by Riikka Hiltunen :: 2010
The rough-sounding jouhikko, an ancient bowed lyre, is rather unknown even to many Finns, though it is known to be the oldest bowed string instrument in Europe. Jouhiorkesteri [literally ‘horse-hair orchestra’, a play on the word jousiorkesteri, ‘string orchestra’] muster four of these beasts at once. The band was founded in the 2000s out of love for this modest, age-old instrument, which is now experiencing a renaissance along with other traditional Finnish instruments.
The instrument and the band have attracted interest beyond Finland’s borders too. Jouhiorkesteri were chosen as a showcase ensemble for Womex in autumn 2008. There is something fascinatingly modern yet timeless in their music, which has been aptly described as ‘archaic groove’. The instrument has a certain inherent swing due to its bowing technique, and the groove created by four of them is quite unique!
There are jouhikko players from three generations in the band. The ‘father figure’ is instrument builder Rauno Nieminen, who in autumn 2008 completed a doctorate on the study of instruments through building, using the jouhikko as his case study. The other band members are the bright-voiced Marianne Maans, a well-known Swedish-speaking Finnish folk musician, and the youngest members Ilkka Heinonen and Pekko Käppi. Pekko is creating a solo career playing the jouhikko. All band members also sing.
Jouhiorkesteri have released a disc titled Nikodemus (2008), which has been widely acclaimed in the world music media. The CD features Finnish, Karelian, Finland-Swedish and Estonian tunes found on archive recordings, but the band is not content with simply repeating stuff they hear. They are well versed in their genre and their instruments and are firmly oriented towards the future. They have developed new techniques: Pekko Käppi, for instance, is known for his slide technique, and Ilkka Heinonen, who has played double bass with a number of folk music bands, is already considered one of the most innovative proponents of the jouhikko.
Instrument development helps develop the band
The development of the band extends to the instruments. All of the jouhikkos the band members use were built by themselves, and Nieminen has also built an alto jouhikko and a bass jouhikko to extend the sound range of the band. Traditionally, the jouhikko was played alone or in unison, and the range in traditional Karelian music was only a sixth. Jouhiorkesteri are pushing the envelope of the instrument, not just with their arrangements but in terms of range too.
A jouhikko is a highly individual instrument, and each one sounds different. Traditionally, its strings are made from the tail hairs of a horse, and this material lends the three-string instrument a highly expressive sound. The apparent conflict between the simplicity of the instrument and its expressive potential is what has drawn musicians to it, and it also explains why audiences abroad have been so taken: how can such a primitive instrument produce such a fascinating and nuanced sound?
The band’s enchanting ensemble sound is the result of patient polishing. Like a family, the band members communicate fluently without words, leaving room in their music for improvisation. In the vocal parts, Maans’s silvery tones and Käppi’s curious vocal sound complement each other wonderfully.
Jouhiorkesteri are planning their second album for release in 2011, with lots of newly composed material instead of traditional tunes. Whereas in the early 20th century the tradition of playing the jouhikko was in danger of dying out altogether, in recent years Jouhiorkesteri have done their bit to make sure the instrument survives. And survive it does, with a flourish – the jouhikko boom shows no signs of abating!
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi