Myanmar, Gambia, USA, Wales, Paraguay and Germany: at the TFF Rudolstadt music festival, harpists from all over the world and from divergent musical traditions came together for a fascinating program.Two kinds of harps, the saung-gauk from Burma and the West African kora, seem to have very little in common at first. They produce different sounds, and the culture of court music in Myanmar is a far cry from the tradition of storytellers known as griots in West Africa. The two instruments are also built and tuned differently.Nevertheless, they can make great music together, as is evident from a listen to a work titled "Together." U Kyaw Myo Naing from Myanmar and Lamin Jobarteh from Gambia combine their musical traditions, letting the sounds of their harps meld so fluidly that the listener can hardly distinguish the African from the Asian. Musically inspiring moments like these are no rarity at the TFF Rudolstadt festival, Germany's largest when it comes to folk and dance music. Every year, Rudolstadt features a different instrument or instrument family, alongside a program of music of the most diverse origins.
As far as researchers can tell, the arched harp was played in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, before its use expanded through Persia and India, then Rome and Greece, all the way to Europe and, later, to West Africa. So ultimately0 the saung-gauk and the kora belong to the same instrument family.The harp has been played in Europe for at least 1,000 years, starting in the British Isles and later extending across the continent. Audiences at Rudolstadt were able to experience first hand how medieval harp music sounds with a piece called "Lamento di Tristano," a lament of the mythical bard Tristan composed in 13th century Italy.But just how do the six players prevent musical chaos, what with all of those strings and their long-resounding tones? As is often the case in Rudolstadt, the real trick lies in the arrangements.Wolfgang Meyering is Rudolstadt's longstanding musical director and responsible for making sure that the very diverse array of genres and performers represented at the festival doesn't end up sounding arbitrary. He heads rehearsals, ensures that arrangements are transparent and sometimes decides who will perform in a given piece.Meyering admits that not everything can make the program, given the sometimes rather abbreviated time available for rehearsal. Burmese court music is, for example, so complex that festival organizers decided to let just percussionist Nora Thiele accompany U Kyaw Myo Naing and his music.The Burmese harpist dedicated the resulting work, "Father," to his own father, who died just weeks before the festival.The harps of South America are also ultimately related to their ancient Egyptian forebears. Spanish conquerors brought over the well-traveled instruments, where they became part of various folk music traditions from Mexico to Chile starting in the 16th century. Sixto Korbalan from Paraguay, who represented South American harpists in Rudolstadt, offered a virtuosic highlight of the event."El tren lechero" ("The Milk Train") is a harp classic from Paraguay. It's a piece in which the train's journey becomes audible to the listener - a journey made each morning to bring milk from the countryside into the capital of Asuncion. The work mimics the train as it departs, speeds up and arrives, even suggesting the rattling of the wheels and the sound of its whistle.And there's one other thing listeners are sure to notice - the technical brilliance of Latin American harp music.