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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Melvin Kangas
Photo by Mary Whalen

Photo of Melvin Kangas' kantele on his lap
Photo by Mary Whalen

Melvin Kangas
1999 awardee, Pelkie (Baraga County), kantele player

Melvin Kangas (b. 1933) is a highly acclaimed Finnish-American kantele virtuoso and teacher. The kantele is an ancient instrument in the zither family and regarded as the national instrument of Finland. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Finnish immigrants regarded the kantele as sacred. Tradition recalls its mythic origins, and the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, describes it played by legendary heroes. Although it is doubtful that immigrants brought the kantele with them when they left Finland, some had the knowledge and skills to make it once they arrived in this country. Until the last decades, however, only a limited few had mastered the kantele.

As a child in Pelkie, Melvin had his first encounter with the kantele through a local Finnish immigrant. Years later, he was one of the first Finnish Americans to study the kantele in Finland. For two years he studied with Ulla Katajavuori, one of the most respected kantele masters of the time. Melvin says, "You can study with someone for a certain period of time and then you need to learn on your own." (1) Melvin proceeded to do this, perfecting his skills and learning new music. After his return to Michigan, he became a music instructor at Suomi College (now Finlandia University), Hancock, where he teaches the large kantele privately and in classes to many enthusiastic Finnish Americans.

Melvin has become a central figure in Finnish-American musical life. He performs at weddings, summer solstice celebrations, house parties, the Baraga County fair, and the Ottawa Sportsman's Club dinners. He plays a variety of songs, some traditional and some that he has arranged or composed for the kantele. For example, he often plays music that second-generation Finnish Americans heard in their childhood: humorous sauna songs, drinking songs, polkas and schottisches, lullabies, and religious pieces.

The kantele has been a focus of a Finnish-American cultural renaissance in the last decades. Melvin has played a major role in the spread of kantele music and the revival of kantele playing. Many musicians and teachers of Finnish descent have studied under his tutelage.

(1) Kangas, Melvin. MTAPP file materials. November 1999.

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