Wilho Saari can trace the tradition of kantele-playing back five generations in his family. The kantele, a lap-harp reminiscent of the zither, is the national instrument of Finland. Saari's great-great grandmother, Kreeta Hapasalo, known as Kantele Kreeta, supported her 11 children by traveling throughout Finland, Russia, and Sweden performing for the public, as well as royalty, including the tsar's family.
In 1915, Wilho's father moved to Naselle, Washington, joining many Finnish immigrants living in that area of southwestern Washington. In 1982, at the age of 50, Wilho began to take the playing of the kantele seriously. Since then he has become a prolific composer of songs and tunes, estimating that he has written over 1,700 to date. Saari is also in demand as a performer at Finnish festivals across the country and he continues to teach in workshops and through apprenticeship programs. While he is known as a generous teacher, his greatest gift may be the individual songs he has written and dedicated to each of his six grandchildren.
NEA: First of all, congratulations on your award. Could you talk a little bit about how you felt when you heard the news?
MR. SAARI: I felt numb. Both my wife and I just felt it was unreal. It was completely unexpected.
NEA: No other kantele player has ever gotten the National Heritage Fellowship.
MR. SAARI: I am honored. There aren't that many kantele players in this country. There are a few from different parts of the country, but I'm the one who picked up the ball here in the Northwest, starting about 25 years back, and it has been spreading around the Northwest through various workshops.
NEA: I understand you began playing when you were 50 years old.
MR. SAARI: Yes, I was 50. I had just turned 50.
NEA: Why did you decide to begin playing then?
MR. SAARI: I grew up hearing my dad play almost every night after work. That was Dad's thing. My two uncles also played. My great-grandmother was a well-known kantele player in Finland in the 1800s. Naselle is a small community of about 1,500 people which used to be very heavily Finnish -- there are still lot of Finns here -- and being the Finnish national instrument the kantele was a big deal. I grew up playing band instruments, piano and organ -- I wanted to play the instruments that the other kids played. The kantele was Dad's thing. And though I didn't play it, I knew how he played it.
He passed away in 1968 and I inherited his kantele. One day in 1982, I was at home and my wife was at work, and I took out the kantele and just decided to try it out. As I said, I knew how it was played. I had so much fun I got hooked on it right away.
NEA: Why was it so much fun?
MR. SAARI: It was easy to play. It was easy to pick up and having a music background I knew how it was done. I wasn't really a string instrument player, but this instrument was easy to pick up. In the community at that time here there was only one other elderly man who played the kantele.
NEA: I read that you have written about 1,700 songs.
MR. SAARI: I write a lot of music. My tunes don't have words because I'm not a poet and I know that. It's a pasttime.
kanteles come in a variety of sizes. The small ones are five- or ten-stringers. I play a large kantele with 36 strings. When I retired from work 14 years ago, I received a ten-string kantele as a retirement gift. You play the big ones totally differently than the small ones. I just started plunking on it to make up tunes and writing the music down. I would write it out and then have it put into the computer. I have a music program. Right now I'm working on my 37th book of tunes.
NEA: What are the differences in how the different sized kanteles are played?
MR. SAARI: The kantele was originally a five- string instrument. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, a huge book of folk tales about Finnish life from way back, can be sung in Finnish to a little five note tune. It's in the same meter as Longfellow's "Hiawatha" -- in fact, I've heard that Longfellow got the idea for the meter for "Hiawatha" from the Kalevela. Long ago they would sing the Kalevala accompanied by the five-string kantele. Most five- and ten-string kanteles are strummed as accompaniment for a song. I'm really not a strummer. The big kanteles are played differently. I'm more of a plucker. On the large kantele the right hand will play the melody and the left will do the accompaniments.
NEA: Do most people begin learning on the five-string instrument?
MR. SAARI: Yes. I started with the big one first, but in most of workshops where I've taught the beginners were playing five- or ten-stringers. After two or three years many move on to the large kantele.
NEA: Do you enjoy teaching?
MR. SAARI: I've gotten quite involved in teaching in workshops. It's very fascinating. At some of the larger workshops they'll have somebody from Finland teach the more advanced students. Those of us from here zero in on the beginners.
NEA: Are there any challenges to keeping the kantele tradition going?
MR. SAARI: Recently they've started making electric kanteles. My dad, I believe, had the world's first electric kantele, made around 1942 by Paul Tutmarc, who more or less invented the electric guitar. By today's standards it was a very crude set up –- a heavy electrical unit was set up on the kantele. But more recently in Finland they've begun making electric kanteles and the musicians are playing a mixture of plucking and strumming. To me it's sounding more and more like the pop music you hear on the radio every day here. It's a different style of playing that I haven't really gotten into. My style is still more the old standard way of playing. So the kantele today is changing even in Finland.
NEA: Have you played in Finland?
MR. SAARI: I've been to Finland five times, twice since I started playing the kantele. But we have so many relatives to see we just haven't had much time to connect with other kantele players. On our last trip, though, we met an elderly man who was a well known kantele player there. After three hours with him I told my wife I was ready to go back to America. I felt like my trip was complete. It was great just to see somebody else playing the kantele. Around here it's usually just myself playing. To see another person who has played it for so long was fantastic. It was neat to watch him and to exchange notes.
NEA: What does the kantele mean to the Finnish community?
MR. SAARI: They associate it as being Finnish. Not that everybody in Finland plays it, but you find pockets throughout the country where kantele is played more than in other places. I'm often asked to play at different Finnish festivals and other occasions where Finnish people come together. They want a kantele player. It's the Finnish thing.
NEA: What inspires you to keep playing and teaching kantele?
MR. SAARI: I enjoy music and I'm asked to play at so many different places, like funerals, weddings, lots of different events. I also play with a group in Portland that started up in 1999. They asked me to come there and help them out along with a teacher from Finland. After that I started going up once a month to play with them. It's only a two hour drive from here. It's just a fun thing -- I don't do it for money, though they do give me gas money. My wife and I take off once a month on a trip to Portland, which for us has been a neat thing to do.
You know, it's great having the opportunity to play at so many occasions. Since we're retired, it gives us a reason to be on the go rather than sitting at home. We really enjoy doing it.