Tuomas Rounakari

Birth of Shamanviolin

“I never meant to become a shaman-violinist. The idea was to have a one-man-band entitled “Shamanviolin” but people simply did not buy it. The press started to refer to me as a shaman-violinist consistently. And when even the major festivals in Finland began to announce my gigs as a shaman-violinist instead of Shamanviolin, I gave up. Shamanviolin is still a show, the name of my solo performance. But simultaneously, it has become a term used in relation to all that I do. A mistake, that slowly has grown to be a part of my identity”.


SHAMANVIOLIN performance was created while I was researching archived recordings of Siberian shamans. Listening to these old wax-cylinder recordings, I felt an urge to recreate them with my violin. It soon became an artistic research method, where I rearranged the original shaman songs for violin and began to stomp my feet simultaneously in order to create the beating of the shaman’s drum. Subsequently, I added all sorts of vocal sounds, from chants to yoik, growling and shouting.

One of the most important sources was the travel diary of a Finnish linguist and ethnographer Kai Donner who recorded 32 wax-cylinders among the Nenets, Selkup, Khanty and Ket people between the years 1912 and 1914. He was an outstanding ethnographer, thriving to live among his informants as an equal. He was one of those pioneering scientists who created the participant-observer model for anthropology and lived it in practice before the method existed.

These wax-cylinder recordings included authentic shaman songs and coupled with Kai Donner’s travel log I could trace back information that did not exist elsewhere. The lyrics had been forgotten and become unrecognizable. Some of the languages sang had become extinct. The jewel in his material is the only known recorded song from the Kamass people who became extinct in 1984. The entire text of the song was included in his diaries.

In the year 2002 I made my first field trip to Siberia, to the autonomous region of Khanty-Mansia. I met with Khanty and Forest-Nenets families, particularly the Aivasedas and Aipins. There I had a short encounter with a renowned shaman Teklju Aivaseda who had then reached his 87th landmark.

During the trip I had a chance to perform my violin arrangements of Khanty songs to the locals. I had learned a Bear feast dance, that was usually played with a narkas-juh, a zither like instrument closely related to Finnish kantele. I played it whenever I had an opportunity, asking people to tell me what they knew about the origins of the song and if they approved of my interpretation. This led to many new friendships and many new songs that were shared. The Khanty taught me new songs and I taught them Finnish songs in return.

My interest in the shamanic songs was not a coincidence. As a child, I was compelled by the beauty of classical music, especially baroque and all of those virtuous violin pieces with gypsy flavor. I begged for a violin for a year and finally at the age of six, got my parents to buy me one. I became a very gifted child and performed often in the student recitals of our local music school in Kerava, Finland. What no-one knew was that I fell in a trance state always when playing in front of a public. I lost my sense of time and place, sense of myself as a physical being, and thus fully emerged with the music I played. For me this was the only experience of performing and I believed that it happened to everybody.

I lost this natural gift of falling in trance during my teenage years. Just like any other teenager, I became more aware of social expectations and felt strongly that I did not fit in. Studying music had become more about right and wrong, about executing the written notes correctly, instead of individual freedom of expression, exploration of one’s limits and the art of joyful play. The falling in trance became suddenly replaced with a horrible stage-fright. I became rebellious toward authorities, be it authorities in society or an authoritarian way of approaching a score written by a long gone composer.

I started improvising and developing different ways to play, away from the expected and accepted. My love for classical music continued in composing, but as a player I went on for blues, progressive rock, free jazz and everything avantgarde. We even had a hard-core trio playing Napalm Death inspired songs with fully acoustic instruments. Using electronics to boost one’s volume felt too easy. Acoustically one had to deliver the raw power from within only. In the midst of all these explorations I was unconsciously seeking my way back to the capability of playing in a trance state naturally.

All these explorations continued when I moved to New York City in 1998 to study at the New School’s department of Jazz and Contemporary Music. Oddly enough, far away from home, I began to realize the value of my own roots at the same time as I became painfully aware of how limited and miseducated I was in my own Finnish culture. I lived in NYC three wonderful years and finally found a musical genre that felt like home: World music. I played with musicians all over the world, Indian, African, Arab, Sufi, Jewish, Japanese… The only thing in common with the different folk and world music artists and bands was that all of them were somehow connected to the oral traditions and improvisation. This helped me to find a way of learning from the unwritten histories of oral traditions. History and knowledge unobscured by the interpretations of a literal and educated mind of an all white and christian historian.

Two significant things happened during the summer of 2000. First was a visit to the Institute of Ethnomusicology in Budapest, where I listened to archived recordings of Hungarian folk music all day long. In the chamber of ethnomusicologist Kátálin Lázar I heard recordings of Khanty songs for the first time, and became aware of the largely unstudied musical heritage of these distant indigenous relatives of Finns living in Siberia. Their music was a pathway in understanding something of the long lost musical traditions of Finland, from the times before agriculture arrived to our land.

The other life changing event was a meeting with a Karelian elder Martta Kuikka, who was known as one of the last performers of laments, the music of rites of passage. I learned the basics of lament from her and quickly understood the link between Siberian shamanic music and the laments. I was in awe after realizing that I could learn an archaic and nearly extinct musical tradition without leaving Finland.

