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A String and a Player : The dulcet music of dulcimers will be featured at a benefit concert in Laguna Niguel.


Bored with the loud marathon rock festivals that have buzzed through town this summer?

A welcome alternative takes place today at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel: the third annual benefit concert for the 100-member Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Society. Their mission is to promote the study and foster the enjoyment of hammered and fretted--a.k.a. Appalachian--dulcimers.

Scheduled to perform are the Los Angeles-based Andy Robinson Band and San Diego Appalachian dulcimer player Carolyn Vice. Also on tap will be a "folksy jam session" featuring folk group Common Thread, plus Margie and Greg Mirken with their daughter, Sally. Proceeds will help pay the way of Gary Gallier and Tony Ellman, two performers from the Midwest, to the Harvest Festival of Dulcimers in Dana Point on Sept. 20.

That festival will feature workshops for players of all abilities, jamming and open-mike areas, vendor displays and booths, and performances by an eclectic lineup also including Mark Nelson, Ken Shaw, Karen Williams and the duet of Cynthia Smith & Ruth Barrett.

Where does a traditional, unassuming instrument fit in among the amplified, often computerized, sounds dominating pop music?

"The dulcimer is firmly entrenched in the folk side of pop culture," said Steve Dulson, president of the Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Society and a fretted-dulcimer player in the Costa Mesa Celtic folk group Tinker's Own. "It may not be as popular as the banjo or fiddle, but it's certainly not some kind of novelty, like maybe the kazoo.

"People are making more contemporary music with dulcimers too," he added. "You can hear them on Windham Hill's new age-y recordings, and Emmylou Harris uses them occasionally in her backing band. Even Cyndi Lauper plays one."

Traced back to the 9th century Middle East, the hammered dulcimer consists of metal strings, which a player strikes with two small hammers. With a tone commonly described as tender, warm and soothing, the instrument has seeped into many countries' musical heritage.

Eight years ago, the sound hooked Cindy Gates.

"I remember hearing this absolutely wonderful music floating through the air when I was at this Renaissance fair," recalled Gates, a Common Thread member. "So, I just walked on, following the sound to the booth where it was coming from. I just loved it."

Gates, who is accompanied by husband John on acoustic rhythm guitar, 18-year-old daughter Heather on English concertina and friend Susie Rose on fiddle, said she gets the same two questions after their performances in local bookstores and coffeehouses: "What is that thing, and is it hard to play?"

People think that so many strings--58--must add up to frustration for beginners.

"To the contrary," Gates said during a recent interview at her Fountain Valley home. "If you practice and work at it, you get better and faster before too long."

Formed less than two years ago, Common Thread incorporates Gate's dulcimer into its repertoire of primarily traditional Celtic folk music, which includes Scottish and Irish jigs, reels, waltzes, hornpipes and polkas. To add variety, the quartet also plays old English standards, gospel medleys, rags and even some rearranged swing numbers.

The fretted dulcimer, meanwhile, features four strings (typically), an hourglass shape and hardwood construction. It was brought to America by German settlers in the early 1700s. Players can either pluck the strings with a wooden plectrum or goose quill or saw them with a bow.

For some reason, both varieties seem to appeal primarily to women players.

"The dulcimer is, indeed, big among women, and my unproven sociological guess is that it's because of the [feminine] aura that surrounds it," suggested Margie Mirken, co-owner of Shade Tree and a fretted-dulcimer player for 15 years. "For some reason, the picture formed in your mind is of some old, dear souls making lovely, sweet songs on these things."

Mirken also plays the banjo, guitar, Irish harp and bass fiddle. When asked to describe the sound she produces on her dulcimer, she replied, "I think there's a certain crispness to the Appalachian [fretted], only without the big, rolling sound you might expect to hear. It's like if you could make the sound of a rippling little spring or brook as the water runs over the rocks."

* The Southern California Dulcimer Heritage Society benefit concert takes place today at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062 Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel. 7:30 p.m. A late show may be added. $10 (714) 364-5270.

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