NEA Arts Magazine

Wilho Saari

Finnish kantele (lap-harp) player, Naselle, Washington


Wilho Saari performs on the kantele

Wilho Saari performs on the kantele during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich

Washington native Wilho Saari's great-great-grandmother, Kreeta Hapasalo, popularized the kantele in her native Finland in the 19th century, supporting her 11 children with public performances throughout Finland and appearances at northern Europes royal courts.

Saari grew up hearing his father play the kantele, a stringed instrument related to the lap-harp or zither. It wasn't until after his father's death that Saari, at the age of 50, took up the instrument himself. He had waited, in part, because Finnish tradition reserves the playing of the kantele for the family patriarch. Saari's first performance was at a family wedding, after which he started to appear at Finnish and Scandinavian festivals. Since then, he has led the revival in playing and teaching the kantele in Finnish-American enclaves throughout the U.S. Saari is also a prolific composer, having written more than 1,700 songs for the instrument to date.

Saari spoke with the NEA about how he began playing the kantele and the tradition of kantele music.

NEA: Why did you decide to begin playing at the age of 50?

WILHO 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-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 a 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: What does the kantele mean to the Finnish community?

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.