ABOUT THE HARP

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About the Harp

Biography

For an instrument with such angelic connotations, the harp won't half get you into bother. Truly, if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the highway to Harpland is a treacherous turnpike of eggshells.

For instance, both Ireland and Wales claim the harp as their national instrument - but neither invented it, at least not the harp as we know it today, or even for that matter the harp as seen on the Guinness label. Crunch. That honour goes to the Picts of Scotland, who left visible proof that they were harping in the eighth century.

In their authoritative history of the harp in Scotland, Tree of Strings, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird cite the evidence found on Pictish stones to suggest that the now familiar triangular-framed instrument featured in Picto-Scottish culture two to three hundred years before it is found anywhere else in Europe, nay, the world.

Now, doubtless, the gregarious Welsh will tell you that Scotland was a northern outpost of Wales in those days - and the habitually peripatetic Irish, who have written but not visual references to the harp dating back to the eighth century, will claim that they were searching out sites for early theme pubs even then and that they chipped away at the stones while the locals were sleeping off the hooch.

But if so, they took the devil of a time to get home and chip away anything similar on stones in their own backyard. Even our glorious ferry operators can get you from Stranraer to Larne in less than two hundred years.

So what were the Irish playing? Since all their pre-eleventh century 'palaeoroids' feature quadrangular stringed instruments, probably a relative of the lyre as played by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, an ancestor of the harp - which has forebears and relatives across the globe, including the Malian kora, the Japanese koto and Finland's kantele. But not the harp itself, which in the Celtic nations, through the bardic tradition where the harp was used to accompany and dramatise stories, went on to become a formidable status symbol. Or at least its players did.

During the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, no self-respecting family of the aristocracy would be seen dead, let alone eating, drinking, strapping on a sword belt or even falling asleep without a harper giving it big stuff on the latest, pre-arts council grant commission. In Scotland, Rory Dall Morison and, in Ireland, the near-sainted Turlough O Carolan are great examples of two court harpers whose music, particularly O Carolan's, is still played widely today.

That it is played at all on harps is something approaching a miracle because by Rory Dall's time (c1656-c1714), the clarsach, as the Scottish harp came to be known, was dying out and while the Welsh kept up an unbroken harping tradition, in Ireland the harp teetered on the edge of extinction only to be revived, like its Scots cousin, with the renaissance of the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century.

Even so, once again, by the beginning of the 1970s the harp was a rare sight in Scotland and Ireland, boasting only a limited number of players.

The great leap in popularity which the harp has undertaken since then, including thousands of players, particularly youngsters, taking up the instrument, an annual festival in Edinburgh of truly international and often seam-splitting proportions, an avalanche of recordings featuring the harp either entirely or prominently, a dedicated magazine (Sounding Strings) and a supporting industry of harp makers, stems from two signal figures. Crunch.

In 1971, Breton harper Alan Stivell released Renaissance of the Celtic Harp an album which, along with a series of others including Chemin de Fer, introduced audiences across the musical spectrum to the sound of the harp, played solo or alongside bagpipes in a belting rock band.

Then, and perhaps more crucially from a player's point of view, in 1978 came the aforementioned Alison Kinnaird's The Harp Key, the first Scottish recording to focus on the harp as an instrument in its own right as opposed to its previous role as almost exclusively an accompaniment to singing.


While the Clarsach Society had steadfastly but quietly kept the harp alive since its inception in the 1930s, these albums opened the floodgates. Groups such as Ossian, with Billy Jackson, and Whistlebinkies, with Rhona MacKay and later Judith Peacock, made the harp increasingly familiar.

In Ireland, the Chieftains' Derek Bell brought the harp out of dusty antiquity - not to mention into disrepute with his marvelously named solo album, Derek Bell Plays With Himself. Maire Ni Chathasaigh, too, spurred by groups such as Planxty and the Bothy Band and her County Cork family's love of their native culture, championed Irish music on the harp, particularly music from the dancing and piping traditions, although her partnership with guitarist Chris Newman now incorporates exhilarating romps through bluegrass, ragtime and Scott Skinner intricacies.

As the momentum increased so did the harpers' collective sense of adventure. In the mid 1980s, Mary MacMaster and Patsy Seddon, who had formed a twin harp partnership in the all-female Sprangeen, emerged as Sileas, adding a Breton-built electro harp to their gut and metal strung armoury, an addition which proved useful as they went on to take their tightly articulated and influential playing of Gaelic tunes, pipe music and bass guitar lines into the folk/rock arena as members of Clan Alba and Caledon as well as the Celtic/American rootsfest of the highly popular Poozies.

But arguably - crunch - the greatest trailblazer has been Savourna Stevenson, whose interest in blues, jazz and African styles as well as traditional Scots music required the introduction of semi-tone blades, which allow her to 'bend' notes and use jazz-style harmonic progressions. The result of this, as well as her work with musicians including kora player Toumani Diabate, bassist Danny Thompson and uilleann piper Davy Spillane, is music of considerable vision and accomplishment.

Other notable players in Scotland include Corrina Hewat, with the jazz-influenced Bachue, where her distinctive interpretations of Scots songs also feature; the more 'in the tradition' stylist and respected teacher Ann Heymann; Charlotte Peterson with Calluna; and Wendy Stewart, who plays electro harp with the folk/rock group Ceolbeg but also has a splendidly self-contained solo style.

In Ireland, Kathleen Loughnane with the Irish-baroque group Dordan and Laoise Kelly with the effervescent Bumblebees are particularly worthy of attention. And in Canada, Loreena McKennitt has proved a very popular figure, incorporating ancient Celtic, mediaeval French and high tech elements into her atmospheric compositions.

But while some harpers strive to take the instrument forward, others very successfully and effectively hark back to older times. Robin Williamson, of the Incredible String Band, and Fiona Davidson are unashamed revivers of the bardic tradition, telling stories of both traditional themes and of their own, extemporised creation, and in an even more romantic throwback to the harper's former lot, one the newest and brightest arrivals on the harp scene, Phamie Gow, currently has the rare and possibly unique distinction of being - as Rory Dall was before her - a harper at court, to the Paisley family of Westerlea.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh? Crunch.




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