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Harping on around the world

Alfredo Ortiz is among the international artists attending the congress.

Virtually every corner of the world has a tradition of playing the harp, as participants at a congress in Geneva are demonstrating.

The image of the flaxen-haired maiden playing a Celtic harp is perhaps a little outdated. As the eighth World Harp Congress shows, the harp is also an important instrument in the music of Latin America, Africa and the Far East, as well as being versatile enough to cope with jazz and rock.

The congress is held in a different city every three years, and the driving force behind bringing it to Geneva was Chantal Mathieu, herself a virtuoso who has taught at Lausanne’s Conservatory for 20 years.

“It’s like any other congress – it allows people to come together from all over the world, to share their experiences, discover new works, and hear many great soloists in the space of a week,” she told swissinfo.

Rich traditions

Some 500 harpists from 51 countries are taking part in the congress, which includes concerts, a competition for young harpists, conferences, seminars and lectures on topics as diverse as how to make copies of medieval harps to the travelling Bohemian harpists of the 19th century.

While the classical and Celtic traditions dominate, there’s much to interest those eager to learn more about the harp in other parts of the world.

“I wanted to show all aspects of the harp family, for example the konghu from China, the Japanese kugo and the kora from Africa,” says Mathieu. “The harp has a thousand facets and possibilities.”

There are concerts and masterclasses devoted to jazz, as well as Latin American harp music – in itself a world of discovery.

Latin harp

“The harp is at the very centre of music in places like Venezuela, Colombia and Paraguay,” says Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, an exhibitor from California, pointing out that the famous Mexican song, “La Bamba”, was originally composed for the harp.

“Two hundred years ago, the Celtic harp disappeared as a folk instrument; now it is being revived. In Latin America, it has always remained an instrument of ordinary people, passed down from generation to generation,” he told swissinfo

Despite its often medieval image, the congress testifies to something of a worldwide harp revival. Improvements in the mechanics of the harp over the past century mean they are easier to tune, and not too expensive.

“A small Celtic harp costs no more than a clarinet,” says Mathieu.

“A simple chord played on a harp sounds very nice. Even if you’re not a virtuoso, you can still derive a lot of pleasure from it,” she adds.

The congress runs until July 28.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR