The harp is one of several instruments that’s been incorrectly typecast as something strictly used in classical or folk music. Or the visions of European churches or small villages in the British Isles it inspires.
The harp is the oldest string instrument in the world—depictions were recorded in Egypt and the Middle East as far back as 3000 BCE.
“There are versions of the harp in almost every culture on the planet,” said Community Music School executive director Susan Willats. “China, the Middle East, Africa—it’s an ancient instrument.”
On Sunday, Jan. 22, the Harp Festival returns to Santa Cruz in person for the first time in three years. The fundraising event will showcase professional players and CMS’ all-ages Harp Ensemble.
“The ensemble is made up of students taking harp lessons at any level,” Willats says. “Our main focus at CMS is connecting young people to music. Anything we do is to fund those programs.”
CMS was formed 30 years ago by Shelley Phillips. It has hosted workshops, concerts and summer camps for musicians aged seven and up and maintains a free database of local music teachers. It also helps match donated instruments with people who need them.
CMS focuses on teaching Celtic and other types of folk music. In the beginning, harp lessons were the organization’s World Music offering.
“Of course, the harp is big in Celtic music, but there is a World aspect to it,” Willats says. “It was a way to bring instruments from different parts of the globe.”
Santa Cruz has become a hub for harpists, thanks in part to the efforts of Phillips and other local instructors. Willats began playing seven years ago after Phillips encouraged her.
“My husband likes to say, even when you mess up playing the harp, it still sounds beautiful,” she says. “And when you don’t make any mistakes, well, it’s even better.”
This year’s Harp Festival will feature Jesse Autumn (double-strung harp), Phillips (folk harp) with Robin Petrie (hammered dulcimer) and Jennifer Cass (pedal harp) with Rob Watson (guitar). The inclusion of accompanists is new for the festival this year.
“Even if people are familiar with harps, there’s going to be new, exciting, beautiful things to hear,” Willats says.
The event will also include a “Harp Petting Zoo” during intermission, where audience members can try out the instruments.
“After so many days of storms, all the awful stories we’ve been hearing, this will be a respite,” Willats notes. “We invite people to come in for an afternoon, to lose themselves in the music.”
Community Music School’s Harp Festival happens Sunday, Jan. 22, at 3pm at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. $15/$20; $10/$15 under 18. communitymusicschool.org