Kokle (Kankles in Lithuanian) is an ancient Baltic string instrument, which with a time became one of our national symbols here in Latvia! It has specific sound and therefore sometimes is lovely called Zelta kokles (The Golden kokle) or Dieva kokles (Kokle of Dievs). Dievs is main God – Creator, one who made this world.
Our neighboring nations have very similar instrument: Estonians have Kannel, Finnish people have Kantele and Russians have Gusli.
The earliest archaeological testimony of kokle-type instruments in Latvia dates to the 13th century. Below we can see one old example, which had some runic writings on it and is dated to 1282! Though it is hardly believable that this instrument had really survived from such old times.
Kokle is made from a single tree, mostly from birch, pine, willow or oak. It has a hollow trapezoidal hull in length 50-70 cm, covered with a wooden board – deck. A string pins made of wood is incorporated into the hull parallel to the widest edge. The thin edge consists of a built-in metal rod, around which the strings are wound. Oldest instruments had only 5 -7 strings, made from animal guts, the newest ones uses metal strings and have 9-11 or even more – up to the 33 strings.
The player generally plays the instrument sitting at a table, strumming with his right hand to create vibrations and hence the volume, while using the left hand to mute unwanted strings. Sometimes you need to pick one or two strings with muting hand to add notes to melody or simply to make nice variation.
The kokle’s sound has generally been mixed, mostly diatonic. The bottom string is usually under the bourdon function, and sounds all the time.
There are two well know types of kokle in Latvia:
Latgallian kokle and Kurzemes or Curlandian kokle. They differ mainly by look and wing: Kurzeme kokle is smaller, but more artistic – with many ornaments and signs and has no wing, while Latgallian kokle is bigger, with the wide wing, where player can rest his hand in time of playing, but less ornamented.
The third type of kokle is modern Concert kokle, which had 33 strings and chromatic tuning. They are used by Kokle ensembles – they play modern arrangement of folk songs and can perform even classical music in their repertoire!Listen how Kokle ensemble “Austriņa” performing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”:
In Skyforger we mostly use 9 -11 string kokle and tune them by most traditional tuning: (from bottom to up) G (major bourdon) A (minor bourdon) C D E F G A B-flat C D. If needed you can tune F to F# and B-flat to B and so on.
We learned to play by ourselves and it is not that hard at all! I think one can learn to play this instrument in one week good enough to accompany some songs! For our folksongs there are 2-3 chords per song used, so it is not really that complicated. Though to be a master at kokle playing – it requires finger dexterity, time and patience!
Here you can find some more info about Kokle:
How kokle is played and how it sounds:
Laima Jansone – young kokle virtuoso: (we had an honour to play with her!) http://www.laimajansone.com/en/ideja/
Valdis Muktupāvels – ethnomusicolog, kokle player and author of book about kokle and and playing traditions in Latvia.
Kokle/Kantele course materials: http://vanha.edu.utu.fi/rokl/staff/riikonen/vme/