Leading harper Karen Marshalsay plays at Birnam Arts Centre on Saturday 25th January in a concert that has been rescheduled from November following a family bereavement.
Karen, who’ll be playing music from the album she released last summer, The Road to Kennacraig and possibly some appropriate tunes for Burns Night, arrives in Birnam almost direct from the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, where she’s appearing as part of Irish music legend and Boys of the Lough founder, Cathal McConnell’s trio.
She’ll be playing three different harps, which provide contrasting sounds. As well as the familiar gut-strung clarsach, which is the most popular harp among traditional musicians and folk bands, Karen will bring the wire-strung harp from the Gaelic tradition and “the beast” – a bray harp whose buzzing, sitar-like tone often takes audiences by surprise.
“When people think of the harp, they probably imagine this sweet-sounding instrument, and that’s what I’ll be playing mostly,” she says. “The bray, on the other hand, was designed to cut through the hubbub of dances and gatherings in castles during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when harp players were the ceilidh band leaders of the day. Each string has a bray pin – a small piece of wood – that gives this buzzing effect and makes the instrument louder. If you put that together with a crumhorn and a tabor, or hand drum, that would have been the band that people danced to back then.”
Karen has worked with Indian, African and Paraguayan musicians, as well as leading “Celtic” musicians including Cathal McConnell, piper Allan MacDonald and Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid, but The Road to Kennacraig focuses on the Scottish aspect of her playing. All the music on the album is either traditional or written in the traditional style, with around half of the tunes being Karen’s own.
“Most of the tunes have stories behind them,” she says. “So I’ll be talking a bit about the background to them and the background to the harps but not too much because I like to let the music do most of the talking.”