This weekend, music lovers across Atlantic Canada are in for a real treat as the region hosts its first annual Nova Scotia Harp Festival. Recently we spoke with harpist and festival founder Cheryl Reid-O’Hagan about what audiences can expect.
What is your own ethnicity?
I am Scottish, English and Irish, with a good shot of Viking!
How, when and why did you start the Nova Scotia Harp Festival?
I’ve played the harp since 1990 and it really started to catch on, so I started to teach. Then where could people get a harp? So I established Eastcoast Harpshop and then we needed to have fun together and have workshops so I started the Nova Scotia Harp Ring – all since 1997. For the twentieth anniversary in 2017 I put together a board and we registered as a non-profit society – The Nova Scotia Harp Association. This provides a framework for the future. The first thing I wanted to do was to host a Harp Festival as they do in many parts of the world. We all need inspiration and this will energize the community and draw us all together in a wonderful way. We recently put on an “All Harps Rise” Concert and twenty-one harpists threw their weight behind the fundraising effort. This is the first Harp festival in Nova Scotia and I expect it to grow over time. We want it to be self-sustaining and it should take off given the Celtic roots here. It belongs with all the other events on the culture-scape which visitors take in when they make the pilgrimage to our province.
What are the challenges involved with putting it together?
The immediate challenge has been in getting the word out and covering costs. With the internet it’s easy to invite people from around the world and it’s my hope that we can add to the musical Mecca that the East Coast already is. My role has been to launch the boat, hoist the sails and catch enough wind to navigate the first leg of the trip.
What can audiences expect during the festival?
People will meet Ann Heymann – Queen of Harps – the pioneer harpist who breathed life into the mostly lost traditions of playing the harp which you see on two very famous beer labels, the Irish coin and flag. Her Concert is called “Meet the Gaelic Harp.” This harp was never a side instrument. Harping was a sacred art form in Gaelic society, with its own mystique and symbolism. “In the folklore of the instrument, the harp had music for crying, music for laughing and music for sleeping. The first was to play for people who were injured or in pain, women in labor or men injured on the battlefield. The second was music of vigor, music of life, dance music, war music. The music for sleeping was actually music for death.”- Ann Heymann. This is why the harp is so enduring. It opens a window to another time. It encompasses so much personal history about clans, families, emigration, tears and hope. It’s rich with male-female symbolism and supernatural themes. It sends messages from “the then” to “the now”, a time capsule. Since 1974, she has worked with NASA engineer turned harp builder, Jay Witcher of Houlton, Maine, to resurrect the old harps housed in Trinity College, Dublin, the Queen Mary Harp in Scotland, the Welsh bray harp and several others which lay dead on pages and in museums since the last Belfast Harp Festival in the 1700s. She has written the “bible” on how to play the Gaelic Harp and her style is emulated around the world. Most harpists play and teach as if the harp were a piano and we can now know more about how the “real” Celtic harps were played. I know Early Music aficionados – as well as Gaelic, Irish speaking and other Celtic people who are deep into dance, fiddle, pipes and language – will appreciate it as well. Ann and her multi-instrumentalist Gaelic singer and husband, Charlie, are driving from Minnesota with six reproduction historic harps and a Sutton Hoo Lyre, a cittern, concertina and other treasures never seen in Nova Scotia. Charlie Heymann – who plays several unusual instruments, sings in Gaelic, – is giving an “open tunes” class upstairs at the Old Triangle Alehouse in Halifax on the Sunday, Sept.30. Our own Elizabeth MacDonald is a top drawer Sean Nos dancer and she’s going to come up and teach us the Connemara step. Then we’ll go downstairs and join Kevin Roach & Co. for the set dancing, food and music. The opening concert in Halifax will feature Lewis MacKinnon, Poet Laureate of Scotland and I’ve made a new arrangement of the Brian Boru March as a tribute to the O’Neil Trinity Harp. Saturday night’s concert will include Riverdancer Zeph Caissie. All the events will be held in historic and touristic places to show our beautiful province – Lunenburg on the Bluenose, in the Fisherman’s Museum and the Lunenburg Academy, Citadel Hill in the Garrison Room, The Triangle, All Nations’ Church, and explosion survivor, St. Matthew’s Church.