Eirimas VELIČKA | Singing with Wood: The Psaltery Family on the East Coast of the Baltic Sea

The old legends testify to the instruments of the Baltic psaltery being played by the priests and priestesses of the Old Religion, by sages and the gods. If we can see elderly male performers from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland playing those instruments in photographs from the beginning of the 20th century, then at the beginning of the 21st century it is young women who dominate the scene. If we look at folk/world music today, several female performers playing related instruments in the countries on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea are active and clearly visible in the international context. The Lithuanian kanklės player Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, the Latvian kokle virtuoso Laima Jansone, the Estonian kannel player Mari Kalkun and the Finnish kantele performer Maija Kauhanen all have their own different and distinctive styles unified by a healthy balance between the rural roots of the music they play and the new creative shoots springing up in urban environments.

All of them are open to experimentation, atypical methods of playing, supplementary instrumentation, connections between different genres, new technologies and collaboration with musicians playing in different styles. The gusts of wind from jazz, ambient music, postminimalism, alternative and electronic music blowing through the forest of folk/world music are creating unconstrained improvisations which should no longer be considered as a contemporary form of the old tradition, but as original auteur music.

All of them have taken an archaic instrument into their hands and create fresh, absolutely authentic music that touches today’s urban dwellers. Their music breathes, gets under the skin and thanks to their creativity a very local tradition has become relevant to a global audience. They base their personal improvisations inspired by the nature of the Baltic Sea region on folk music tradition, supporting their instrumental performance with singing. So far, Laima Jansone is the only one out of all of them that doesn’t sing, leaving that creative expression to ‘the singing wood’ – the Baltic psaltery.

What makes up the family of instruments characteristic of the countries on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, how it was formed, what characteristics define it and the context out of which the above-mentioned creative personalities emerged is discussed in the present article by the ethnomusicologist Eirimas Velička.


Many nations have a favourite musical instrument which is a sign, as it were, of the cultural identity of that nation. For Lithuanians that instrument is the kanklės. A mythopoetic image reaches us from ancient times: an old wise man, under an oak tree by a sacred fire, accompanying himself on the kanklės, is singing ancient hymns. The kanklės are mentioned in Lithuanian folk tales, proverbs, hymns, and poetry. In a Lithuanian harvest song, the sound of the kanklės can be heard next to the roots of the World Tree, validating the whole structure of cosmic existence.

At the same time, the kanklės are no less important to the other Baltic nations – Lithuania’s northern neighbours. The kannel is the Estonian national instrument, while the Latvian kokle and kokle playing are included in the Latvian Culture Canon.

The Lithuanian kanklės, the Latvian kokle, the Livian kāndla, the Estonian kannel, the Finnish and Karelian kantele, the North-western Russian gusli are chordophones, multi-string plucked instruments belonging to the box zither family. All these instruments, played in the countries on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, make up a group of related instruments, collectively referred to as the Baltic psaltery. Their closest relatives in Europe are the Zitter in Germany, the citera in Czechia, the psalterium in France, and so on. More distant relatives are, e.g. the qānūn, widespread in the Middle East. Arabic, Persian, and Turkish classical music is played on it. Even more distant relatives of the Baltic psaltery are the zithers of the Far East: the Chinese guzheng, the Japanese koto, and the Korean gayageum. Also partially related to the kanklės are the exotic bamboo Madagaskarian valiha and the Indonesian sasandu from Rote Island.

The similarity in the names of the kanklės-type instruments in the various nations of the Baltic region confirms their common origin. According to the Finnish linguist Eino Nieminen, the Baltic and Finno-Ugric names are probably derived from the pro-Baltic word *kantlīs/*kantlēs, which originally meant the ‘singing tree’. This word in turn is derived from the even older proto-Indo-European word *kan (‘to sing, ring’). The Lithuanian ethnologist Romualdas Apanavičius has proposed another theory according to which the name of the instrument could be derived from the root *gan(dh)- of the Indo-European word which means ‘boat’ and could also be associated with the name of the analogical Russian instrument the gusli. This etymology supports the hypothesis that the kanklės-type instruments are connected with funeral rites and may be derived from the vessel, or boat, which was used in older times for burial in water. However, the root kan could also be of onomatopoeic origin – it seems to imitate the sound of a plucked string.

The body of the traditional kanklės is hollow, trapezoidal in shape, and carved out of a single piece of maple, linden, black alder, apple or some other wood. A thin sheet of spruce or aspen is used for the soundboard. It is decorated with a soundhole reminiscent of the sun. The strings are attached to a metal bar at the narrow end of the instrument, while at the wider part cut at a diagonal the strings are tightened with wooden tuning pegs. The strings are tuned diatonically. The sound of the kanklės is soft, resonant, echoing, with a silver timbre.

The instrument is played on the musician’s knees. Fingers or a pick are used to pluck the strings, various methods of playing being used. The strings to be played are left open, while the rest are dampened with the fingers of the left hand. The fingers of the right hand or a pick are used to play the strings, but only those that have been left open will be heard, creating the required chord. Another method is for the required strings to be plucked by the fingers of the right hand or sometimes the left. These methods can be combined in a variety of ways.

