Ontrei

Discussion at a Café

What is Our Music About

By Timo Väänänen 

We—Rauno and I—sit at a café table in Wuppertal, Germany. We are on tour and are trying to decide what our music is about. “Do we have some reason to play this music? is there a message in it?” Rauno asks. “Well, I suppose the music is the reason to play—are there other reasons?” I wonder. “But if we have to tell other people about the music and why we play it, what can we say?” He insists on asking. “One important thing in this band, I suppose, are the ancient and special instruments—kantele, jouhikko, plucked and bowed lyres and zithers, wind instruments and percussion—and the fact that they are based on traditional instruments in museums that you, Rauno, have built by yourself. I think that is special, and it gives us a very unique sound, too,” I reply while Rauno drinks his cappuccino.

Ontrei: Rauno Nieminen & Timo Väänäen
Ontrei: Rauno Nieminen & Timo Väänänen

“How would you describe our music if you had to do it in one short sentence?” I ask him. Rauno recalls, “I feel that it is rock-n-roll of some ancient kind. At least in my mind it has the same drive—drum beating, West Siberian lyre strumming, wild forces, and that kind of stuff. . . Rock has had a profound effect on me in my youth, and I think it still affects my music greatly.”

Rauno built his first instrument, an electric guitar, when he was about 14 years old. He says, “There was my older brother’s guitar I could use, but it was very old fashioned. I needed to get a newer kind. The nearest music store was far away in Tampere, and besides, we had no money. My only chance to get a new guitar was to build it myself.” He used a 2×4-inch plank for the neck and broke a neighbour’s old guitar to use as a tuning mechanism. Someone had two extra Hofner pick-ups for him to use. “Somehow I got the guitar ready, and from the old radios I built a preamp and an amp.

One test for the guitar happened when I played with my neighbour. We lived about 500 meters from each other. We had our guitars and gear on the steps of our houses and played together. It was an awful lot of noise, but it was great!” Later Rauno became a musician and a professional instrument maker. “I became interested in traditional folk instruments, and those are my main interest nowadays.” Rauno completed his thesis at the Sibelius Academy, researching museum instruments by building copies of them. “How did it feel to play your own instrument?” I ask, and I think about how amazing the feeling must be the first time he got sound out of the guitar he made on his own. “I felt rather pathetic; I had to play on self-made guitar because I could not afford a new one. There was nothing fancy about it!”

“How did you start to play kantele?” Rauno asks me. I have often been asked this question because the kantele is considered a marginal and peculiar instrument in Finland. People often assume that a person must have a specific reason to start to play it. “It was one of my hobbies because it was available. I did not know anything about kantele beforehand, but there were lots of other instruments that I did not know about when I was eight years old. I was interested in arts, music, theatre and dancing. My mom took me to this kantele group and I just loved it. We had a folk player as our teacher. That meant that we played by ear and did our own arrangements freely. That opened my path to be a professional folk musician. I just loved to make my own music, improvise, learn new tunes by ear, and the sound of kantele.”

I later studied folk music at the Sibelius Academy, and like Rauno, I completed my thesis there too. My subject was the stereotypes of the kantele as a national instrument. After that, I started a research project about instruments similar to the kantele from different ethnic groups, and I made many field trips to collect material and information. That led me to the instruments that I play in Ontrei, including the West Siberian lyre, Novgorod lyre and zither.

“I feel that our music has an ancient element to it, which makes it non-national. For me it is important that the background of our music be multi-ethnic, ancient and contemporary.”

I return to Rauno’s question about our music. “It is hard to define it as folk music, because that term is used so many different ways in different cultures. Ancient music is also a bit too narrow, because we create our music by improvising on stage a lot. Somehow the geography of the instruments, that they are from the North, is important too. So maybe this is ‘contemporary ancient Nordic music’?” I wonder, and have a zip of my espresso.

How did Rauno and I start to play together? Well, we both are musicians, but we’re researchers, too. We had a museum instrument project together in Nurmes Museum in Eastern Finland. We photographed all the kanteles in the collection of the museum, made descriptions of them, and wrote a manual for museums about how to catalogue kanteles in museums. We later met at a folk music festival and had our instruments with us—a jouhikko and a Novgorod lyre—on a bus on our way to Russian Karelia, where some of the festival concerts were held. “I asked you if we could jam a little, and we played one of the tunes that became part of our repertoire,” Rauno says. I had just obtained a Novgorod lyre. “It was very exiting for me because I had never played it before and I did not know how play it. But the sounds of the jouhikko and the Novgorod lyre complemented each other so well, that I just knew that this would be a band,” I tell Rauno. It did not take very long for us to begin playing more and more together, and eventually we recorded our debut album, Ontrei.

“It was fun and easy to record the album,” Rauno remembers. We had the possibility to record the album at our homes, which meant that we were not bound by the schedule of a studio. We could do it as we normally play, by improvising, experimenting and jamming.

“Playing these instruments has taught me a lot about them. It has been a project to improve the instruments for stage use for professional players, but also to gather information about the background of the instruments. But the main thing is that it has been fun and a joy!” Rauno says.


Rauno Nieminen, born in 1955, is a Finnish multi-instrumentalist, instrument maker and researcher. He plays kantele, jouhikko, lyre and many other instruments. Rauno is one of the influential people in the resurgence of jouhikko and many forgotten folk instruments.

Rauno graduated from the Sibelius Academy in 2008 and his PhD thesis was about the jouhikko. His first folk music band was Primo, who released their first album in 1984. His latest albums are: Ontrei (2014), Sami Kukka ja Teppanan Veljet (2015), VerdeJomalvik (2016) and the solo album Sarvella (2016).

Rauno has toured extensively in over twenty countries in Europe, the USA, Africa and Asia.  Rauno performs solo and with several bands, e.g. Jouhiorkesteri: Rauno, Pekko Käppi, Ilkka Heinonen & Salla Seppä; Verde: Rauno, Mika Rintala, Jarmo Sartti & Seppo Istukaissaari; Ural Pop: Rauno, Torgeir Vasvik & Kristiina Ilmonen.


Timo Väänänen (born 1970 in Mikkeli, Finland) plays the kantele, lyre and zither instruments, from the ancient and traditional models to the modern and electrical versions. He is well known for playing both traditional and new music, and for his explorations on sound effects and live looping systems on the kantele.

Timo has toured extensively in over twenty countries in Europe, the USA and Asia. He was a featured soloist in the Disney film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005. He performed the kantele concerto by Gillian Stevens with the Mikkeli Symphony Orchestra in 2009. The concerto was released as a CD in 2015.

Timo performs solo as well as with several bands, including Suunta (Timo & Anna-Kaisa Liedes & Kristiina Ilmonen); Mitrej (Timo & Päivi Järvinen) and Ontrei (Timo & Rauno Nieminen). He is featured on some 25 albums, including five solo CDs. He is a part-time lecturer at the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department in Helsinki.

Timo is a leader of the kantele research project Kindred of Kantele, which studies instruments similar to the kantele in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

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