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What Is a Paraguayan Harp?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

The Paraguayan harp is a derivative of the harps used in Europe. It is a folk instrument on which players perform very differently than the traditional classical pedal or concert harp. It is best known throughout South America, but has followers and performers worldwide.

During the 15th to 18th centuries when the Jesuits were establishing missionaries in and colonizing South America, those who came to work and live in the colonies brought traditional European harps with them. These instruments played a major role in spreading the gospel to the Paraguayan people. The natives of Paraguay became experts of these instruments in their own right and put their own spin on harp making and playing.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Paraguayans who learned how to play and make harps understood that European harps had a major disadvantage when it came to overall design. European harps have a neck design that, due to the tension of the strings, causes the neck to roll to the left. European harps had to be heavier and sturdier to accommodate this tension, as well, making them harder to transport. Paraguayans solved this problem by creating a "split neck" where the strings came from the neck's center. A trademark of the Paraguayan harp is that it is much lighter than most European harps, usually made of cedar and pine and weighing only 12 to 16 pounds (5.44 - 7.25 kg) depending on whether the harp accommodates a lever system.

The Paraguayan harp normally has 36 strings, although some have 32, 38 or 40 strings. This provides a rough range of about five octaves. In terms of height, the harp usually stands about five feet (1.52 m). It does not have any foot pedals, which is another reason why Paraguayan harps are lightweight. Those with lever systems can open one or more levers to raise the pitch of one or more strings by one half step and thereby play in different keys with ease.

In regard to performance, a hallmark of Paraguayan harp playing is that the performer engages the strings with his fingernails. The melody often appears in octaves or is performed with the interval of a third or sixth, providing a characteristic rich flavor. Players also use tremolos, alternating back and forth from one pitch to another rapidly. In short, the Paraguayans treat the harp in much the same way they treat the guitar, even strumming. With a guitar-like approach to harp playing, Paraguayan harp music sparkles with the lively rhythms of South America and is far removed from the classical harp "angelic" stereotype.

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