An entirely unintelligible business

“What an odd thing it is to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’. This, at least, was one of the things about human beings that puzzled the highly cerebral alien beings, the Overlords, in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. Curiosity brings them down to the Earth’s surface to attend a concert, they listen politely, and at the end, congratulate the composer on his “great ingenuity”—while still finding the entire business unintelligible. They cannot think what goes on in human beings when they make or listen to music, because nothing goes on with them. They themselves, as a species, lack music.

 We may imagine the Overlords ruminating further, back in their spaceships. This thing called “music,” they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans, central to human life. Yet it has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.”

A musical mural under a bridge in Kaustinen

The previous excerpt comes from Musicophilia, a non-fiction book by Oliver Sacks, who was a renowned physician, professor of neurology, and best-selling author. The book, listed as one of the Washington Post’s best books of 2007, is about music and humans and the often odd and obsessive activity that music-making can prove to be. The book connects music and neurology and shares several fascinating anecdotes of music-incited neurological changes or vice versa, neurological changes which incited a flurry of musical activity in the lives of people who had, for example, been struck by lightning and survived.

It was well over a year ago that I began contemplating the possibility of coming to Kaustinen.  Slightly hesitant about signing up for four months in a place I could hardly find on the map, I googled furiously anything I thought I knew about Kaustinen, mixing and matching keywords such as “Kaustinen” “Finland” “folk music” “violin” “fiddle”. For many months, I repeated this process, hoping each time to come up with something new—anything to make me confident that this was the right decision. Whether or not Kaustinen had some form of intangible musical heritage was no longer a question. That had been confirmed in my earliest searches. But it seemed peculiar to me that a town hosting the largest folk music festival in Europe had nothing to say about anything else—besides the music. Despite the fact that Kaustinen appeared to offer exactly what I needed to carry out a research internship focusing on intangible musical heritage, I was still desperately curious to know more about the town where I might end up spending four months of my life—what did it look like, would I be able to find a place to live, was there even a grocery store?? But faithfully, GoogleEarth led me time and again to suspect that the most central point in this town hosting what some call Europe’s Woodstock was a traffic roundabout, which I truly had to see to believe.

What also seemed quite clear through my excessive googling was that Kaustinen and the violin went hand in hand. At one point, I came across an excerpt from a book entitled “Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland”, where I read that Kaustinen was thought to have a violin in every home. So, bearing this in mind, I decided to confide in the musical lyrics I had written upon receiving news of my acceptance to this Master’s program, which promised to take me to “Unknown Lands.” (also the title of the song) The lyrics go like this: “Throw your skirts all to the wind, bid your mother fare thee well, hang on tight to the tails of life, and trust lands unknown.”

More musical art in Kaustinen

And so, I decided to trust in what appeared to be the right “direction,” despite having the sense that it was a bit of a gamble. After all, what better place to study intangible musical heritage other than a village where having a violin in the home is as normal as having a couch or a refrigerator? Surely some of these instruments were being brought to life in daily practice, not just sitting in attics collecting dust. And being brought to life they are.…

Musical reflections at the Folk Arts Centre

While there may be other things happening in Kaustinen, I would have to say that my google searches were not all that misleading. If truth be told, I think google is underestimatingthe musical omnipresence in Kaustinen, if anything. And the pride that is shown for this living tradition is just as ubiquitous as the music itself. In the off chance that there is a morning where there is no music drifting out of the windows at the music high school (a public high school specializing in music studies) as I walk to work at the Folk Arts Centre, I can be sure that I will run into some sort of musical symbolism later that day, passing by a building or crossing under a bridge. The representations of this living tradition seem to be as prominent as the very musical practice itself; that is to say, they are everywhere.

Fiddle and beer at the Ravintola Pelimanni (“folk musician restaurant”)

On the evening of my arrival, as I settled into my new apartment, it seemed that music was already everywhere. Being as it was the Folk Music Institute that had arranged for me to rent this small wooden house while in Kaustinen, the musical elements of decor should not have come as any great shock, but these early signs of musical importance seemed almost too good to be true. Greeting me when I first walked in the door was a harmonium (pump organ), an essential instrument for the Kaustinen folk fiddling tradition, sitting right next to the coat rack. As I entered the living room, throw pillows with music notes adorned the sofa, and books chronicling the musical history, techniques, and methods of Kaustinen filled the bookshelf.

Mauno Järvelä’s book about the Näppärit music pedagogy method

But since settling in and getting to know Kaustinen a bit better, I realize that first evening in my new home was representative of a greater truth in Kaustinen—that musical symbolism is everywhere. Whether it’s the town crest which is a prominently featured golden fiddle bearing a blue background, music-themed murals underneath bridges, or a bar glass rack at the local Pelimanni(“folk musician”) restaurant adorned with oversized violin bridges, these symbols are as inescapable as the music itself.

Bar glass racks adorned with oversized violin bridges at the Pelimanni (folk musician) restaurant


Kaustinen’s town crest, featured at the entrance of the town hall

Regardless of whether you are participating in the act of playing music in Kaustinen or just a passerby, you can be sure of one thing—music and musical presence is unavoidable. I can imagine that the extraterrestrial Overlords from Sacks’ Musicophilia,observing human beings from galaxies afar, would pay particular attention to this small village in Central Ostrobothnia, Finland. They would surely delight in the perplexity of this “entirely unintelligible business” of music and music-making, which seems to verge on an epidemic here in Kaustinen.

Suzanne Wedeking

For the Love of Music 

For so many reasons, traveling with musical instruments can be the bane of existence for any musician. For example, when traveling by plane, one’s instrument suddenly becomes more important than anything else. On long international flights, I am lucky if I remember to carry on a toothbrush and an extra pair of underwear in case I get stuck somewhere without my checked bag. If I happen to remember these two things, they are certainly tucked in my violin case. You’ll find them wedged somewhere between my shoulder-rest and an extra set of strings.

