Saturday, July 13, 2024

Harp: Reinventing music through cultural bonds


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Lamphrangbor Nongspung and Esha Chaudhuri immerse themselves in a musical journey of the harp to Shillong and its five enthusiastic learners who have enabled a dream embedded in history and presently orchestrating a harmonious cultural exchange.

A new leaf was turned in Shillong’s music circles in 2022 when Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong (MLCU) began in its music department imparting lessons of the harp. A musical instrument not unheard of nor completely alien has quite a deep history with Wales and its journey to Shillong. It all began when the well known harpist from Wales Mair Jones, who wove a bond of music and beyond with the people of Shillong through its christian missionaries and after her death in 2021 left in her belongings a harp to be donated to the people of Shillong to keep the cultural and humanist bond of music and communities alive. Sunday Shillong then, went on to interact with the mentors and mentees of this specialised course that is an integral part of the MLCU’s music department to delve into the vision and dream of Jones that is breathing its life in the campus through its students.

From the students 

The five students of Martin Luther Christian University—Risaka Nancy Pyrbot, Aijingkmen Janong, Balasiewdor Ryntathiang, Barnadine Lapherna Lyngdoh Mawnai and Livandi Bateilang Kharkongor— have been training to play the harp instrument for the past one year.

The five students were selected for the scholarship for an online training session to play the harp with the musician from Wales, Catrin Morris Jones.

These students who are awaiting their results of the Masters Degree in Music were selected for scholarship after one to one session with the instructor from Wales, Nia Davies William who had visited the university.

The online training session to play the harp started in April last year. These students had just performed during the World Music Day celebration held at LARITI International Performing Centre on Friday, June 21. They performed on the song “Colours of Wind” which speaks about the environment.

During an interaction with Sunday Shillong, Barnadine said that the concept of learning the harp began during the workshop conducted by the musician from Wales in the department of Music at the Martin Luther University.

According to her, they did not get the opportunity to play the harp after attending the workshop.

“We first had a one to one session with Miss Williams. It was after the one to one session we began our journey to play the harp through the online training session,” she said.

Livandi said that the Harp was introduced in the university in 2023.

“We were exposed to this musical instrument during the 15th Convocation of the university in 2022. I had never seen the harp before and I never thought I’d get an opportunity to learn and play this musical instrument,” he said

Echoing similar excitement, Balasiewdor said that even for her she had an inclination to play the harp on the first look at the instrument. According to her, Miss Williams conducts therapeutic sessions for the people who are unwell by way of playing the harp.

“After hearing her playing the harp, I also feel that the harp is a great instrument for music therapy and I was keen to play it to be able to do the same,” Balasiewdor said.

In response, Nia Davies Williams, Harp Tutor Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias(CGWM) says, “The students were so excited and attentive from the very start. They were quick to learn and eager to please. But to play the harp well, a solid foundation needs to be laid through technique and musical exercises. Dogged determination through practice paves the way for a good harpist, but with one of the students, who I will not name…! He wanted to run before he could crawl and I would always have to tell him to keep to the basics first. But I had to smile at his very first performance, he played what he should have played but could not resist performing a flamboyant, exaggerated ending, he was enjoying himself so much!

This was the same student who within a week of his first lesson had cobbled together his own harp using guitar tuning pegs and strings!”

How is the harp different?

According to the Director of CGWM, Meinir Llwyd Roberts, the harp is regarded as the National Instrument of Wales with many children learning to play the harp and many professional Welsh harpists performing internationally.  “It has been interesting for us to work with MLCU where there is no previous tradition of playing the harp. It has been wonderful to see the students bringing the harp together with other traditional Khasi instruments to perform traditional music and their own compositions.”

Meanwhile, Aijingkmen said that the difference of playing the harp as compared to other musical instruments since its sound is very pleasant and therapeutic.

“It is like medicine for those people who hear and listen to it. I listen to the harp whenever I am stressed and it is like medicine to me. It is very unique as compared to the other musical instruments,” he said.

