Essentially, the kantele consists of strings wrapped around tuning pins, which are attached to a wooden resonator box. The amount of strings can vary from 5 to 40. In most kanteles, there is a sound hole on the top plate. The strings are typically strummed or plucked. The kantele is said to belong to the family of zithers.
The Finnish folk like to call the kantele their national instrument. After all, its birth is described in the national epic Kalevala. The hero Väinämöinen would enchant everyone with his playing.
However, kantele-like instruments are not only found in Finland, but also in North-West Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Consequently, there are many shapes and sizes of kantele, and there is not a clear definition of what exactly makes a kantele (or kannel, kokle, kankles, gusli, krez, kysle, gesle, göslä, sangwyltäp, nars-juh..).
To me, it is fascinating that the kantele may have different wood materials, string materials, body shape, the way strings are attached to the body, and consequently different kind of sound. And yet, there is something that makes all the kanteles feel similar. There is much work to be done in the acoustical analysis of these different kanteles. Perhaps it could be possible to extract some common features to the kantele sound. I hope to write about that in this blog.
The kantele folks have recently been mapped in a Finnish-driven project called “Kindred of Kantele”. In the overview of the project you can also find more detailed analysis of what is the kantele. The project consists of field trips to meet the peoples who play the kantele. As a result, a series of books will be published. The field recordings have already been released as a radio series at YLE. And of course, they are available for purchase on iTunes.