I returned to New York with a copy of Kai Donner’s field recordings, a collection of articles on Siberian shamanic music, and several hours of recorded interviews with Martta Kuikka. I was supposed to go back to classes in New School, but I flunked out in all of them. I was simply too busy to go to classes. Instead I was spending my days at the top floor of the NYU library, transcribing and figuring out what this music was all about, and how could one learn to create it. When I finally began to try out the shamanic songs on my violin, I fell in trance effortlessly and naturally after years of searching.

Practicing these original shaman songs I learned the essential trance techniques. The difference with my childhood experiences is that I can now consciously control the trance state. It is no longer something that happens to me, but something that I do. With both, laments and shamanic songs, I have discovered a deeper meaning of music and musicianship. Music has a tremendous power to change us, to heal us, to re-organize and transform us – to bring our body, mind and spirit to a full alignment with who we really are!

The very first Shamanviolin performance was on 22nd of February 2001 in Helsinki. At first I was shy about my trance explorations and kept it all to myself. Shamanviolin was about the music and not about me. One slogan for the show was: Authentic shaman songs re-created for violin, voice and stomping. I never meant to become a shaman-violinist. The idea was to have a one-man-band entitled “Shamanviolin” but people simply did not buy it. The press started to refer to me as a shaman-violinist consistently. And when even the major festivals in Finland began to announce my gigs as a shaman-violinist instead of Shamanviolin, I gave up. Shamanviolin is still a show, the name of my solo performance. But simultaneously, it has become a term used in relation to all that I do. A mistake that has slowly grown to be a part of my true identity.

After moving back to Finland in 2001 I devoted my time to study laments and shamanic songs entirely. Shamanviolin performance expanded with my own compositions together with an increasing number of re-composed and re-arranged songs over the Eurasian arctic, from Finland to Chukchee at the coast of Bering bay. Archives were my best teachers, and I quit all formal music training. I enrolled at the Helsinki University to become an ethnomusicologist, finishing my thesis on the creative processes of lament songs in 2006.

During these university years, I began to teach laments together with an elder Pirkko Fihlman, whose grandparents had been lament performers in Karelia. Pirkko was self-taught on laments and a society of Äänellä itkijät (those who cry with a voice) had been founded in order to find ways of preserving and developing what was left of the lament tradition in Finland. We developed a method of teaching laments to ordinary people without any music education. Our lament workshops became successful and in the following ten years we taught together over a thousand people to do their own personal laments. Our work literally revitalized the genre of lament from it’s near extinct state.

Teaching the lament workshops changed my personality and worldview irretrievably. The lament is a process that allows an individual to be seen authentically. Our sorrows are entwined with shame and all of the emotions that are generally regarded as negative in our society. Having witnessed hundreds of people uncover their deepest wounds, expressing their traumas and finding a relief through singing a self-made lament, I have been healed a hundred times too. Because individual grief does not exist. When we drop out the masks of our false self, we recognize our sorrows and fears in the whole collective.

Simultaneously, I had been composing for films and theatre. Working with filmmaking couple Markku Lehmuskallio and Anastasia Lapsui further enhanced my connections to Siberia especially with the Nenets living in tundra. Through Anastasia I’ve learned more about the meanings behind songs and singing, especially the incredible memory of one’s family history that is embedded in personal songs of the Nenets people. Could you remember your 15th grandmother? Not just her name, but something about her character too?

My journeys to Siberia continued with a newly founded theatre group Ruska Ensemble in 2011. Our slogan is ”Theatre across the arctic” and our group focuses on myths, stories, history and wisdom around the arctic. Our first play was a dramatization of a book ”Last morning star” by a Khanty author Jeremei Aipin. We also took the play over to Khanty-Mansijsk in 2013, so that the locals could see what we had created out of their stories. It was the first time in history for a foreign group to perform in their land with a play that was based on their experiences. Subsequently we have collaborated with the Inuit theatre Nunatta Isiginnaartitsisarfia from Greenland, Beaivvaš Sámi Theatre in Norway and the Finnish National Theatre.

In 2012 I got a call from Jonne Järvelä asking if I would like to join the folk-metal band Korpiklaani. Jonne turned out to be a fan of Shamanviolin and Korpiklaani had been struggling to find a new violinist. This opened a new chapter in my life. Playing all over the world and in front of thousands and sometimes tens of thousands. What attracted me the most in Korpiklaani was its one-of-a-kind combination of folk and metal leading to a much more joyous approach than any other metal band that I know of. Korpiklaani’s lyrics are also strongly based on the archived rune singing. Finland houses the largest collection of rune singing lyrics in the world, a true treasure that is not largely utilized outside of folkloristic studies and folk musicians. Korpiklaani is unique in its use of archived material in combination with new lyrics written in the same style.

Presently my life is like a nomadic semi-urban medley of all of this; performing globally with Shamanviolin, Korpiklaani and Ruska Ensemble including various shorter projects. Doing artistic research at the Sibelius-Academy doctorate program since 2013. A work that led to a lasting friendship with probably the best male yoik artist from the Norwegian side of the Sámi land: Ingor Antte Áilu Gaup a.k.a Áilloš. The Bear Feast performance, combining ritual, play, music and theatre. Not forgetting the laments and other shamanic workshops that have united so many souls and stories across different traditions, times and cultures globally.

I welcome you to witness my journey and explore your own in this website and many events to come!

Watch a full Shamanviolin concert