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Chris Caswell

  • Celtic harp maker Chris Caswell adds a sharping lever to a string in his Berkeley studio in 2010. (John Burgess / Press Democrat)

Chris Caswell, Celtic harpist and harp maker, who died of cancer at age 60 Monday at his Oakland home, left behind a legion of fans, admiring colleagues and grateful students.

He also leaves the many friends he made during his 15 years of living and working in the Russian River area.

"He was noble and courageous and optimistic, even in the suffering of his last days," said Caswell's wife, Roxanne.

Last month, Caswell played a farewell concert to a packed house at the Occidental Center for the Arts.

"The Occidental concert is legendary at this point," Roxanne Caswell said. "It was obvious he was sick, but the moment he started playing, his vitality and love of life came to the forefront."

Caswell grew up in Saratoga and graduated from Saratoga High School. He discovered the Celtic harp during a six-month stay in Scotland after high school.

After three years of studying music composition at San Francisco State University, Caswell started making harps in the early 1970s with Bay Area craftsman Jay Witcher.

Caswell also launched a performing career in the early '70s with Robin Williamson, who had achieved fame with the Incredible String Band, and Williamson's Merry Band.

Caswell later formed the duo Caswell Carnahan, with musician Danny Carnahan of Albany in Alameda County, touring and performing from 1978 to 1983, and recording two albums on the Kicking Mule label.

But it was harp-making that most shaped Caswell's life. In 1975, Caswell met Terry Hallowes, who also was making harps with Jay Witcher. They married the next year, and four years later, moved to Guerneville to continue making harps. The couple divorced in 1997.

The Celtic harp was a rare and ancient instrument that had veered precariously close to extinction over the centuries.

"You could count on one hand the people making Celtic harps in America when Chris started," Carnahan said.

While living in Sonoma County, Caswell also worked with Sebastopol music promoter Cloud Moss to start the Sebastopol Celtic Music Festival and KRCB radio series "Eclectic Café."

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