by Rita Leydon ©2002

Have you ever given any thought to the origins of your nyckelharpa? How it came to be? How it was made? What mysterious processes and procedures, each in orderly fashion, resulted in just your instrument? Perhaps you have a romantic notion of a wizened bespectacled craftsman, ankle deep in wood shavings, in his workshop, late at night, churning out harpas? The fact is, each and every nyckelharpa is a one of a kind, made to order, individual. That’s why yours, mine and everybody else’s is so very special, so very unique and so very different while at the same time sharing the basic configuration that makes it a nyckelharpa and not a piano. There just isn’t a nyckelharpa out there that rolled down a conveyor belt alongside a hundred others just like it.

I imagine it is a bit hard to find yourself suddenly infatuated with this fandangled instrument and wanting one so badly you can taste it, and wanting it NOW, only to find there is a waiting period to be suffered through before yours is whittled. What do you mean, I can’t just walk into a music store in Stockholm and BUY one? This is a rough landing for some. A rude awakening. No instant gratification here. Can’t just throw money at it. And this after you’ve probably already spent a couple of months thinking about taking the plunge. Snarfing up CDs, prowling the internet, typing the N word so many times in Google’s search window that your fingertips are tender and all the while wondering how you got yourself into this pickle in the first place.

What’s an eager beaver to do? Build one?

Maybe. The Swedes have been building their own for centuries. It’s a fairly normal and routine exercise. I’ve met lots of harpas over there built by its owner, or the owner’s Morfar, Farbror Axel or cousin Hjalmar. Often it’s a fanciful interpretation of an instrument borrowed from a friend or acquaintance. Some beauties are capable of lovely sounds, and others are best suited to life as a wall hanging.

A clever woodworker can certainly study and precisely measure an existing harpa of merit and create a similar concoction and hope it will sound good. But there are secrets and nuances of creation that are not readily apparent to the naked untrained eye. Things, that if missed or glossed over, might render your effort unplayable. Such can be the fate of the fruit of the misguided harpa builder. Alas.

Fear not! Assistance, guidance and hand holding is available. Master harpa builder Sören Åhker has a building instruction book with drawings for both a full size harpa and a scaled down version. Trouble was it only came in one flavor—Swedish. Swedish is not one of the flavors normally served up in the American school system and although we might readily acquire some fluency in Swedish dance and Swedish music, the language itself is a much larger mountain. Unless you are born on it.

Sören has eliminated this pesky language dilemma in one fell swoop with the recent publication of an English language version of his important book. There is no longer any excuse for not getting yourself in gear and building the instrument of your dreams. The volume, although slender if measured by the pinch method, is well packed with everything one needs to know in order to arrive successfully at the desired destination. Materials list, dimensions, full scale drawings of everything, step by step guidance, tips and insights, even a history of the build-your-own movement in Sweden. The overall approach is folksy and friendly as it gently and firmly guides you along, steering you clear of some perhaps not so obvious pitfalls that might otherwise put a premature end to your journey. The worth-its-weight-in-gold component is, of course, Sören’s drawings, which are precise computer generated works of beauty and utility. Just transfer these to your own select chunks of tight grained spruce and you’re ready to roll.

Nyckelharpa construction is not for the faint of heart, nor the impatient or ill-tempered. Sören himself is your basic easy going, good humored, iron willed perfectionist who is never fully dressed without his carving knife in its holster at his waist and the ever present “snus dosa” shoved into his left front pocket. His contributions to the nyckelharpa world and its lore are huge and immeasurable. Not only does he painstakingly produce some of the finest harpas out there, but he’s also seen fit to share his knowledge with the rest of us so we can have a whack at it. He wants us to succeed, wants us to have the building experience and be buoyed and energized by it. This is very generous. Opening the portals to the inner chamber and letting in not just light and air, but also you and me. Sören is like that. Open and generous. This I know first hand.

I first met Sören after I had already had the harpa he made for me several months and was thoroughly besotted with it. Puma took me up to Ilsbo, Hälsingland, one cold and snowy January day several years ago. The visit was a pilgrimage of sorts to my harpa’s roots and also homage to the man who made it. The process of creation mesmerizes me. ANY creation process. All the little minute steps that eventually bring the beginning home to the end. The making and shaping and doing. The mess. Sören’s basement workshop, dressed in tools of all shapes and sizes and scented by a constantly refreshed crop of wood shavings made me delirious with delight. I yearned to be an itty bitty fly on the man’s wall for a while.

No need to feel left out if you already have a soul mate of a harpa, for Sören’s book is fascinating browsing even if you haven’t ever entertained any conscious random thoughts of harpa building. It’s great for simply learning about your instrument and its mechanics. Information is power, they say, and I guarantee, you’ll feel empowered to deal with and probe your harpa’s quirky depths more readily with this book at your side.

Chromatic Nyckelharpa, a Construction Manual, by Sören Åhker, is available now with either Swedish or English text. You can get it from me, Rita Leydon, or directly from Sören. Order your copy today. It’s a no-brainer. Really.

Post script. Last summer, in a weak moment, Sören consented to tolerate a filmmaker underfoot for the time it took to make one nyckelharpa. I volunteered. It was my chance to be the fly. For three weeks the fly filmed everything, starting from standing tree all the way to making music. The huge footage trove is now in the editing pipeline and will be made available in due course. I’ll keep you posted.*

*2013 note: the video is available on DVD from me, Rita Leydon.

published in Nyckel Notes, 2002-2, Number 24