Hannu Saha, Mahla (Folk Music Institute, 2000)

What can be done with a kantele? Hannu Saha is a master of the Finnish lap harp, or kantele. In Finland, the word for "string" is "kieli," the same as the word for "tongue," thus kanteles are commonly found with 5, 10, 15, or 36 tongues, each with its own unique but tunable voice. In the case of the 36-string instrument, the kantele is no longer a lap harp, but is supported on legs like a table. These are called concert or "big" ("iso" in Finnish) kanteles, and are a product of musicians deciding to play popular western music rather than kalevalic runes. You can even play "Moon River" on an Iso Kanetele while wearing a tuxedo.

Recorded kantele music runs a weird course. Like the Celtic harp, the chimey sound and its ancient role in the singing of Kalevalic songs make it a willing vehicle for New Age mystic albums and its association with the Finnish spirits spur its use on Scandanavian Heritage Day at nursing homes. Conversely, you might hear highly improvisational music, as from Finland's Arja Kastinen. Luckily, on Mahla (which is Finnish for "Sap") there is a good variety of warm, upscale, more or less folky music using 5, 15 or 36 string kanteles with both horsehair and wire strings! Saha (which is Finnish for "Saw") has with him a number of other musicians, so that he and his kanteles are not the only stars.

More or less folky in terms of Finnish music! Probably THE folkiest track is an improvisation on a well-known tune used to carry the verses of The Kalevala, "The Kantele Song." Also folky are three very short traditional pieces, played simply on 5-string in duets with strings, yielding crisp wine and cheese classical interludes. Another traditional piece, "Rykalinnun laulu" or "Song of a Mating Bird," is introduced by bowing a 5 string kantele; the sound is much like a Finnish bowed lyre or jouhikko, or like an American bowed psaltery; Saha then switches to 5-string. The song is sung by male vocalist Heikki Laitinen and augmented by nyckelharpa and electric fiddle, not really necessary but an interesting effect. Sibelius' "Finlandia-hymni" isn't traditional, but rather an old standard. Saha plays both 15 and big kantele on this contemporary-styled version, and is accompanied by a good size band, including Aija Puurtinen on vocals, Hasse Walli on electric guitar, and Andrew Cronshaw on tambourine. How can this tune fail to be inspiring?

The remaining tunes are all Hannu Saha originals, and tend to be more progressive. The first tune on the album is unusual in that he plays a 5-kieli strung with horsehair, which has a softer tone than a wire-strung harp, more like a ukelele! It is one of my favorites because one of my great accordion heros, Kimmo Pohjonen, plays on this track with a characteristic slide or two, while Sanna Kurki-Suonio half-joiks. Pohjonen shows me see the pastures and barns of southern Finland in the summer sun. Maybe there are too many stars on this track! There are limitations to the 5 string; you can only play the five notes you have tuned, great for an old pentatonic song, but hard to fit to modern music! Saha uses a horse-hair 15 string for a stark traditional solo "Johikielisella" ("Horse-hair Strung") and a cooly Latinized and amply accompanied "Kevatuhri ja Kosinta" ("Spring Rite And Proposal," with Erkki Ala-Konni). Listening to this modern tune, I see Helsinki bars instead of cows!

Many of the remaining tunes are modern and influenced by pop, but nevertheless manage to escape visions of newly built Neste Gas Stations. "Rantalehto" or "Riverside Grove" is played on the big kantele and has a "modern folk" melody not unlike those sometimes played by tambourinist Cronshaw in his other life as a zither player. The modern arrangement includes strings and electric guitar. "Jumissa" or "Stuck" is an interesting rocky reggae fusion, featuring Eero Turkka on harmonica. "Mahla" ("Sap") is a quiet modern folk influenced by pop and jazz, and the inclusion and style of keyboards and strings that suggest that...well perhaps this track is a little too close to easy listening? Maybe the orange-plastic Ottopasuuna Pankki had a hand in this one!

Hannu Saha is an instructor at the Folk Music Institute at Kaustinen. So are some of the many musicians who accompany Saha's kanteles, including JPP's Arto Jarvela on fiddle and nyckelharpa and multi-instrumentalist Ville Kangas. Hence there is quite a bit of the Kaustinen Folk Music Institute's sophisticated modern "sound" on this recording: high music school skill levels, incredible production, and input from contemporary popular music. The sound and the jazz/pop influence is particularly evident in Saha's originals. It's a little like listening to American contemporary folk, the associations that some listeners hope to escape from by choosing folk music sneak right back in! Except that this music is a lot classier than most American contemporary folk.

My own vendetta against pop music aside, Mahla is a nice album. Hannu Saha has done a fine job of showcasing The Kantele by using different instruments, juxtaposing the old five-strings and old tunes (in this case from the playing of V. Halonen from East Central Finland) with new compositions and arrangements....and some in between. Mahla is a solid, diverse album with incredible musicianship and it won't put anyone to sleep!

[Judith Gennett]

You can find Mahla described on the Folk Music Institute's Web site