“The Dagda … played for them the three things by which a harper is known: sleep music, joyful music, and sorrowful music. He played sorrowful music for them so that their tearful women wept. He played joyful music for them so that their women and boys laughed. He played sleep music for them so that the hosts slept.”
Elizabeth A. Gray (translator), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, 9th century CE Irish text
This quotation, written over a thousand years ago, speaks of powers inherent in music that are still recognised in the Hindu musical tradition and are borne out by modern science. Recent research projects have shown that hospital patients can reduce their need for pain-killers by 50 per cent by listening to certain types of music. Music has been shown capable of effecting everything from plant growth to the performance of marathon runners or how much we spend in shops. These studies show that the power of music is emotional, psychological and physiological.
The Dagda’s harp was magical, but many of its powers are available to anyone who makes music. As with any powers, they may be used for good or ill. We have the choice to create music that creates, increases or enhances love, harmony, beauty and healing, or anger and disharmony. The hippy movement for global peace in the 1960s was, to a large degree, driven and inspired by the music of that era. George Harrison summed it up in his song, ‘Within You, Without You,’ from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album: “With our love, we can change the world.”
The harp, a development from the earlier lyre, is the archetypal bardic instrument. The traditional bardic harp (known as a lap harp, knee harp, Celtic harp, or Clarsach) is much smaller and more portable than the modern concert harp. Prices of bardic harps range from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand. I would recommend beginners to try out a range of harps and buy the best they can afford. If at all possible, buy one with levers on all the strings as they make changing key very much easier. Busy Mole music, a small, family business based in the UK, make a range of harps to order at very reasonable prices. They also supply harp books and CDs as well as a wide range of other instruments.
The guitar has arguably taken over from the harp as the bardic instrument of choice. Guitars range from the cheap and cheerful to the ludicrously expensive. I am delighted with an Ovation-style semi-acoustic bought from Skylark Guitars a while back for the very low price of 99 pounds (UK) including a hard case. It looks and sounds fabulous. Their friendly service included testing the electrics, adjusting the action and fitting high quality strings. Check out Skylark Guitars. Skylark no longer stock the Ovation-style guitars, which can now be obtained from Gear4music.
There are many flute-makers around, but we’ve chosen Second Voice Flutes because David Cartwright makes wonderful-sounding, incredibly beautiful flutes using native British woods in a wide variety of tunings customised for each player. Each one is a work of art, created through David’s spiritual connection with the woods he uses to make them. Learn more and look at some beautiful pictures at Second Voice Flutes.
There’s widespread agreement in the Druid community that the best bard currently working in the tradition is Robin Williamson. Robin mainly plays harp, guitar, fiddle and penny-whistle. His live shows often include poetry and storytelling along with some of the finest music you’ll ever hear. As well as performances, Robin, seen here with his wife, Bina, also offers bardic workshops. His website lists tour dates. Numerous solo recordings are currently available, but you might also like to check out the ground-breaking work he did with The Incredible String Band during the 1960s and 70s.
Another superb exponent of the bardic arts is Breton harper, Alan Stivell, who has been playing the Celtic harp since 1953, making albums since 1961, and is still touring today. As well as composing for the harp, Alan was an early pioneer of folk-rock fusion, working with the Moody Blues and appearing with his own band at the Reading Festival. His beautiful 1970 album, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, is widely regarded as a classic.
From his early days with Fairport Convention, through to the present day, Richard Thompson has produced work of a consistent brilliance almost unparalleled in modern music. Acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Richard’s poignant, sometimes witty, sometimes tragic chronicles of life and love are presented in styles ranging from gentle acoustic folk to all-out rock’n'roll. Richard tours frequently with both solo performances and one of the finest live bands I’ve ever heard.
Telling the Bees
Telling the Bees are the multi-talented team of songwriter, Andy Letcher (mandolin, mandolute, pipes, vocals), Josie Webber (cello, vocals), Jane Griffiths (fiddle, vocals) and Colin Fletcher (bass). Their first two albums, Untie the Wind (2008) and An English Arcanum (2009) have already won them a reputation as leading exponents of superbly-crafted, beautifully-played, melodic, mind-expanding indie folk. Wonderful stuff. For more about the band, see their rather lovely website
“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Plato (427-347 BCE)