Irish Music Magazine

One of the new wave of harpists playing challenging melodies and arrangements on this ancient Celtic instrument, Rachel helped to establish a modern harp sound with her trio line-up, but on her fifth album she’s gone back to her roots, back to basics, back to the music she most loves to play.

Together with guitarist Ron Jappy, Rachel presents traditional tunes from Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, that mysterious land of mermaids, Manx cats and millionaires whose culture is only now emerging from ages of neglect. Alongside these old melodies are many new compositions by Rachel and her contemporaries, with a modern skin on their ancient structures: jigs and reels, waltzes, hornpipes, and more.

Rachel’s technique is deceptively relaxed, broken chords and delayed gracenotes allowing her to produce the flowing music associated with the harp, but also the percussive dance rhythms of more contemporary folk. The Manx lullaby Arrane Y Chlean shows the beauty and charm of her playing, while her jig Mera’s Delight takes that Ellan Vannin character and turns it into a toe-tapping ceilidh favourite. Black Hair’d Lad, a set of storming Scottish reels, stretches any harpist’s dexterity. Dan Sullivan’s opens a trio of pugnacious polkas with the well-known Scartaglen and Munster Bank showing some fancy harp effects.

Ron Jappy does sterling work on the dance tunes, and his fingerpicked accompaniment on Calum Stewart’s gentle Looking at a Rainbow is tantamount to a second harp. Try my personal favourites here: Jurby Jigs with their hedgehog spines, and The Proofreader which updates the category of syncopated stateside hornpipes like City of Savannah, President Garfield and Saratoga. Slow or fast, every track on Sparks is striking.
Alex Monaghan