The origin and use of the kanklės are associated with archaic beliefs, the cult of the dead and burial customs. The shape of the old kanklės are somewhat reminiscent of a boat or dugout. It was believed that a boat would take the soul of a dead person to the other world. According to old people, the best time to carve the kanklės is after the death of a person near and dear to one, and then it will sound like the voice of that person. In one of the Latvian folk songs the story is told about a mother’s youngest daughter who goes to the Daugava river. While picking roses and washing her hands, she falls into the river. The current is not strong enough to carry her very far and her body is washed out onto the shore. A linden tree with luxuriant foliage and nine crowns now grows in that very place. The son of Dievs (‘god’) comes along to carve a kokle from that linden tree. The daughter’s mother on hearing the sound of that kokle cries out in lament: ‘That is not a kokle made out of the wood of a linden tree but my daughter’s voice.’ The kokle in Latvian folklore is a solar instrument. It is associated with the sun and believed to belong to the celestial sphere. It is mentioned about 300 times in Latvian folk songs in which it is called the ‘kokle of the gods’ or the ‘golden kokle’. It is played by Jānis, the son of Dievs, as well as by Saule, the female personification of the sun, sitting at the top of the World Tree.

The Finnish kantele is frequently mentioned in folk songs and poetry – as many as 280 times in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. It is described in song as the instrument played by the poet and sage Väinämöinen who makes the very first kantele from the jawbone of a gigantic pike and the bristles of a stallion. As he plays it, miracles begin to happen and the sound of the kantele entrances all the people and the animals of a nearby forest. This kantele sinks beneath the waves in the sea and so Väinämöinen has to make a new kantele, this time from the wood of a birch tree.

The Estonian kannel is the national symbol of Estonia. According to legend, the Estonian kannel was played by Vanemuine, the Estonian god of song. The Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg (Kalev’s son) begins with the words: ‘Laena mulle kannelt, Vanemuine!’ (Vanemuine, lend me your kannel!). Jakob Hurt (1875–1876) published a collection of Estonian folk songs, giving it the title Vana Kannel (‘The Old Kannel’).

In written sources, the Estonian kannel is first mentioned in 1579, the Lithuanian kanklės – in 1590, the Latvian kokle – in 1613. The oldest kanklės-type instruments excavated by archaeologists dates from the 11th–12th century and were found on the territory of present-day Poland and North Russia, in Novgorod. However, it is thought that these instruments are considerably older, more than two thousand years old. The area of distribution of the old kanklės-type instruments roughly coincides with the boundaries of the archaeological Narva culture.

There are several types of kanklės-related instruments. The most archaic have 5 (sometimes 6 or 7) strings made of animal gut or horsehair. They were to be found in north-east Lithuania, Kurzeme in Latvia, in eastern Finland, and Karelia. They were used to play simple, narrow range melodies. In north-east Lithuania 5-string kanklės were used to play sutartinės – polyphonic pieces of archaic origin, based on the consonances of seconds. They were played as the sun was setting, with the player performing for himself or herself (the performer and the listener most often being the same person).

The common traditional kanklės usually have 9 to 12 metal strings, sometimes more. They were widespread in western Lithuania, in Latgale in Latvia, in various places in Estonia and Finland, traditional song and dance melodies being played on them. These kanklės are ergonomic – they have about the same number of strings as the fingers of both hands, with virtuoso playing possible on them. They are convenient to carry and can be played in the open air. The old tradition of folklore playing of the kanklės in the Baltic countries began to die out at the beginning of the 20th century, explaining why only several dozen kanklės melodies have been written down (or recorded).

It was at the beginning of the 20th century the kanklės-type instruments began to be systematically improved. The instrument and its repertoire also began to change. More and more strings were added, and the parts of the body glued together. The old traditional repertoire was replaced by the melodies of popular dances and composed songs. In Estonia in 1952, Väino Maala constructed a chromatic kannel with 46 strings. In Lithuania in 1954, Pranas Serva constructed a 29-string concert kanklės with chromatic levers and a range of 4 octaves.

For Lithuanians, the kanklės as a symbol of national music was important throughout all of the 20th century. There was a cinema called Kanklės operating for a long time in the city of Kaunas (there is a café with the same name there now). There are streets with kanklės in their name in various Lithuanian towns: Vilnius, Kaunas, Alytus, Panevėžys, Joniškis, etc. The Latvian kokle is also an integral part of their national identity, its image used on postage stamps and the name also to be found in street names.

In Finland, the art of the kantele suffered a decline in the mid-20th century, while the 5-string kantele found itself on the verge of extinction. However, because of the initiative of folk musicians like Martti Pokela the tradition of kantele music has been revived. New models of the instrument have been constructed and a beginners’ guide to the kantele prepared. A kantele music revival programme was published in 1974. The production of kanklės-like instruments was intensified in the late 1970s with kantele courses becoming popular. In 1985–1987, 4000 5-string kanteles were donated to Finnish schools as part of the Kanteles for Schools programme. The Finns now say that the kantele is part of their DNA.       


