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A Plucky Tribute to the Dulcimer

July 25, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When people talk about the dulcet sounds of the dulcimer, they ain't just whistling "Dixie." (Think dolce and doux.)

"There's nothing like an Appalachian dulcimer," says Margie Mirken of Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel. "It isn't just a stupid little non-guitar. . . . Some people think it has a weak voice. It doesn't have a weak voice; it has a sweet voice. Dulcimer means sweet song."

So be prepared for super sweet sounds when Mirken and her husband, Greg, serve up a Dulcimer Extravaganza at their shop Saturday. It's a festival to support a festival, really, a fund-raiser for the fledgling Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Festival slated for Sept. 28 in Dana Point.

For the benefit, the Mirkens, themselves dulcimer virtuosos, have invited colleagues including Patty Amelotte and Frank Simpson, both of Gardena; Jim Hayes of San Diego; Cyntia Smith of Westminster, one-half of the group Aeolus; and Steve Dulson of Costa Mesa.

The concert will include ensemble and solo selections on the Appalachian dulcimer as well as the hammer dulcimer, which Mirken describes as "the mega-string European rip-off."

"Though the instruments aren't related, the players get along with each other," she assures.

The hammer dulcimer is trapezoidal and strung with 30 courses--two or three strings to a pitch, 60 to 90 strings in all. Strings are played open, not stopped, with little mallets; think of a xylophone with strings.

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The Appalachian dulcimer is long and skinny, shaped like a peanut or teardrop, and played flat on the lap. It typically has four strings; frets allow for different pitches. It can be plucked with the fingers or with a pick or, most traditionally, with a large turkey or goose quill.

(In fact, the two instruments are related; they're both members of the zither family. Versions of the hammer dulcimer exist all over the world; Hungary, for example, has its cimbalom.)

Though most tunes on the upcoming program derive from Celtic, Irish, Appalachian or New England traditions, the dulcimer repertory is increasingly eclectic.

"We'll do a Beatles tune; we'll play 'Take Five,' " Margie Mirken says. "And some people play really chromatic, modern music on the dulcimer. I can play all types of dulcimer music, but I prefer the very spare, sparse Appalachian tunes. They speak to me from another time."

She considers those tunes a cultural treasure. "That's a music that actually came into being here," she points out. "Everybody thinks jazz is the only American music. It's not."

The difference is that dulcimer music has proved less commercially viable. Smith is one of few professional dulcimer players, and the market for the instrument fluctuates about as much as its dynamic range.

Even though Mirken sells dulcimers, she maintains that she puts her sweat into staging these events for love, not money; she figures a festival might translate at best to two or three instrument sales.

"It's kind of a constant. I don't sell as many [dulcimers] as guitars, but there's a very nice little underground.

"I'm always griping at the music industry, which aims to sell electric guitars to a demographic consisting solely of 16-year-old boys." Dulcimer demographics, according to Mirken, include more older people than younger, and a high proportion of women. "The music industry needs to realize that other types of people play music too, . . . normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill pleasant folks not necessarily interested in rock 'n' roll or jazz."

A dulcimer "is not a jazz band, not rock 'n' roll, not an orchestra--just a little human sound. . . . If more people saw it, they would want to play it."

* What: A Dulcimer Extravaganza.

* When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

* Where: Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel.

* Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) Freeway to the Crown Valley Parkway exit and head west. Turn left onto Forbes Road.

* Wherewithal: $10.

* Where to call: (714) 364-5270.

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