Finnish kantele (zither) player Wilho Saari honored

“I write a lot of music. My tunes don’t have words because I’m not a poet and I know it, but I write a lot of music…right now I’m working on my 37th book of tunes.”

Wilho SaariWilho Saari can trace the tradition of kantele-playing back five generations in his family. The kantele, a family of stringed instruments related to the lap harp or zither, is regarded as the national instrument of Finland. This is due in large part to Saari’s great-great grandmother, Kreeta Hapasalo, known as Kantele Kreeta, who took this ancient regional folk instrument and gave it national prominence. She supported her 11 children by traveling throughout Finland performing for the public, and performing at the courts of the King of Sweden and the Tsar of Russia.

In 1915, Wilho’s family moved to Naselle, Washington, joining many Finnish immigrants living along the Columbia River estuary in southwestern Washington. Wilho grew up listening to and absorbing his father’s way of playing the kantele. The whole family was musical and Saari mastered several instruments growing up, but it wasn’t until 1982, at the age of 50, that Wilho began to play the kantele. Finnish tradition reserves the playing of the instrument to the patriarch of the family, and it wasn’t until his father’s death that Wilho felt entitled to play the instrument. He first played at a local wedding and then appeared at Finnish and Scandanavian festivals in the region. His mastery of the kantele had an immediate impact. At the time the kantele was vanishing as a part of Finnish cultural expression in the community, but Saari’s playing and teaching has revived the instrument in Finnish-American enclaves throughout the United States.

While Wilho has a large repertoire of traditional Finnish songs, melodies, and gospel hymns, he is also a prolific composer of songs and tunes, estimating that he has written over 1,700 to date, including songs dedicated to each of his six grandchildren.

Over the past 25 years Wilho Saari has received both regional and national recognition for his playing of the kantele, but perhaps his most important contribution comes from his willingness to play for weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and other festivities in the local Finnish-American community, keeping an awareness of the instrument and its long tradition in the minds of Finnish-Americans who otherwise would have no knowledge of this extraordinary symbol of their culture.

- Text is from published booklet: 2006 National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowships




Return to News