Harpers Hall,
Celtic Harp Magic
(ARC, 2000)

By the title, Celtic Harp Magic, you can easily imagine that this Harpers Hall collection of 20 tracks was designed for the serious lover of harp music. Thirty harpists showcase their talents, and many of the tunes are traditional classics that most listeners might be familiar with. There are also many original compositions that take on African, Latin and blues genres -- styles where you don't normally hear the harp.

The Harpers Hall mission statement reads as follows: "Our purpose is to promote an appreciation of the folk harp, to cultivate its living musical tradition, and to preserve the fun and magic of the harp for members and for the general public." The Harpers Hall Ensemble consists of 21 harpists as well as four other musicians who lend their talents on supporting instruments.

Listening to the ensemble on four tracks, including "Chanters Tune/La Rotta," "Christ Child's Lullaby," "Brian Boru's March" and "Atholl Highlanders," is quite an ethereal experience. When up to 18 harpists play on a single tune, an instrument that often takes a backseat definitely steps up to the foreground. If I were not already a fan of the harp -- thanks to the talents of Loreena McKennitt and Heather Dale -- the Harpers Hall Ensemble would have forced me to take notice of what a beautiful instrument the harp truly is.

One of the most striking pieces of this collection is "Kacheche" by the duo Kuimba. This piece is about the small African wagtail bird. The combination of African rhythms with a Celtic instrument works quite well. The two genres are complementary and sound natural together despite the distance of their origins.

"Family Visitation Blues" performed by Midyne Spear introduces the harp to the blues. This song pokes fun at how most vacations are anything but relaxing. I had to chuckle the first time I heard it, but let me tell you, the song grows on you rather quickly.

Another favorite tune off the CD is "I Am" by Sarah Burns. I was honestly surprised to find out that Sarah is only 12. She not only performs the piece, but composed it as well! Sarah sounds older than her years as she sings about what makes her the individual that she is. Take my word for it, this combination of almost timid vocals with the simple melody is nothing short of magical. (Sarah says the songs she writes tend to simply fall into place. I know I am not alone when I say I wish I possessed a natural talent such as this.)

Before you get the idea that every track on this CD is a must-have, let me note a few I really didn't care for. The first would be "The Lorry Ride" by Aedan McDonnell and Nigel Green. Aedan has a pleasant enough voice and I like the melody even if the subject of the song does nothing for me. But Nigel's backing vocals are a little off key, and it is too annoying for me. "Pretty Saro" by Maggie Pinckard also falls a little flat for me.

As a rule (although there are exceptions), the best selections on this CD are the instrumentals. With 20 tracks, I find it acceptable that there are a few duds.

If you are a fan of harp music or enjoy Celtic melodies as well as the occasional foray into other genres, Celtic Harp Magic could easily be considered a must-have CD. There are a few bumps in the musical journey, but the overall trip is enjoyable. As is often the case with compilations, you will surely find individual artists or groups that are worth checking out in greater detail.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 7 December 2002

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