Balasiewdor, who is a music enthusiast, says she likes to play the guitar.

According to her, the harp is quite different from the other instruments since it involves plucking the string directly with fingers adding that the posture, technique of playing and hand coordination.

Risaka, who has also been playing the harp for a year now, but has been playing the piano for longer, says “The technique of the piano is similar to the Harp but the harp produces sound through the plucking of strings. The resonance and sustain of each note depends on the technique of plucking and the design of the harp.”

Moreover, Livandi and Risaka both agree that keyboard and guitar will continue to be popular among the youth.

“There are very few of the youth who are interested in the traditional instruments. I don’t think that traditional instruments are going to replace keyboard and guitar when it comes to its popularity among the youth.” he said.

Balasiewdor however feels that there is growing interest in other journals of music which do not require these instruments. Talking about her experience playing the harp, Balasiewdor said that the sound boat of the vibrations of the string in your ear and that feeling is somewhat meditative to the player and for the listeners as well,” she said.

Teachers and Teachings

The five students and their instructors conduct these lessons online seated at the music room in MLCU. In Aijingkmen’s words, “This is something which we have not experienced before and it is so special for each one of us.”

However, online classes come with both advantages and disadvantages. It has reignited the existing relationship between the Khasi people and the Welsh  community but network can be an issue at times but due to advancement in technology, all five students are grateful for the opportunity to learn playing the instrument.

Sharing her experience of teaching, Harp Tutor CGWM, Catrin Morris Jones says, “Although I have taught many students over the years, this is my first experience of teaching students 5000 miles away. The five MLCU harpists have made wonderful progress in a relatively short time. Personally, I have learnt about the Khasi music and I have loved hearing the harp students play some traditional Khasi songs on the harp as well as composing their own pieces. This has been awe inspiring for me as a musician. If we all share and inspire one another we can achieve great things.”

Sharing insights on their lessons with their mentors, Livandi said that Miss Williams was the first teacher when they first started to learn playing the harp and it was Miss Jones who took over the online classes.

Balasiewdor said that the best thing about Miss Williams is that she was easy going and approachable.

Risaka adds on, “My harp teacher is Catrin Morris Jones and in every class, what gets me excited is to learn new techniques in playing the Harp.”

“We did not have the opportunity to sit for her online classes since Miss Jones took over the online session. When Miss Jones gave us pieces to practise on our own and she was not hard on us when we found some pieces very difficult. You may get the notes right but sometimes the technique of playing is very difficult. The good part is that she motivates us all the time,” she said.

Livandi however said that when they are still in the university they can still have the opportunity to play the harp.

“But it will be difficult to possess it on our own since the instrument is more expensive than the piano. The one Miss Jones has given to the university will cost around Rs 3 lakh. If we want to practise we have to come to the university,” he said

Aijingkmen said that he had tried to reach one of the craftsmen in Mawpat who makes the harp since he understands they will be leaving the university after their post graduation.

“Once we are out we will no longer get an opportunity to practise and visit the university. But the one which will be made by the local craftsman will be fine only for practice. But when it comes to performance it will not have the same taste like the one we have at the university,” he said.

Message on World Music Day

The young musicians while learning their craft have lots to share with the world. Not only in terms of their talent and skill at the instrument but also to share the space and respect with fellow musicians. “As musicians we share our experiences and we are able to motivate each other. We need to share whatever we learnt,” says Aijingkmen.

Barnadine said that she would like to wish all the local musicians the recognition that they deserve.

“I had the opportunity to conduct a music wellness session during my internship at Dr H. Gordon Robert Hospital. I feel gratified to be able to engage with the patients through my music.” Balasiewdor added.

Further, Livandi said that he personally feels that music has the power to change the world. “If we look at history there is always a song if we talk about peace,” he said.

All in all, friends and colleagues of the late Welsh harpist Mair Jones have enabled a space to make her dream come true through this cultural exchange.

Music transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and provides a balming effect alleviating those that are aggrieved. Hence imparting such skills and raising a conscious generation is a massive accomplishment for institutions and its mentors.


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