This fall, let yourself be enchanted by the vibrations of Welshwoman Cerys Hafana. For three evenings and opening for the Spanish artist and producer Raül Refree, this magician of the triple harp takes over the Rennes Opera during the Trans Musicales,
The triple harp is like the end-of-the-world landscapes of Wales of which it is the national instrument: majestic and intimidating. The musician and composer Cerys Hafana, originally from the small town of Machynlleth, revisits the traditional repertoire by making the three rows of strings of the venerable instrument (which has 92 of them!) sparkle.
The artist also uses his impressive companion as a percussion tool to create a buzzing pulse. Crystal lace or tumultuous waterfalls, Cerys Hafana’s tunes are enhanced by an airy soprano singing in Welsh which evokes a magical and marvelous incantation.
Cerys Hafana talks to Russ Slater about the uniqueness of her triple harp and its bridging of the historical, the profound and the personal
By Russ Slater
Cerys Hafana remembers her mum asking her if she’d like harp lessons. “I said ‘more than anything in the world!’ I don’t know why I said that,” she laughs. She started on a lever harp but upgraded to triple harp a few years later, learning from “one of the only people in Wales who still teaches it.”
The triple harp dates back to 16th-century Italy, but became hugely popular in the baroque period, when it first appeared in Britain. “For some reason,” says Hafana, “the people who really took to it in London were the Welsh, who played it in courts for posh Londoners and then took it back to Wales. It then died out everywhere, apart from in Wales.” It gets its name from having three rows of parallel strings instead of one. “The triple harp has the two outside rows, which are the white [natural] notes, and you have two of every note, and then the middle row is the black [flat and sharp] notes,” she tells me. The black notes mark it out from other harps, which use pedals and levers to achieve flats and sharps. But it’s the two outside sets of strings that allow for the triple harp’s unique effect of doubling that Hafana loves. “It creates a whole world of effects that you can’t get on any other type of harp or many other instruments.”
Hafana, who also sings, uses this technique to full effect on her recently released second album, Edyf. This record marks a staggering evolution from her 2020 debut, which was made up of what she says are “fairly well-known Welsh folk tunes.” She wanted to give the new album her own identity, deviating from the typical triple harp repertoire, while also finding something personal. “I started looking in the National Library of Wales’ archives for tunes and words that no one has sung for 200 years. I was looking for things that were a bit weird, and I wanted to see if there were some themes that were still relevant.” She found a catalogue called The Ballads Database and a collection of songs from “some guy who went around Wales writing songs down, but didn’t really know how to write down music.” This research led her to finds such as ‘Comed 1858’ (“about a guy going up a hill to watch a comet go past in 1858”), ‘Tragwyddoldeb’ (“a hymn about eternity” that reminded her of discovering that “the universe is infinite”) and ‘Y Môr O Wydr’ (“a hymn about doomsday… the sea is going up in flames, the angels are raining down from the heavens. It’s bonkers, so intense”). It was the last of these that drew me into the album. The chief instrument on the track is bowed double bass, with Hafana playing a treated harp. “I’ve got paper weaved around the strings so it sounds distorted. It completely deadens the sound; it’s not obviously a harp.” The technique was learned from Nansi Richards, Wales’ own ‘Queen of the Harp.’
It’s this need to experiment, to “kill all of the prettiness of the sound,” and her choice of material – the album also includes three original tracks – that mark Hafana out. She may be playing a baroque choral instrument and singing words from 18th-century hymns, but her music is not an artefact; it’s full of emotion and purpose and, when it hits you right, a raw power, which is quite an achievement from a harp
Taken from her album ‘Edyf’, Composer and multi-instrumentalist Cerys Hafana premieres her new video for ‘Comed 1858’.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Cerys Hafana makes a double appearance at Celtic Connections this month. To celebrate, watch the premiere of her new video for ‘Comed 1858’, taken from her latest album Edyf.
By Alex Gallacher
Last year, we reviewed Edyf, featuring the wonderous vocals and Welsh triple harp sounds of composer and multi-instrumentalist Cerys Hafana who hails from Machynlleth, Wales. Danny Neill opened his album review, “Cerys Hafana has a gorgeous, lush voice’ a natural instrument that exudes character singing pitch-perfect melodies with a tongue that prizes all manner of wonderous sound shapes from her mouth.” He adds: “She is a Welsh language progressive folk artist who makes a mockery of my belief that I am a lyrics man, for what she demonstrates to me definitively is that it is the sound and energy of an artist that will hook the listener in, all deeper exploration into lyrical meaning can come later. Primarily, the music itself is almost always the thing that counts and here, with her second album ‘Edyf,’ Cerys Hafana’s sound is simultaneously ancient in feel and yet impossibly, intriguingly modern. It is also in a field of its own; there is nothing else quite like this around…”
Since the release of that album, it’s fair to say that Cerys Hafana has become a more established name, garnering lots of support from the music press, including The Guardian,where Edyf was “Folk Album Of The Month”. The BBC have been especially supportive, to name just a few – she featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, was interviewed by Cerys Matthews for 6 Music Festival and recorded a BBC Horizons Maida Vale Session.
This month, she is making a double appearance at Celtic Connections. On 26th January, she appears in Celtic Odyssée, run in association with the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, which aims to foster new inter-Celtic encounters between artists from the 8 European Celtic nations. More details here. The following day, on 27th January, she shares the bill with Catriona Price at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Strathclyde Suite. More details here.
To mark the occasion, we have the pleasure of sharing Cerys Hafana’s new video for Edyf‘s opening track, Comed 1858. Cerys shared the following on the song and video by Amy Daniel and Sarah-Jane Harrison. Alongside her music, the ordinary transforms into otherworldly moments, and the scene featuring the Red Kites is especially breathtaking.
The words of this song were written by Benjamin Jenkins in Pencadair in 1858, and describe his experience of seeing Donati’s Comet, the second most brilliant comet of the 19th century and the first to ever be photographed, pass Earth. I later found out that the first person to ever observe this comet may have been the Welsh astronomer and photographer Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn, from Swansea.
I had gone looking for cosmically-themed folk songs after going up the hill near where I live to see a shooting star, and was surprised to find a ballad in the Welsh National Library’s archive that mirrored my own experience so closely (despite the chronological and religious differences between me and Benjamin). The track features Welsh triple harp and the electronically manipulated sounds of a metal water bottle being hit.
The video was made by Amy Daniel, with additional cinematography by Sarah-Jane Harrison, and was filmed in various locations around Machynlleth and Aberystwyth in mid-Wales. It tries to capture the sense of awe that Benjamin Jenkins felt at the natural world, and wonders what celestial objects (or beings) might cause a similar sense of amazement for us in this day and age to how Benjamin felt on seeing the shooting star in 1858.