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Anja Bakker – From Here to Santiago

Welcome to Harp People. We hope it will become a regular series of interviews with people who are carving our their own niche within the harp world.

In the first of our series, we meet a very remarkable harp person and her equally remarkable harp – Anja Bakker and Sean, the Ravenna 26. Together, they walked over 2400 km through Ireland, France and Spain to express solidarity with survivors of abuse.

CMH: In 2010 you walked more than 500 km to express solidarity with survivors of abuse. Why did you decide to take your harp with you?

AB: I walked for 3 months and 3 weeks just over 2400 km. Through Ireland, France and Spain with Santiago de Compostela as my final destination. Carrying my harp ‘Sean’ – a Ravenna 26 – every step of the way.

The reason for taking the harp was manyfold. As a musician I’ve always been fascinated by the relationships we develop with our instruments… My recorders are easy to take where ever I go, my harps on the other hand are a lot more cumbersome… yet there are quite a few references to Irish harpers carrying their harps and their swords while crusading or warring in earlier times. A wonderful example of such a story is the song the ‘Minstrel Boy’.

‘The Minstrel Boy to the war has gone,
in the ranks of death you’ll find him.
His father’s sword he has girded on
and his wild harp slung around him…’

It brought up so many questions for me: Would I be able to do something like that, carry a harp into war? Could I have a traveling, carrying relationship with my harp? Could I carry a harp as my main burden and how much else would I have to do without? Would that change me as a person, and what would something like that do to me as a musician?

Then there was the obvious reason for carrying a harp. I reside in Ireland and the harp is our national symbol. By carrying the harp, I would symbolically carry Ireland… the weight of the harp would represent the pain of the abuse victims whom I wanted to show my solidarity to. The weight would constantly remind me of the reasons for my walk, something to think about, talk about and do on my journey. Also in the carrying gesture I’d hold part of possible healing. Whenever I’d play, I’d play to create a place where it’d be safe to share, mourn, and be together and aware of that enormous suffering that has been the reality of too many souls in this world. I wanted to stand up and be counted for what I think is right and wrong. I’m not trained to help people with trauma but I can play music and often music helps… On this trip the music of that symbolic harp would be my gift to those who’d need it where ever I’d pass through.

CMH: You played the harp every day to raise funds for the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork and The One in Four charity in Dublin. Tell us about what happened when you played your harp. What type of music did you play? What reaction did you get?

AB: I didn’t set out to raise money, I set out to show my solidarity, raise awareness, maybe take away a little of the taboos surrounding abuse by putting it out in the light for all to be seen, for all to talk about, think about just for a little while and maybe raise some money and hopefully share some music… I’m a musician not a fundraiser. If people wanted to donate money to the charities I made it possible for them to do so via the website I’d set up for the trip. But the focus was never on money. Not for me anyway.

I did however play most days of my trip and on the subject of money, I did the trip with very little of it. The harp made it possible for me to often eat, drink and sleep for free…people wanted to help and share with me, the harp made it possible to have a different level of comfort and relations with those whom I met and spend time with on my walk.

I played a combination of South American, Traditional Celtic music and ballads… I played in living-rooms, bars, restaurants, hotels, hostels, squares, streets, gardens and many other places…

The reactions were great. So many people had never heard a harp been played before, let alone been near one. Sometimes it would be expressed in mild interest but often I’d be asked to come and join a party or get hugs and laughter and sometimes admiration and awe…

CMH: How did your Ravenna 26 bear up on the trip?

AB: Sean was amazing on the trip… He ended up being personalized early on… It just was easier for me knowing it was us rather then just me and a harp. So I took to speaking about us as a couple, which in a sense we were because I never left him behind if I could help it.

He had good days and bad days… I learned a lot about his moods and temperaments. The bag as an insulator worked well but still we spend most of our time outside so he endured regular temperature changes which in turn had its influence on his tuning… He didn’t like being carried up-side down but I really had no choice, it was the only way to balance him properly… The two steel bars in the soundboard did their work and he was always heard when playing even in busy bars and squares… but he truly dislikes the nameless, faceless crowd of amplified guitar players. They always drown him out.

I had tied his bag to a Swedish army frame and also had a waterproof bag made by a local sail-maker. Both of these items kept him safe even when the bag started to disintegrate… But given the time and conditions we traveled he and his coverings did really well.

The biggest hiccup occurred when I left my tuning key in Cork… I tried to get a new one at short notice in Clonmel but failed to find one… Instead I used a 5 mm spanner which I hung off a lace around my neck for tuning for the duration of the trip.

CMH: Has life changed since your trip?

AB: Absolutely. I changed, my music changed… and it all remains changed to this day. I still aim to walk and play every day and it has stood to me. I’ve become more relaxed, stronger in myself, have more confidence… after all I am the woman who walked from Ireland to Santiago de Compostela carrying a harp on my back! Hahaha I also find it easier now to work with other people… I’ve been touring with a group of female poets ‘Catch the Moon’ and perform regularly as part of ‘Gifted Eccentrics’ a mixture of performance poetry, theatre and music.

CMH: What could other harp players do to help victims of abuse?

AB: I really don’t know. I’m not sure anybody can do anything for anyone unless all parties are willing to be part of an exchange. My encounters with those who have been affected by abuse during the trip tended to be intense and very positive but I’ve learned that those encounters were very much about us; as in: them and me, listening, talking, trusting, sharing. I’m not sure I would recommend anybody taking on something as heavy as this… But I do believe that playing harp for anyone affected negatively by life can be of enormous benefit to both listener and harper/harpist.

CMH: Would you do it again?

AB: At the moment I am writing the book about last walk, so that is taking up time but I have started talking about walking to Jerusalem next… and even wilder to China after… However I am not ready to leave yet… The Jerusalem trip is planned for 2015 and the walk to China for 2017.

CMH: Anja, thank you so much for your insightful and moving answers. We are very grateful for your time. Please visit us at Clive Morley Harps if your travels ever bring you to Gloucestershire.

Anja Bakker is available for talks and concert talks about her trip. Contact her on [email protected]