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Vol. 19, no. 5
October/November 2016


Good Vibrations 
Story By: John Strieder
Photo By: James Rubio

The three harpists behind the Kona Harp Ensemble are free and gentle spirits who do things their own way, however softly. One of their favorite things to do is jam together on the official stringed instrument of the angels. Harps have unusual powers, they believe, and three harps playing in harmony can be especially moving. “The layers create this shimmering glow of sound,” says Bernice Roberto, the group’s founder.

The Kona Harp Ensemble began to take off when Roberto, who plays a massive Italian tension lever harp, met another harpist living in Kona named Irminsul, who plays a Celtic harp (and who uses just one name). “When you open yourself up to the harp, it turns you into something else,” Irminsul says. “It takes over your life in a very spiritual way. It changes your thinking.” The third harpist is Motter Snell, an orchestral musician from Seattle who flies to Kona periodically to tend her coffee farm and to join Roberto and Irminsul in creating their shimmering glow of sound. Accompanying the harpists when they perform are Roberto’s husband, Manuel, on woodwinds and Jean Pierre Thoma on synthesizer. 

The group plays several shows a year in Hawai‘i, especially around Christmas, peak season for harpists. When they first started to play, they never imagined a harp trio could sell out a show. But they’ve discovered they can draw quite a crowd. At one gig, fans lined up in the rain to get in, as if the harpists were rock stars.

Kona Harp Ensemble’s set list covers an impressive range, from Jimmy Page and Ennio Morricone to Bach cantatas, Indian ragas and Japanese folk songs, as well as original compositions. Their arrangement of Hawaiian recording artist Keali‘i Reichel’s “Maunaleo” uses harp glissandos to suggest the waves of the ocean. At the other end of the spectrum, an uptempo flamenco number challenges both the audience’s expectations and the musicians’ fingers. But regardless of the song, the ensemble’s effect is always heavenly and never edgy. “No matter how you play it, a standard harp will not make any sound that is offensive, harsh, challenging or disturbing,” Roberto says. “It’s a very gentle instrument.”