A to Z of world music

15th November 2002 at 00:00
As an expatriate Welshman, I've spent most of my life looking anywhere except Wales for interesting forms of music. I sang in church choirs in Newport, but the local music was no more Welsh than Vaughan Williams.

What a surprise, then, to listen to The Rough Guide to the Music of Wales (RGNET 1062), and to discover that in 1960s Pembrokeshire there was a church-choral style as harmonically exotic as any to be found in Albania. The 20 tracks on this CD include plenty of stuff which you might otherwise have assumed came from Ireland, Scotland, or indeed the Appalachians - Welsh musicians absorb anything good they can find - but there's one instrument here, played by two of its most celebrated exponents, which embodies a history I never knew: the triple harp.

Triple, because it has three ranks of strings, amounting to 95 in all. In the beginning there was just one row - a situation which persisted until the 16th century, when it was realised that there was no reason why two rows could not be placed on either side of the neck. Then harp-makers found they could add a third, which sat inside the outer two, though this was initially a devil to play, since the fingers had to thread their way in. No matter: for some reason it was the Welsh harpists who conquered the mechanics, with the result that they were in great demand in London, where their instrument was accorded the title of "Welsh harp".

Their repertoire ranged from 16th century Italian music to Handel, who was one of their greatest fans. In the Rough Guide CD, Llio Rhydderch is the contemporary exponent - playing a bewitching solo - while the late Nansi Richards, who single-handedly saved the instrument from extinction, plays an 18th century theme and variations. This recording is impressively dexterous, yet when she made it Nansi was nearly 90 years old.

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