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Reflections on the first tour with Arts Midwest Folkefest

This post comes from Anna Wegelius, one of the four musicians in Kardemimmit, after the ensemble’s first tour with Arts Midwest Folkefest in fall 2017.

At the end of 2016, our band Kardemimmit got a unique offer from an American non-profit organization called Arts Midwest: they asked our interest in doing a three-week educational tour in the Upper Midwest, an area that covers the northern, middle region of the United States.

The tour would be different from the usual tours we do. Instead of playing five to six concerts a week in festivals, concert halls, and clubs, we would perform up to three workshops a day in schools, community centers, and senior citizen homes. Rather than visiting large cities, the tour would focus in smaller communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. We would be living for one week in each town during the tour, offering an opportunity for the community to learn about Scandinavian music and heritage through our workshops.

The name of the program was Arts Midwest Folkefest. It seeks to deepen awareness of the Nordic traditions, heritage, and history of the Upper Midwest and foster understanding and appreciation for global cultures. We had been doing some community outreach as a band, usually as part of a festival, but nothing this vast before. We gladly accepted the challenge! Since we all have a background in musical education, the idea seemed like a thrilling opportunity to learn—both for the audience and for us!

At the end of September 2017 we got on board an aeroplane and flew over to Minneapolis, Minnesota. We each had our 15-stringed kanteles as hand luggage, I had one concert kantele on its own seat in the plane, and in addition we had two cases of 5-stringed kanteles in the luggage compartment. Somewhat 20 kanteles in total!

The 5-stringed kantele collection we brought from Finland is owned by Kantele Association, an organization based in Finland that provides information, education and news about the kantele world wide. Kantele Association lends them for the use in workshops for various purposes. The important values for lending these instruments are inclusiveness, equality, and easy access to play music. Music is for everyone, not only those who are especially talented. This is one of the main values behind folk music too, and something we, the members of Kardemimmit, believe in. We were especially happy to have special needs students attend many of our workshops, and the 5-stringed kanteles seemed to be a good way to bring the music closer to the audience.

A workshop with Kardemimmit at Munising Elementary School in Munising, MI
A workshop with Kardemimmit at Munising Elementary School in Munising, Michigan. Photo by Daniel Truckey, courtesy of the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center.

We learned a great deal about interacting with the audience and were quite surprised about some questions that rose up in almost every workshop. We were prepared for hearing many “how old are you?” and “what’s your favourite food in USA?” but suddenly the question “how many languages do you speak?” was maybe the most popular one. We usually take our foreign language skills for granted, learning English at school from 3rd grade to high school and Swedish since 7th grade plus other languages on top of that. Maybe we should appreciate it more – this type of tour and communicating straight with kids wouldn’t be possible without our school education and language studies. Seeing how the school bands and sports teams bring the school together made us a little jealous since we don’t have those in Finland. The team spirit in many American schools and generally being proud of their communities would be something Finland could learn from!

Many adults wanted to know what the kids thought about our instruments. Maybe surprisingly, other than asking how to spell the name of it, kids didn’t pay any extra attention to the instrument. Usually less attention the younger they were. My own theory is that kids pay attention to the music in general, and they did make many comments about it. For them many instruments are weird and new, and they could appreciate the music as a whole, which is exactly what we are aiming at! Our belief has always been that music is a common language. This tour just made that belief stronger.

Interactive singing workshop at Loon Lake Community Center, MN
An interactive singing workshop (with lyrics on the blackboard) during a monthly meeting at Loon Lake Community Center in Minnesota. Kardemimmit and Samuli Volanto (sound technician) pose with Jennifer Palo of the Minnesota Discovery Center and local Finnish language speaker and community member Lois Gibson. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Discovery Center.