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Nitra <3 Saimaa Phenomenon introduce Finnish kantele player Marjo Smolander and Slovak bagpipes player Tomáš Blažek

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The European Capital of Culture title can bring massive changes to the winning city, its region and country. But its significance goes beyond country borders, as it opens up opportunities for many artistic and non-artistic cooperations throughout Europe, emphasizes the diversity of european cultures, our common european values and the importance of culture in today’s society.

In the past few months we have been intensively working on the european context of our second round bid book, creating international collaborations with artists and other ECoC candidate cities. 🙂

We are excited about our collaboration with the Finnish ECoC candidate city Saimaa-Ilmiö 2026, where we managed to join together two different artists, who are not that different after all. They both play a traditional musical instrument from their region. Marjo Smolander is an artist from Finland who plays the kantele. Come get to know her in our joint interview with our own Tomáš Blažek – a professional bagpipes player.

Marjo, Tomáš, could you introduce us to your musical instruments in more detail?

Marjo: I play kantele, which is the national instrument of Finland and a traditional Finnish music instrument of the Baltic Sea. Relatives of the Finnish kantele include kokles, kannels and kankles in the Baltics, and gusli in Russia. The kantele plays a significant role in our Finnish national Kalevala epic, where the hero and shaman Väinämöinen built a kantele from the jaws of a pike. There are a variety of small and large kanteles, “electric” and “electrified”. The five-string kantele is usually the most familiar to people. The Saarijärvi deck, or “stick deck,” is played with a stick. The concert kantele is the largest and has also a mechanism with which you can easily change the key.

Tomáš: Quadruple reed bagpipes from the Nitra region are my musical instrument. This instrument consists of “chlipák” (mouthpiece), through which you blow into the bag. The melody is created through the ”gajdica” (chanter), protruding from the bag (the head of chanter often depicts the head of a goat). “Huk” (drone sound) emerges from the bag, creating a bass tone – “burdón.” Reviving the bagpipe tradition is important, since it has always been on the verge of oblivion. This instrument is veiled with many legends and is experiencing a renaissance today. Bagpipes provide opportunities for fusing music genres and open doors for world music, etc.

Tomáš Blažek during a performance with the academic folklore ensemble Ponitran

Why did you choose these instruments? What makes them special to you?

Marjo: I am fascinated by the kantele for its versatility and a certain kind of infinity. You can do anything with a kantele. For me, playing and composing on kantele is the interpretation of the world, the expression of one’s own feelings and communication with the outside world. 

Tomáš: I have been playing the bagpipes for some time and experienced the atmosphere of dance houses, music sessions with good friends together with spontaneous piping performed at cheerful events offered me the feeling that probably the people of old times could feel when they played and danced together. The same emotion weaved me to the old school bagpipers and urged the need to share it with the modern audience. 

What does music mean to you? What’s the best thing about it?

Marjo: Music means a lot to me. Playing music and making my own music is my way of facing the world with its contradictions. Things cannot always be clarified other than through wordless music. Music is the transmission of emotions, it is the communication. Through it, one can experience a sense of belonging to others as well as separation. Through music, by doing it together, I have met people who have become important friends of mine. I think the role of music is to evoke emotion and discussion. Music fills in the gap where the words do not reach.

Finnish artist Marjo Smolander

Tomáš: For me, music is a mystery that I will probably explore all my life. It is an alchemy that offers the possibility of communication that is understood everywhere in the world. It offers space for immediate joy but also for deep reflection in our hearts.

What does your city and region mean to you?

Tomáš: The character of the Nitra region offers a wide plane of fertile land and the mountains that oversee them. Family, friends and the people who live here form this picture of this little piece of land that is my homeland. For me, this place is also a challenge to revive the old world of our ancestors, which we often overlook.

Marjo: I grew up on the island of Oravisalo in Rääkkylä municipality, which is a part of Northern Saimaa. Water is probably my element because water has always been a part of my life, right from my childhood. In summer we lived by the lake, in winter we skied on ice. Those Saimaa landscapes are my own landscapes. And Rääkkylä as a home, where I always spend a couple of months a year, is an extremely important place. I’m rustic and I don’t enjoy the city for long. I always have to get home.

Marjo and Tomáš, thank you so much for your answers!

Listen to the music of Marjo and Tomáš 👇

Music: Tomáš Blažek
Music: Marjo Smolander

More information about Marjo and Tomáš 👇

Tomáš Blažek is from Nitra and his first encounter with bagpipes was at the local bagpipes festival when he was 10 years old. When he was 11, his parents gave him his first bagpipes. Tomáš started playing triple-reed bagpipes and later he moved onto playing quadruple-reed bagpipes. He is a soloist as well as a member of the music band Musicantica Slovaca, academic folklore ensemble Ponitran and a master of the prestigious Slovak Bagpipers´ Guild.

Last year Tomáš recorded a CD called “A bagpiper is walking down the village” which is inspired by the book written by his uncle, an experienced bagpiper, Róbert Žilík. The purpose of the CD is to introduce the old bagpipe songs to the modern listeners and to invite the recipients to wander with the bagpipers through the old times, around the villages and vast yards of the Nitra region. The CD was created in collaboration with local artists and friends of Tomáš, as well as his uncle. You can listen to the album on YouTube or Spotify.

Marjo Smolander

Finnish musician Marjo Smolander was born in 1986 in Rääkkylä, a tiny village in Northern Carelia. As a child she was strongly influenced by Finno-Ugric music, and today she plays the Finnish traditional instrument called Kantele. After moving away from her native Rääkkylä she has been studying folk music, world music and music pedagogy. She has two master degrees in Folk music (Sibelius Academy, Finland)) and Global music (Royal music of Aarhus, Denmark). 

After playing and studying in Senegal, Marjo has found similarities between archaic Kantele music and Senegalese and Malian traditional music. In her experience playing or listening to it gives people around  the world the comforting feeling of an ongoing, continuous flow of music that will never come to an end. You can find Marjo’s music on Spotify or her website.