“Angels We Have Heard on High:” the image of angels playing heavenly music on harps has been with us since Biblical times. But the harp is even older than Christianity. It is thought to be over 3000 years old, seen on the walls of Egyptian tombs. For centuries, the harp has had a special place in Irish tradition; it led warriors into battle and became the national symbol of Ireland.
Given such a long and storied history, with its exalted place among royalty, religions, and nations, it is no wonder that harps are capable of transporting the listener to other places and times.
The Kona Harp Ensemble plays music from around the world, so it’s a perfect vehicle for such “transportation.” A Celtic Christmas actually featured only a couple of Celtic tunes; the Ensemble also took us to Hawaii, England, Syria, and Germany. The two harps, played by Bernice Roberto and Madhani Infinity, were accompanied by the one instrument even more ancient than the harp, the flute. Manuel Roberto played several types of bamboo flutes from Asia, and Jean-Pierre Thoma’s European flute is made of gold. Talk about “golden tones!”
They opened, as is respectful in Hawaii, with a Hawaiian chant. While neither harp nor flute is common to Hawaiian music, the two instruments married ancient musical sounds to an ancient vocal tradition.
Almost all of the music played was in a minor key, creating a more contemplative than joyful Christmas mood. The “Celtic” was provided by perhaps the most famous harpist in history, the blind 17th-century Irish performer/composer Turlough O’Carolan, whose Irish folk melodies were enhanced with Italian Baroque influences. So much Irish music is sad; the sweet melancholy of the harps and flutes evoked a gently flowing brook winding its way through the forest.
JP’s golden flute was featured in the English carol “Greensleeves,” moving through eleven variations involving triplets and 16th notes before coming back to rest on the melody in quarter notes, fortified only by basic chords.
While the songs were mostly from Medieval times, the ensemble’s method was improvisational, even jazzy. In most of the pieces, almost all with simple melodies, the themes were enhanced with rhythms and harmonies that deepened their content and brought out their other-worldly quality. However, this method was not equally successful. The melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as first stated simply by the bamboo flute evoked the voices of monks in a monastery. The improvisations that followed seemed too busy, and the repetitive pulsating undercurrent detracted from the solemn but exalted mood.
The variations in style and combinations of instruments also ensured our attention. Bernice has a sweet soprano and also played keyboard; J.P.’s clarinet added depth and a more modern sound; Manuel’s flutes ranged from high and thin-pitched to low and resonant; Madhani’s vocal duet with Bernice on “Ancient Mother” was a mystical invocation and incantation.
For this season of the solstice and of spiritual importance, the Kona Harp Ensemble elevated our consciousness with the music of the spheres.
About the author: Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby
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Editor’s Note: The Kona Harp Ensemble’s Celtic Christmas concert was the first live show streamed on Kahilu.TV, a new online platform for the Kahilu Theatre.