When flying, a well-traveled musician cares little about leg room but is prone to high anxiety when it comes to assuring that extra cubic inch for his or her instrument. In my many instrument-laden travels, I have been known to purchase 50 kilos of luggage when I only needed 30, just to be sure I could carry on my violin. I have paid for two seats on a practically empty bus across Finland to be certain my small backpack wouldn’t hinder the possibility of keeping my violin with me inside the bus. Once, upon being told by a flight attendant that I would have to gate check a newly purchased, acoustic guitar because the overhead bin wouldn’t close, I removed the guitar from its case, which had added an extra inhibiting inch to the width of the instrument and then gently and successfully placed the guitar, barebones, into the overhead bin, triumphantly gate checking the empty case and keeping the guitar with me in the plane. Call me crazy. Or, if you’re a musician, chime in with your personal anecdotes.

These issues that we “small-instrument” musicians deal with on a regular basis are just the beginning for our larger-instrument cohorts. Compare these woes to what cellists, bassists, and harpists have to consider in order to travel. And what musician doesn’t travel? It is practically a prerequisite of the profession. From purchasing airplane seats for instruments to making decisions about what kind of car (and even home) to purchase based on your instrument of choice: the larger the instrument, the more complicated the logistics.

Well, here in Kaustinen, home of the Kaustinen fiddling tradition, I have been teaching marimba. In case you were wondering, the origins of the marimba are not from around here, nor anywhere nearby. A musical exchange between Kaustinen and Johannesburg, South Africa has existed for some 10 years, and during a Näppärit[1] exchange in South Africa two years ago, the visiting fiddlers from Kaustinen noticed something that, amongst many differences, reminded them of home. The South African students and teachers were taking part in a pedagogical program that encouraged the practice, preservation, and continuation of a longstanding, local musical tradition: arguably some form of their Intangible Cultural Heritage. The South African students were learning about the marimba tradition in a similar way to that in which Kaustinen students learn about the Kaustinen fiddling tradition.

The idea was developed to continue this cultural exchange in three parts, with the initial Näppärit trip to South Africa as the first part in 2016. The project has been assisted by three different grants and the second part of this project took place last year, when marimba players and teachers Michael and Onisimus Sibanda came from South Africa to Kaustinen to build 20 marimbas. The plan was that these marimbas would then stay in Kaustinen, diversifying and enriching the musical lives of these young, blossoming folk musicians. This year, the marimbas are being integrated into the Näppärit method, as the students learn about the living musical heritage of another part of the world all while practicing the preservation and continuation of their own cultural heritage.

As I rode along with Mauno to my first Marimba session, the sky was blue and ice still covered the ground—and we were dragging a trailer full of marimbas behind us. And here commences my rite of passage into the large-instrument world. When I signed up for this, I had not taken the time to consider that these marimbas had to be set up. (naïve violinist, perhaps?) We arrived and began to unload, and I marveled as Mauno and his daughter Siiri each took hold of a gargantuan wooden keyboard (also known as “bars”), carrying them one-handed into the school gymnasium. When they returned for the second load, I was still trying to figure out how to get both of my arms around one set of bars.

After setting up a gymnasium full of marimbas—two basses, two baritones, four tenors, and four sopranos, the first group of students began to file in, peering and whispering at the instruments. Throughout the morning, Siiri directed four workshops with the young marimba novices, accompanied by demonstrations and support from Mauno, Teresa, and myself. Although I didn’t understand much of the instruction in Finnish from Siiri (though I could count to four by this point!), I heard the word “Maleta” loud and clear whenever Siiri referenced the mallets that are essential to making this instrument sound. That linguistic hint alone was enough to remind me these instruments were quite far from “home”.

And speaking of just how far the marimbas really were from home…

…Last week I was inquiring further about the marimba project with the chair of the Näppärit association. During our conversation, I found out that “Marimba Project Part II” not only brought the Sibanda brothers from South Africa to Kaustinen to build marimbas—it also brought many of the parts to be used to build the instruments. Huge wooden keys and plastic gourds for the sound pipes underneath were among the parts to be, somehow, transported from the southernmost part of Africa to the northernmost part of Europe. My jaw might have dropped a bit before asking however on earth they accomplished this task. “Well, that’s another story” he began, chuckling…

I have since assisted with many other marimba workshops and have successfully figured out how to carry some of the smaller marimbas on my own. Loading up the trailer again after the first workshop, Mauno, whose subtle sense of humor I hadn’t yet begun to grasp, commented to me as we were contorting our bodies around the enormous instruments: “I wonder what the musicians’ union would have to say about this,” he said, chuckling. “Sorry?” I replied, not yet realizing what he was referring to. He was referring to the fact that the “hired musicians” (players/teachers) were also lugging all of their own gear, in addition to accomplishing the main goal of the gig, something which, under musicians’ union regulations, would be prohibited.

I have since helped, hauled, and strained my back on a few more marimbas, along with some harmoniums (pump organs used in the Kaustinen fiddling tradition). But I’ve watched Mauno do it even more. In fact, I think he hauls instruments every single day. I’ve observed him do this so much that I’ve often neglected to remember that his main instrument is among none of these. He is, first and foremost, a fiddler.

I watch this, I think about flying those marimba keys and pipes from one end of the world to the other, and I remember the times I’ve been stuck overnight in an airport without a toothbrush or an extra pair of underwear. And I remember that music might be a hobby, or it might be a profession, or it might be both. But it is always and most definitely, a labor of love.

Suzanne Wedeking