It sounds like a cross between a zither and a mountain dulcimer, although a few of them together evoke the resonance of a Celtic harp. It looks like that same cross-between, a bit more angular perhaps and crafted from wood as would be fine furniture. Its name, kantele — “KAHN-tuh-lay” — is pronounced with the same rhythm as Mandalay but it comes from a place far from tropical. It is the national folk instrument of Finland and it has a dedicated band of disciples right here in Midcoast Maine.

Twice a month during winter, these students come from as far away as Unity and as close as just down the road to Jura Hall, the bottom floor of the Finnish Congregational Church on Route 131. As behooves any gathering of Scandinavian heritage, the coffeepot is always on. The kantele class, however, is run by Celia Jones of Rockland, a music educator with an enthusiasm for all kinds of musical traditions.

“They’re all Finns, except me,” she said after rattling off the kantele group members’ names.

Jones may not be Finn-Am, but she has become an advocate for the kantele. She was recruited for the group by Steve Gifford, whose wife Mary Gifford travels the farthest, from Brewer, for the classes. Steve Gifford is a board member and tireless promoter of the Finnish Heritage House that stands adjacent to the old church. With support of the board, he applied for and received a small grant from Finn Spark, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Finnish language, culture and traditions. The grant, matched by the Finnish Heritage House, and five students who elected to purchase their own instruments, enabled the FHH to acquire 11 kanteles from Finland and hire Sarah Cummings-Ridge to teach a series of lessons.

Cummings-Ridge is a founding member of Kantele Laulu and Maine Kanteles, a Gray-based group that has been spreading the joy of kantele for 10 years and has released a CD titled “The Simple Gift.” She met with the Midcoast contingent every other Friday night last July through October. Now Jones has taken the reins of the group.

The class includes several family groupings. Ragna Weaver and her granddaughter Danielle Weaver, part of the Norwegian Peterson and Finnish Korpinen families, attend from St. George; while three generations of Powells, tied to the Lehto family, gather — Robert Powell, a Unity College student; Karen Wheelis of Union; and her mother Ethel Powell of Thomaston.

Wheelis was a late add, talked into the group by Jones, a colleague at Waldoboro’s Miller School. The two women have brought their kanteles to school and the instruments are a big hit with the students. One reason is because it can be played so simply — and, simply, can play anything, from a traditional Finnish song to a nursery rhyme. The first day the kanteles made an appearance at the school, Jones said the children came in from recess to find Wheelis playing one “and they crowded around her like bees to a hive; they were spellbound.”

Kanteles have been weaving a musical spell in Finland for centuries. The folk lap harp’s history is wound with that of the Kalevala, Finland’s national folk epic. And the Midcoast’s more recent history is linked with Finland’s as a number of Finns immigrated and settled here, with a strong enclave on the St. George and Friendship peninsulas and a significant number of families in Waldo County. In the 21st century, however, these historical ties are in danger of fading away. The Finnish Heritage House is in search of a Finnish teacher, as its long-term volunteer instructor died recently. One goal of the kantele group is that as people learn the instrument, they will pass it on to the younger generations.

In Danielle Weaver, the class has a young enthusiast. On Jan. 8 as things got underway, she was expertly tuning her kantele with an electronic tuner — a mix of ancient and modern technology at work. A kantele can have anywhere from five to 36 metal strings; the standard’s five are tuned to D, E, F-sharp, G and A. These strings are put into vibration in a variety of ways.

“We play by plucking or you can do harmonics. You can use little hammers, like a hammered dulcimer, or even pencils. They also can be played with a violin bow,” said Jones, who likened the effect of many kanteles playing together to “a musical massage.”

The body of the instrument is crafted from fine wood in a way that no one outside of Finland has mastered as of yet, said Jones.

“It’s truly amazing, the quality of these instruments; they’re just beautiful,” she said.

Not everyone in the class reads music; some play by numbered finger positioning rather than notes. The group works on five or six numbers per class and is challenged by one sight-read piece, as well.

“I’m kind of teaching them music theory too but it’s very casual, no pressure. We have fun and laugh a lot,” Jones said, adding proudly that the group worked their way into four-part harmony for the first time Jan. 8.

As is her wont when she explores a new musical tradition — Jones has traveled to Cape Breton to study the fiddling, for example — she has immersed herself with the history and the music of the kantele. She understands the pride of heritage that accompanies such a folk instrument because she knows a little about where it comes from.

“I’ve been doing a lot of historical reading and the history of Finland … these people had a really hard life and you can see it in their music,” she said.

It was not hard to see how appreciated the efforts of the kantele students are by the local Finn-Am community during last month’s Christmas service at the church. After presenting several instrumental pieces, the group, calling themselves the Finnish Strings, invited the congregation to sing with them to “Finlandia” and the traditional Christmas Goat Song.

The kantele players may get pulled into an exploration of Finnish dance as well. More than a dozen members of the FHH community attended last fall’s Finn Fun Weekend in New Hampshire and found themselves inspired a folk dance performance there. Plans are to research and sew native costumes and learn a few dances … and dancers need music.

Closer on the calendar, the kantele students are working towards a spring concert exchange with the Maine Kanteles. Until then, they will meet every other week in Jura Hall to explore this traditional music that Jones said captures “the essence of a people.”

For more information about the Finnish Heritage House, visit finnheritage.org. To hear some kantele music, sample the Maine Kanteles’ album on cdbaby.com.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to dernest@villagesoup.com.