There was a huge wave of interest in folklore in the Baltics in 1980s, coinciding with the liberation movements of the Baltic nations from the Soviet empire. This wave sparked an interest in the old traditional kanklės, giving a new impetus to music for the instrument. Folk songs – and later songs written by composers – began to be sung to the accompaniment of the traditional kanklės, instrumental compositions written, and cocktails of various styles of music whipped up.

In Latvia in 1981, the brothers Valdis and Māris Muktupāvels began to play a Latgalian kokle that they had made themselves. The Latvian group Iļģi also began using this instrument (and are still using to this day). This Latvian example also inspired Lithuanians. In 1983 Vytautas Musteikis and Evaldas Vyčinas made a traditional 9-string kanklės with Vyčinas beginning to sing the old Lithuanian folk songs accompanying himself on this instrument. The kanklės also began to be used in contemporary instrumental music. In 1988 the instrumental music group X ženklas (X symbol) was founded, playing improvisational minimalistic style music, creatively combining the means of both traditional and contemporary music. The group was in existence for a comparatively short while but managed to release a vinyl LP in 1990. The above-mentioned Latvian group Iļģi released the cassette Rami, rami, which was clearly positioned as post-folklore and coincided with the new wave folklore movement taking place in Finland at more or less the same time.

In Lithuanian jazz, the traditional kanklės were used for the first time in the composition Sidabrinės stygos (Silver strings; 1991) by Skirmantas Sasnauskas. In that piece the kanklės can be heard together with a synthesizer, creating a calm, sunny and mysterious ambience. The kanklės also began to be heard in Lithuanian folk-rock music with the first group to use the instrument being Atalyja, and then later – Žalvarinis and Skylė. Gediminas Žilys plays the kanklės and bass guitar in Atalyja and Skylė. He has made a thorough study of the old traditional Lithuanian folk songs, interpreting them in his own way, and composing music for plays, various performances and neo-pagan Baltic rites. Žilys is a priest of the old Baltic religious community Romuva where he performs family rites – weddings and blessings for children. Closely connected to this community is another active kanklės player Žemyna Trinkūnaitė, the daughter of the chief krivis (priest) Jonas Trinkūnas and a member of the ceremonial folklore group Kūlgrinda. She has developed her own distinctive style of kanklės playing in which traditional technique is combined with newer methods taken from concert kanklės playing. Her compositions are original, even though they are based on Lithuanian modes, harmonies, and tunes.

The Lithuanian kanklės player Aistė Bružaitė has taken a different direction, expanding on the opportunities offered up by the music that can be played on her instrument and not avoiding challenges or innovations. She takes part in joint projects with classical musicians, a large part of her repertoire being made up of pieces written by contemporary composers under her initiative.

The sound of the kanklės can be heard today not just in concert halls or on recordings but also in nature – at various summer camps by a river or lake. Young people in particular with an interest in their roots, ethnic culture, and the old pre-Christian religion have come to love this instrument. Many have been learning to play the kanklės from one another at ethnic culture camps and clubs for the like-minded. One of these newly formed groups in Lithuania is Kanklių ratas (Circle of Kanklės) operating on the principle of creative workshops. It is led by the kanklės player Agota Zdanavičiūtė. Over recent summers the kanklės players Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė and Žemyna Trinkūnaitė have also taught at these workshops.

In the first half of the 20th century the Estonian kannel had found itself on the verge of disappearing completely, its existence kept alive only by the Estonian diaspora. After the collapse of the Soviet Union nothing could stop free expressions of creativity resulting in a great wave of interest in Estonia. For both the first and second time the revival of the kannel tradition was stimulated by the example of the Finns.

The most prominent proponent of the Estonian kannel is Tuule Kann who regularly collaborates with other musicians performing different genres of music: traditional, jazz, early and contemporary. She also conducts kannel courses and creative workshops in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Estonian folk-rock group Oort (1996–2015) systematically used the kannel and other traditional Estonian instruments in their music. It combined the use of the old Estonian musical instruments and means of musical expression with global rock music ones, interpreting archaic Estonian songs in a contemporary way.

The versatile, extremely wide-ranging Finnish kantele player Timo Väänänen plays different size traditional and modernised versions of the kantele, the Latvian kokle, the Russian gusli, as well as other related musical instruments. He combines traditional and innovative techniques of playing in a creative way. In the music he plays on the Karelian kantele archaic shamanism and today’s minimalism, traditional fiddle melodies and modern compositions are combined in their own distinctive way. Timo Väänänen also performs electronic music in which he uses live-looping technology, sampling, computers, and electric guitar effects gear. In collaboration with an instrument maker, Timo has constructed a 39-string electric kantele. He plays as a soloist, as well as taking part in various music groups and creative projects.

Currently a new folk/world music wave is rolling its way along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, revitalising not only the community regularly playing this music but also musicians from other genres. And not only is there a local audience with different tastes dipping their feet into this refreshing northern wave, but also those with an inquisitive bent of mind from abroad.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka