Wilho Saari grew up with the kantele, the national instrument of Finland, but didn't begin playing it until he was 50 years old. Saari's great-grandmother Kreeta Hapasalo supported her eleven children by traveling throughout Finland, Sweden and Russia performing on the kantele for audiences ranging from the general public to the tsar's family. In 1915, Wilho's father joined the many Finns immigrating to southwest Washington state.
“I grew up hearing my dad play almost every night after work,” Saari told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein. “My two uncles also played. 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. I had so much fun, I got hooked on it right away.”
The kantele is a kind of lap zither. There are many versions, ranging from five- and ten-string models to the thirty-six-string type that Saari plays. The instrument is deeply woven into the history of Finland, Saari explained: “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 Kalevala. 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.”
Saari is a prolific composer who has written about eighteen hundred instrumental songs. And since taking up the instrument, he's become involved in teaching at workshops. “At some of the larger workshops, they'll have somebody from Finland teach the more advanced students,” he said. “Those of us from here zero in on the beginners,” many of whom start out with the smaller models. “There aren’t that many kantele players in this country,” Saari said. “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 twenty-five years back, and it has been spreading around the Northwest through various workshops.” He's also made several trips to Finland, where he’s found that many musicians are playing a more pop-oriented music on an electric version of the instrument. He continues to play in the traditional way. “You know, it’s great having the opportunity to play at so many occasions,” Saari said. “Since we’re retired, it gives us a reason to be on the go rather than sitting at home. We really enjoy doing it.”
Saari, Wilho. Vilhon Vintilta. Finnware.
_____. Kantele Rock-a-bye. Finnware.
_____. Kantele I, II, III. Cozy Dog Recording.
Wilho Saari, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Wilho Saari plays his song 'Birchwood Harp,' 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Wilho Saari and his wife, Kaisa, perform a song together, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Wilho Saari performs his theme song, 'Oh What Joy,' Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari explains how he got started playing the kantele at age 50, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, Interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari answers the question 'What is the origin of the kantele?' Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari performs a traditional tune on his kantele, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari performs a traditional tune on a kantele, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari performs the classic tune 'Amazing Grace' on his kantele, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari demonstrates the various sounds of the kantele's different parts, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari answers the question 'Where is the kantele usually played?' Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar
Wilho Saari and his wife perform a traditional Finnish song, Bethesda, Maryland, 2006, interview by Alan Govenar