The Burnaby NOW's Jennifer Moreau paid a visit to 98-year-old Jaakko Noso, a renowned Finnish guitar maker, now living in a Burnaby retirement home. Throughout his life, Noso has made thousands of musical instruments, all by hand. He's considered a legend in Finland and was recently given a lifetime achievement award from his home country.
O n an overcast afternoon, Jaakko Noso is the centre of attention at Finnish Manor, a seniors' home in Burnaby.
Dressed in a suit jacket, holding one of his famous handmade guitars, Noso poses for the camera, attracting a small audience of seniors, who have gathered round in a semicircle.
Noso, now 98, is mentally sharp, but his hearing is going. He speaks little English and recounts his life story with the help of his son, Jim, who leans in close to his father's ear to translate. Jaakko often becomes animated when talking about his illustrious career, speaking in Finnish and laughing heartily every so often.
heartily every so often. J aakko's lifelong love affair with musical instruments started in Finland, while he was biding his time on military service. In his early 20s, Jaakko found himself in charge of a boiler room, with a lot of time on his hands, so he started to whittle away at a piece of wood. He had a natural love for building, and he was excited as his first piece emerged. It was a violin. Jaakko had come from a family of three sisters and two brothers, but no musicians. He didn't know how to play the violin, but a fellow soldier who did explained how to make the instrument.
Noso doesn't recall what happened to that violin, and he likely didn't realize it would be the first of more than 10,000 instruments he would craft in his lifetime.
instruments he would craft in his lifetim Then the Second World War came in 1939.
Jaakko served Finland in the conflict, but when the war ended and he returned to civilian life, there was little work. So he built another violin and sold it. He got such a good price that he was inspired to build a guitar.
Then came two or three more guitars, and Jaakko took his creations to a music shop in Helsinki. At an attached music academy, Jaakko was told his guitars were better than the American imports, which would have likely been Gibson and Fender at that time. The shop wanted more guitars - a lot more.
Jaakko launched his first phase of production by setting up shop next to his parents' home in the late 1940s. He built guitar after guitar, and they became very popular.
By the 1950s, he had about 10 workers to help. Noso guitars started winning awards at trade shows, but the Finnish tax system was creating problems. Jaakko, now a family man with children, was hit with three large bills. Fed up with the country's taxation system, he packed his bags, and with family in tow, moved to Vancouver in 1966. He arrived with roughly 50 guitars, half finished in pieces.
Jaakko lived on East 35th Avenue in Vancouver, near Victoria Drive, and kept his guitar shop in the basement. He still made guitars for people but slipped into relative obscurity, as he was not as that well known in Canada. He took on other jobs, like carpentry and labour, because the guitar making was no longer enough to feed his family.
W ith the piano now playing at the rest home, and seniors still gathered round in wheelchairs, watching our interview, Jaakko talks about the secrets to making a good guitar. The body shape and size are important, as is the combination of wood, to give the instrument a pleasant sound. The frets, of course, must be precision-calculated.
"He knew the right combination between the species of wood and the body," Jim says translating. "And the sound board had to be right, the right thickness."
When it all comes together, you get a rich, unique sound.
"Every guitar can sound a little different," Noso says through his son. Jaakko retired in his mid-60s but still built guitars and took up gardening. Finland's national kantele association presented Noso with his latest award on Feb. 26 - the Golden Kantele. The kantele is a type of table harp, one of many instruments Noso created and the national instrument of Finland. Jaakko was awarded for his "lifelong and distinguished work" supporting kantele culture. Jaakko's most famous kantele was given to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and now rests in a museum. When asked how he felt winning the award, Jaakko grins and leans forward, hands clasped in his lap.
"It was a surprise, and I couldn't believe in the beginning when I heard about it," he says. "I was very elated, even after all these years to achieve this magnificent recognition by the music industry of Finland."
Jaakko has made roughly 100 kanteles, as well as banjos, violins, a single cello, a stand-up bass, but mostly acoustic guitars and some electrics. Jaakko was making solid-body electrics in the late '40s and '50s, alongside pioneers like Les Paul and Leo Fender.
Many of Jaakko's guitars went to the Pentecostal Church, which used them in choirs. Jaakko even has a Facebook appreciation page, and Jim brings his laptop to show his father online updates from time to time.
F or Jaakko, his career highlight was the widespread acceptance of his guitars - first all over Finland and then throughout Europe. He could never keep up with demand.
"But the taxman seemed to keep up with him," Jim says.
When asked if any famous musicians have used Jaakko's guitars, Jim describes a Finnish pop musician, Tuure Kilpelainen, who came across an abandoned Noso acoustic in an attic, and birds had made a nest in the body. As the story goes, Kilpelainen cleaned out the nest and is still using the guitar for concerts and recordings.
J aakko made his last instrument, a cello, at age 90. He fixed a kantele about three years ago, but his dexterity is going. Now he mostly spends his time at the rest home with Kaarina, his wife of 60 years, but he would keep building if he could.
A smiling Jaakko leans in close to Jim's ear, hands clasped and fidgeting.
"He never (realized) at the time his guitars would be so popular 50 or 60 years later," Jim translates. "He's so excited about that."
Jim says his father has become somewhat of a legend in Finland and he's enjoying a resurgence of interest in his life's work, with interview requests coming from Finnish publications.
"The recognition is coming that he never expected."