Modest musician sees himself as a 'link in a chain'

<I>LORI ASSA photo</I><BR>"I just got hooked on it right from the start," says Wilho Saari of the kantele, the traditional instrument of Finland. "I'm self taught," he says of his kantele playing, which he picked up at age 50. "But with a musical background, it wasn't hard."

NASELLE - Wilho Saari lays his fingers lightly on the strings of his kantele. His hands move back and forth over the strings and pluck and press as effortlessly as a skilled typist. Occasionally his right hand remains on the strings playing a melody, while the left hand beats a quiet rhythm on the wooden body of the instrument.

The kantele (pronounced kant-e-le), the national instrument of Finland, is a table-top wooden box played horizontally with anywhere from five to 39 strings across the top. The 70-year-old Naselle, resident picked up the instrument at age 50, with no plans to turn it into the second career it has become.

"I just started fiddling around with it," he said.

What started as a side hobby eventually earned him international recognition and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before he died at the age of 70 in 1968, Saari's father, Wilho Sr., came home from work every night and would play his kantele. Saari never played it, though he mastered many other instruments, believing it was really his father's hobby, and not his own.

Fifteen years after his father's death, Saari pulled the kantele down from its decorative location on the wall and began to play.

"I took Dad's kantele down to see if an old dog could learn new tricks," Saari said.

That new trick drew from a lineage within his family that dates back to Kreeta Haapasa, his great-great grandmother. Haapasa was a peasant in the late 1800s who traveled Finland playing the kantele, and unlike other women of the time became quite successful and was able to support her 11 children from her performances.

"She supported the family by playing the kantele at a time when women didn't do these things," Saari said. "Women were usually home raising their family."

Today Haapasa is honored in Finland and has appeared on stamps, become the subject of plays and was cast into a statue that Saari visits every time he's there.

When Saari took on the instrument, he knew of no other kantele players in the United States, and says that most Finnish families kept the instruments as heirlooms or decorations.

As he became more interested in the instrument, and started playing it more and more frequently, people began asking him to perform at funerals, weddings, festivals and churches.

But before long, the self-taught performer was offering workshops and lessons to others interested in revitalizing the art throughout the Northwest.

Now, Saari travels the country and the world, playing the kantele at various festivals. He will perform here in Astoria at the FinnFest at the end of July.

Saari diminishes his accomplishment, claiming that it was just a hobby he took on during his retirement.

"I just wanted to mess around with it, and I just got hooked on it right from the start," Saari said.

But after composing more than 1,700 songs, teaching students, many of whom have gone on to start their own groups, Saari's work began to look more like a career.

Earlier this year, Saari received an anonymous nomination for a National Endowment for the Arts award, and was surprised to receive a $20,000 prize which will be officially awarded in September.

"I've been numb for about the last two months," Saari said.

Looking over the various musicians and the rising popularity of the instrument, Saari admits that he did have a role, but is quick to point to his Finnish roots.

"I was - not that I've taught them all - I was a link in the chain of kantele players," he said.

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