Kantele in Japan

I just returned from Japan where I did a four-month internship related to guitar acoustics. I took my 15-string kantele with me. Before I went to Japan, I knew that there was a community of kantele players, mainly in Tokyo and the Hokkaido area. So, in the early days of November I set out to meet some Japanese kantele players in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

I was invited to perform at the Hakodate Earth Village festival together with three Japanese women, who turned out to be the kindest of all people. We met the previous day and practiced some songs together for the performance. And had the most delicious kaiten sushi, as Hakodate is a harbour city. My experience of Japanese so far had been of a very reserved kind, but playing all these Finnish melodies brought us closer. I am surprised how kantele can create such connections across nations.

There may be hundreds of players of kantele around Sapporo alone. Why are there Japanese people who play the kantele? I believe that Finnish folk music and the calm sound of the kantele appeal to the calm, nature-appreciating Japanese. After the performance in the Hakodate Youth Centre, an old man came to ask for my name to his notebook. He said he collected all the artists’ names he had listened to. And he thanked us for taking him to the forest with our music.

As far as I know, this kantele connection between Finland and Japan has existed for quite some time. There is a duo composed of a kantele player Eva Alkula and a koto player Tomoya Nakai. Many Finnish kantele players have performed in Japan. Last spring I had a chance to hear a Japanese duo called Rauma at Pitskun Kulttuurikirkko in Helsinki. Many Japanese kantele players I spoke to had been to Sommelo kantele camps. And my guess is there are many things bubbling under the surface.

Finally, in Sapporo I talked about my kantele research to the Sapporo kantele club members, the most hospitable kantele players and enthusiasts I have met. They gave me great ideas to study further in the acoustics of the kantele, and many pieces of Finnish dried rye bread, which I had missed since moving to Japan. Thank you very much!

One particular question that was raised got really stuck in my mind. How do the different ways of knotting the kantele string affect the sound? Knotting in general has been studied previously. Yet, the instrument builders seem to know much more about it, since they are marketing kanteles with different sound for different kind of music. I have often heard that in folk music, a lot of beating is essential, while in classical music, a more direct sound may be preferred. This is definitely something to look further into.

More about kantele in Japan.

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