GAIA JAVA: Acacia Lyra – Celtic Harp Duo on May 13

I was Skyping last week with a friend in Dublin, Ireland, and we got to talking about Celtic harps. He told me about the big problem that occurred back in the 1700s with the Irish Harpists (or ‘Harpers’ as they called them, but that may not be politically correct in Canada!).

The issue was that many of the traditional harpists were also composers, creating wonderful memorable tunes and accompaniments as they travelled around entertaining with their instruments. Also a large proportion of them were blind. In fact one of the most famous was a chap called Turlough O’Carolan (or more correctly: Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin !), who died in 1738, just before Handel went to Dublin to launch his ‘Messiah’ tour (Handel also went blind about twelve years later, but had fortunately written down most of his wonderful music by the time that occurred). O’Carolan had caught smallpox at the age of eighteen (it was very common back then before Jenner discovered the ‘cowpox’ vaccine) and it left him blind. His father’s employer was a kind lady called Mrs McDermot Roe, who gave him a harp and apprenticed him to a good harper. He spent the next fifty years touring around composing for people and entertaining with his wonderful harp skills.

‘O’Carolan’s concerto’ (listen to this version by ‘The Chieftains’) is one of his greatest hits:

Of course there was no technology back then for audio recording, and the challenge for the blind harpists was that they could not write their music down – it was all transmitted aurally, and many of the good tunes were lost soon after they died.  So in 1792 a Festival was arranged in Belfast for the ten best harp players in Ireland (and one from Wales!). Six of them were blind. So the organizers also commissioned a young (sighted) classically-trained musician to attend (Edward Bunting), and he wrote down many of the tunes. After the Festival Edward spent a few days with each of the winners, collecting as much as he could of their repertoire. Ages of the harp players ranged from 15 to almost 100 years old! As a result of that visionary(!) event there is now a substantial base of wonderful early harp music that contributes to the repertoire of groups like Acacia Lyra, who are coming back to Gaia Java this Friday for another wonderful evening of magical music from the two harps of Susan and Janine. Find out why ‘Post-baroque’ rhymes with ‘folk’!

Acacia Lyra is not your average harp and voice duo. Janine Dudding and Susan Sweeney Hermon sing in English, French, Spanish and Gaelic, accompanying themselves on Celtic harps and guitars. Their programme is a colourful journey of traditional and contemporary tunes, including their own material, from the Scottish highlands to the Peruvian Altiplano.

Janine and Susan began performing as a duo in 2006. Each has a wealth of songs from different sources, and their musical collaboration has resulted in new compositions and fresh arrangements for harp, guitar and voice, and two CDs, Harmonic Curves (2007), andAqsarniit – Northern Lights (2010). These two CDs were launched to sold out audiences at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage. A third CD, Silver Sun, was released in November 2011.

They also play around the region with other musicians, and were instrumental(!) in coordinating a spontaneous ceildih at the shop one Friday last year. Within the folk community of Ottawa Acacia Lyra have a great reputation for their musicality and the wonderful sounds they create. Don’t miss this rare chance to hear them again, and they will be pleased to see you and will tell you about their upcoming ‘Hispaniola’ concert on May 28th.

Visit their webpage at and have a listen to some of the wonderful sounds they create, then make sure you come in on Friday to see them play live at Gaia Java!  Big thanks to Ottawa folk guru Sjef Frenken for introducing me to the music of Janine and Susan, as well as several other great folk artists who are playing at the shop this month.

June continues to offer you a stellar line-up of Ottawa and Montreal musicians – check out website for advance notice, and mark up your agendas. There is no charge for our musical evenings but we do hope that you will buy a drink or two, and maybe throw in a contribution to the musicians’ jar if you enjoy the music. Come early to get a good seat! As well as coffee there is a great selection of teas (especially our latte teas!) and now fruit smoothies as the weather is finally warming up.

Acacia Lyra plays on Friday, May 13 at 7:00pm at Gaia Java on Stittsville Main Street.

-Paul Jay


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