned trip to West Siberia will undoubtedly shed more light on where Khanty and Mansi people stand with their instruments. They are the only peoples outside of Europe included in our project. From what we have been able to find out beforehand, lyres are in active use with both peoples, and education for the instruments even exists. Additionally, the Ob-Ugrian Peoples Theatre uses the lyres in their performances.

Sources of Information and inspiration

One of our information sources has been the Internet, especially YouTube. The main trouble is finding the right words for the searches, but once you dig in to different sources and use automatic translation services with a creative mind, you might find traces of even very rare instruments. For us, the most exhilarating finding from YouTube was the video of Russian Sergiy Proshkin from 2008. He sings and plays a gusli that closely resembles a kantele typical to Central Finland. We havenʼt met him yet, but his playing looks and sounds very familiar to us.

The Internet and YouTube can also be credited for the fact that we have included Ukrainians and Belarusians in our book series. Without the Internet, we wouldnʼt have known about their kantele-related instruments. 

Of course we used more traditional literary sources as well. The extensive archives and knowledge of Kari Dahlblom have been invaluable. As a Russian translator, he has made possible many interviews and other field trip arrangements. Kari also knows the Finnish tradition very well; he was honoured with a title of Master Folk Player in 2012. ”The more I have got to know the kindred of kantele, the more I also have learned to appreciate our own instruments – especially the ones from Central Finland where I come from!” Kari said this when we discussed the significance of the Finnish kantele.

Leena Häkkinen has also grown up with the kantele of Central Finland; her father is a kantele player from Keuruu. Yet her connection with kantele was different in our project. She was looking for a sound theme for a Radioateljee radio feature and contacted me. What followed were our trip to Udmurtia in 2008 and the Kindred of Kantele project after that. ”Every people and every person we have met on our travels, have a common language in the music made with kanteles and its kin,” Leena reflected in the last episode of our radio series when interviewed by radio editor Sirkka Halonen. ”I was struck by the situation of our host in Poland, Robert Jaworski. He seemed so baffled about the fact that somebody is interested in him and his instrument. In Poland he is very much alone, and that makes me think that it would make sense for the kindred of kantele people to network in some way.”

Music producer and kantele player Matti Kontio pondered the significance of getting to know the instruments of other peoples in his interview in the beginning of the radio series. ”Itʼs been very interesting to see so many different solutions that can be made with the instruments and also in the music. These possible variations exist as a potential in every similar instrument, but they arenʼt utilized everywhere. The spectrum of different tones is astonishingly large.”

My own interest in the kantele-like instruments of different peoples originated in the kantele lessons of Kari Dahlblom. I started to play kantele at the Community College of Mikkeli with folk player Elli Sonkkanen as my teacher, and soon after I also started lessons at the Mikkeli Music Institute with Kari Dahlblom. That was the first time I heard other people who also had instruments similar to kantele. This interested my young mind a lot, and the interest hasnʼt faded since.

The lectures Iʼve been given over the years at the Sibelius Academy for kantele students of classical music have also inspired this book series. When I first gave these lectures in the 1990s, there was no easily available knowledge for the kindred of kantele. I hope this book series helps to remedy that situation.

Timo Väänänen soittaa länsisiperialaista lyyrakanteletta. | Timo Väänänen plays West Siberian lyre.
Timo Väänänen soittaa länsisiperialaista lyyrakanteletta. | Timo Väänänen plays West Siberian lyre.