Pekko Käppi dreams that the traditional Karelian string instrument jouhikko (bowed lyre) will one day be as popular as the guitar. It might require a couple of albums and tours, but the reformer is on it.
There’s no question what is Pekko Käppi’s favourite band. He’s wearing its shirt in our interview and its name pops up several times during it. That is of course the definitive jam band and psychedelic pioneer Grateful Dead.
No wonder Käppi has found kindred spirits in two current Finnish psychedelic exports, Death Hawks and K-X-P. Käppi plays on both bands’ latest albums, Psychic Harmony and IV. But the instrument which he masters is not a Gibson Les Paul that a stereotypical deadhead would pick, but a jouhikko (bowed lyre).
Jouhikko is a traditional Karelian instrument. It’s a bowed lyre with three strings, which are traditionally made from horse’s hair. It was a custom that the jouhikko players built their own instruments. For practical reasons Käppi uses fishing line for strings and lets Rauno Nieminen, a master instrument builder, make the instruments he uses.
“Soundwise it would be best to use horsehair, but tuning your instrument for over 20 minutes on a 60 minute show doesn’t strike me as a good idea”, Käppi says laughing. “I’ve built a couple of jouhikkos myself. But as playing in front of an audience can be suspenseful, I like to minimize the unpleasant factors and use instruments that stay in tune. And in one piece.”
While we may be lightyears from the situation Käppi dreams of – that jouhikko would be as common as guitar – he says we are in the midst of a jouhikko revival. There are more players – even young ones – and instruments around than there has been in decades. Still, it seems that in almost every case someone has jouhikko needs, Käppi is the player to call. In addition to the aforementioned psychedelic adventurers, Käppi has lend his expertise to several pop and folk records already this year and produced Tuuletar’s second album Rajatila/Borderline. And released Väärä laulu (translated "Wrong song"), the third album with his band K:H:H:L.
Now, after his summer vacation, Käppi has started working on his next solo album already scheduled for a fall release.
Ancient is the New New
Pekko Käppi’s last solo album Rammat jumalat (translated "Crippled gods") (2013) introduced his band K:H:H:L, with whom he has performed and recorded ever since. Now he feels the time is right for what he did before that: dabbling alone.
“It’s not that business cycles or any kind of trends are pointing out that this is the thing I should do! I just want to maintain my craftmanship, I believe it’s important and prolific. I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m allowed to get absorbed in my personal bog – it’s a thrilling timeless state of inner dialogue.”
For his upcoming album, Käppi has gone through old archives and studied research material. He looks for ancient folk songs that he can mix in his own musical world.
“I’m charmed how naturally a 200-year-old song lyric can come alive in this day. We don’t have any grasp of what life was back then, or even what they meant by the text – but if the story is told well, it can truly touch you.”
Of course it helps a little if you know Finnish. But Käppi doesn’t see language barrier as an obstacle in music.
“For example I’ve listened to a lot of Serge Gainsbourg. I don’t understand most of it but somehow it unfolds to me, in some way. Or when I was a kid and listened to the rock band Kiss. Love Gun was just an abstract ‘love gun’ until I grew up and realised that of course it means penis”, Käppi laughs.
“If the music carries emotions, it ‘works’ and moves you even if you don’t understand some part of it.”
Käppi feels that switching singing language from his mother tongue to English to reach broader audiences would be indifferent. But he’s curious about recording in English for other reasons.
“I was at this party last December and sang Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil. My friends told me that I sound really different when I sing in English. That’s what I’m fascinated by. Could I get a hold of it and spot the difference?”
Tips from a Seasoned WOMEX Veteran and Tampere Resident
Pekko Käppi performs solo at the opening party of WOMEX World Music Expo 2019. His upcoming album’s release will be scheduled accordingly to it. Käppi has attended WOMEX several times before and describes it as an intense half a week.
“The uppermost memory is that afterwards your face feels sore from all the talking. Basically everybody from that genre is under the same roof for the long weekend. I’ve had a lots of good conversations and contacts previously. For example I’ve talked fifteen minutes with Roskilde Festival’s artistic director while queueing for hot dogs. But often it gets difficult for me: I’ve had a good conversation over a beer, and I don’t want to ruin it by pitching myself and shoving a CD in the other person’s hand! That’s why I’ve hired booking agents.”
The 25th annual Folk and World Music Professional event and showcase festival WOMEX World Music Expo will be held in Tampere on 23rd–27th October, first time in Finland. Coincidentally Käppi is a Tampere resident so he’s happy share some tips about his hometown for the expo visitors coming from abroad.
“The Finnish weather is a bit rough in October but I’d still recommend going to Mältsinranta for a swim without a sauna. It will be an experience! Also I’d like to point out the brutal romanticism of the local architecture: the city centre is turned upside down because of the constructions of Central Arena and tram lines.”
“Keep your eyes and ears open, there will be a lot of parties and afterparties to attend, both official and unofficial.”
Pekko Käppi Brings Jouhikko to the Masses. Published 20.8.2019. The FMQ (Finnish Music Quarterly, www.fmq.fi/archives) has been a showcase in English for Finnish musical culture since 1985. It publishes new items on its website every week and a printed edition at the end of the year. The FMQ is published by Music Finland. Its partners are the Sibelius Academy, the Society of Finnish Composers and the Finnish Musicians’ Union. The magazine also receives a grant from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.
Photo Credits: (1) Jouhikko, (2)-(5) Pekko Käppi, (6) Finnish Music Quarterly (unknown/website).