When the Sound of Horse-Hairs Filled the Rainforest

Darkness has descended over the tropical Sarawakian rainforest, and about 5000 pair of eyes seek the tall wooden stage between the aged trees, where four Scandinavian fiddlers have taking position with their odd-looking wooden boards with three strings tightened across.  
All of a sudden the silence is broken by strange tones accompanied by four adamant voices, and rapidly ancient Finnish folksongs – played and yelled out at a tearing speed – fill the moist jungle-air.  At first the audience seems stricken, but it doesn’t take long before the muddy ground in front of the stage is packed with Malaysian youngsters jumping, dancing and singing along to the unfamiliar tones of the bowed lyre from the polar circle.
It is probably the first time the sound of the Jouhikko – a medieval type of bowed lyre created by the ancient Finns around the Baltic Sea – has gone so far east, but judging by the Malaysian reception, it most likely wouldn’t be the last.

Astonishing reception
“The Scandinavian music-tradition is very different from the Asian style, but we both share  a long tradition of bowed instruments, so its going to be interesting to see what they think about the Jouhikko” told Ilkka Heinonen, the double-bass player in Jouhiorkesteri,  before the band took the stage. But apparently there is no need to worry. After about a vigorous hour’s trip back to ancient Finland, the band resigns to the sound of a massive applause and leaves the stage – a bit sweaty, but nevertheless happy about their very first concert on the Asian continent. 
 “We were a bit anxious on how people would react on music, which is so far away from their own musical traditions, but the reaction was overwhelming”, admits Pekko Käppi, the alto-jouhikko player of the band, after the concert stating that isn’t the last time, the more than one thousand year old lyre takes the long journey from the shores of the Baltic sea to tropical forests of southeast Asia.
“The reaction of the audience was quite a surprise for us, normally people are just sitting down and listing when we give concert, but here they went absolutely crazy, that gave an amazing energy to our performance”, Pekko Käppi says with a big grin.             

The horse-hair band
The traditional Finnish lyre, allegedly the oldest bowed instrument in Europe, is named after its unusual strings, which is made of horse-hair.  In the eastern part of Finland the bowed lyre – the Jouhikko – remained in use until the beginning of the 1900, where the tradition was almost forgotten. Then, towards the millennium the Jouhikko tradition has experienced an unexpected revival, and today there are about a handful of musicians, who plays the nearly lost instrument.
Today there is about 20 active professional players of the instrument, but the popularity of the Jouhikko has been increasing during the last decade, so we are hopeful that the music will be more commonly known, both among the Finns and around the world” explains Rauno Nieminen, who rightfully can call himself a true Jouhikko-expert. Besides playing the instrument in the ‘horse-hair band’ he is also been one of the worlds only Jouhikki-builders since the beginning of the 1960’ties. Since 1984, he has worked as a instrument-making teacher at Ikaalinen College of Crafts and Design in the western part of Finland and is currently writing a PhD about the Jouhikko at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

Bringing back the tradition
Rauno Nieminen is not the only band member with a dream of revitalize the lyre as a part of the present Finnish folk-tradition.
For us it is a great shame that the Jouhikko is not an acknowledge part of the Finnish folk tradition, because the music is so related to how people lived their life in Finland 1000 years ago. It is a part of our roots.” Salla Seppä, the only woman of the quartet, says. According to her one of the aims of Jouhiorkesteri is to reclaim its rightful place in the Finnish folklore and musical history.
Being a part of bringing back an ancient tradition and applying a new dimension to the musical tradition in our homeland is something we take great pride in as a band” she states.

Facts about the Jouhikko:

  • The Jouhikko is an ancient, 2-4 stringed Finnish bowed lyre. The strings are stopped traditionally by pressing against them with the back of the fingers, as there is no fingerboard to press the strings against. To touch the melody string the hand is inserted through a hole in the flat wooden board that makes up the top third of the instrument.

  • The instrument can be dated back more than a millennium. The lyre was played with a bow as in the European Middle Ages. In the eastern part of Finland there is found evidence of 1000 year long tradition of both bowed and plucked lyres.

  • The primary use of the instrument was at local celebrations to accomplish the traditional dances in the Finnish and Estonian villages by the shores of the Baltic Sea.

  • The Jouhikko almost disappeared, being played by only a handful of musicians in remote villages of Finland and Estonia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although recently revived the Jouhikko is still rarely heard outside of Finland.

  • Jouhiorkesteri – “Horse-Hair Orchestra” is a four-member ensemble whose main instrument is the ancient and unique jouhikko, bowed lyre. The band, consisting of three generations of well-established Finnish folk musicians, was established in the beginning of 2000´s and released their debute album ‘Nikodemus’ in May 2008.

  • The Jakata Post described the sound of the band as” raspy fiddle sounds with a slithering, edgy pitch, paired with the sounds of chamber music, the overall experience was unconventional, but a crowd-pleasing experience” in its review of the concert at the Rainforrest World Music festival

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