Global Hit

Harpist Tomoko Sugawara


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Tomoko Sugawara

For today’s Global Hit, we’re going to hear the sounds of a long-lost instrument. The instrument in question disappeared from use some 300 years ago. But for the previous 2,000 years, you’d have heard it plenty, especially along the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that ran through Asia. It’s an instrument that’s featured in near- and far-eastern religions, and even played a part in what’s often called the world’s first novel: The Tale of Genji, from Japan. And now it’s back, on an album called Along the Silk Road by harpist Tomoko Sugawara. The World’s Alex Gallafent has our story.

Bo Lawergren used to be a nuclear physicist. Now the Swedish-born professor is retired and living in New York. And he devotes his time to another long-held passion: ancient harps. The harp is one of the oldest types of instruments in the world. One its earliest forms is the angular harp, something in Japan they call the Kugo.

“It has different names in different cultures but musicologists like to call it ‘angular harp’.”

Lawergren is a kind of an amateur musical archeologist. Years back he went to Japan to research the Kugo or angular harp. He made his way to the city of Nara, once Japan’s capital. Lawergren was particularly interested in the Shosoin, a museum there contains many royal musical instruments.

“They were put into the museum in 752 by an emperor, and among the instruments are two angular harps.”

At the Shosoin, he met Tomoko Sugawara, a musician who’d grown up playing Irish and classical harps. She said the angular harp was something different.

“It was not only musical instrument, but also beautiful emperor’s treasure.”

Kugo cave painting

But the two museum harps were incomplete. Only the top half of each remained. So Lawergren and Sugawara decided to work together to build a new, complete kugo — by guessing the rest. Luckily, there were clues strewn about.

“We based our reconstruction on pictures. There are many pictures, easily 100 pictures from Asia, often from the Silk Road, painted on cave walls.”

The cave pictures allowed them to make educated guesses about the harp’s dimensions. They scaled up the drawings, and then Lawergren asked an American harpmaker to build it – someone he’d worked with years before.

“It was kind of a design as-you-go project to take it from images to a working, playable instrument.”

Kugo harp being built

Bill Campbell builds historical harps at his workshop in Port Townsend, Washington.

“The shape of the harp was kind of a rounded body so it was hard-carved. And then the soundboard has a shape to it as well so it had to be steam-bent to fit to that shape.”

Unlike modern harps the kugo is an ‘L’ shaped instrument with strings running between the two sides. When the kugo was ready, the Campbells sent it over to Sugawara and Lawergren in New York. At first Sugawara didn’t like the sound that it produced; it wasn’t what she was used to. But as she spent time with the freshly-minted instrument, her senses shifted.

“I changed. Because the modern people like big sound, high tension. But on the other hand, ancient people love soft and small sound.”

Sugawara’s new album, Along the Silk Road, covers new music alongside ancient melodies from across Asia. After all, now that the Kugo’s been brought back to life it makes no sense to send it back to a museum.

For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent in New York.


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