When was the last time you heard something you’ve never heard before? Something truly unique and hard to categorize. If it takes you more than five seconds to answer, take a listen to Maija Kauhanen and you’ll search no more.
Kauhanen, born in 1986, is a Finnish one-woman band, singer, songwriter and player of kantele, the Finnish traditional chord instrument. In her live set she combines modern beats with folklore elements and powerful singing. The unique choice of instrument was somehow destined to her already at the age of one when she accidentally lost one of her little fingers. Many other instruments, such as the violin, require the use of one’s left little finger, so kantele was a natural choice for her.
But Maija Kauhanen isn’t a one-instrument woman, as she also plays the piano, harmonium, percussions and the saxophone, only to name a few.
The powerful sound of kantele
There are many different types of kanteles, but Kauhanen is focused on the Saarijärvi one, originating from the Central Finland region. She loves the rich and powerful sound of it, and has a special way of playing the chords, using a small wooden stick as a plectrum.
“People often ask me why I don’t use a plastic plectrum. But I find that the wooden ones have a more interesting sound. To be honest I actually use these wooden sticks made originally for barbeque purposes, so nothing fancy!” she laughs.
When Kauhanen initially started playing the Saarijärvi kantele, there weren’t too many instruments available. The problem was solved when her father started building them himself. Now Maija Kauhanen can make specific wishes to her father and order a pink instrument with seven bass strings if that is what she wants.
Kauhanen released her debut solo album Raivopyörä (“The Whirl of Rage”) earlier this year, through the German label Nordic Notes. She wanted to take her time gathering pieces together for her debut release. The first songs took form already in 2009 and over the years they reshaped themselves in her live set.
She and the producer of the album, Colin Bass, found each other through a mutual friend. The two hit it off and Bass came to Helsinki to work on the album’s recording with Kauhanen.
“I had a strong vision of what I wanted the album to be like. Fortunately he didn’t want to dramatically change any of that. He brought in ideas about the sound and the multitracking which we used”, Kauhanen says.
Besides her solo career Maija Kauhanen also plays in various bands. But keeping things under control and performing solo is something she finds very natural.
“Kantele isn’t a typical band instrument, and at some point I realized that there’s no point in waiting for others to ask me to join their bands. So I formed my own”, Kauhanen recalls the start of her solo career.
Preserving or renewing?
The Finns have a special bond to the sound of kantele: it’s in our dna, and most of us have played the instrument in pre-school. But outside of Finland the sound is less familiar. After touring the world with her music, Kauhanen has found that after concerts people often want to take photos and touch the instrument. When asked to describe the instrument, Kauhanen often describes kantele as a mix of harp, guitar and sitra.
Back in the days folk music had a functional purpose: to accompany barn dances or parties, and that way it could be heard everywhere by everyone. In that way folk music used to be mainstream. Nowadays it’s more in the margins.
Kauhanen feels that as a folk artist she carries the responsibility to pass the knowledge to future generations so that the tradition won’t disappear. This is part of the reason why she teaches kids to play the Saarijärvi kantele.
“There’s also the question of preserving a certain aspect of culture: what does it actually mean? Does it mean we have to copy what was done before or to renew it in our own manners? I actually try not to feel any pressure in preserving cultural heritage while making my own music, and instead try to do my own thing.”
In a perfect world, in Kauhanen’s mind, radio stations would play more versatile genres, including folk music. But it’s not all bad: thanks to online streaming services, Spotify and Youtube, folk music is easily accessible to all. The question is, how to get people to find it.
“If I get one person who’s not interested in folk music to come to my show, I’m happy. Afterwards they never say that it was a waste of time.”
Multitasking and improvising requires practice
As a songwriter Maija Kauhanen finds inspiration in the past and the present. Sometimes she listens to old archive recordings to catch inspiration. She also records a lot of her own improvisation session and afterwards grabs the best parts to start constructing a song.
One thing that affected her song writing was when she started taking drum classes in 2009. She initially got the idea after realizing that while playing the kantele her feet were doing nothing.
“I love doing many things at a time. Maybe multitasking is a characteristic of mine. I’d rather just do things than only think about doing them”, Kauhanen says.
In her live sets she doesn’t use loopers but plays everything live. This causes challenges and requires a lot of practicing, just to get her fingers, feet and arms to go where they’re supposed to go, while singing at the same time. She also practices making mistakes, so that when something unexpected happens, she’s prepared to continue. Rehearsing a lot means that she’s able to also improvise on stage.
Maija Kauhanen’s songs require concentration from the audience as they can last up to ten of fifteen minutes.
“People are used to hearing songs that are around three minutes and are constructed in a certain way”, she says.
“My songs are not like that, and if you’re in a very hectic state of mind you might have a hard time focusing on my music. But you just have to embrace the fact that this might take a while and let your spirit run free.”
She feels that in her live shows she invites people to join her musical universe for a while.
“It’s worth the risk to go and see something different. You don’t need to analyse or understand it. You can just try to feel it.”
The article originally appeared @ Finnish Music Quarterly, October 2017.
The FMQ (Finnish Music Quarterly) has been a showcase in English for Finnish musical culture since 1985.
On the new and improved FMQ website you can keep up to date with our newest articles, columns, reviews and topics of the week. Selected articles from our archives 1985-2005 have been posted online, and the selection is continuously being added to (www.fmq.fi/archives).
Photo Credits: (1),(3) Maija Kauhanen, (2) Okra Playground, (4) Runorun, (5) Finnish Music Quarterly (unknown/website).