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Chris Caswell could barely hear a note in the din that surrounded him.

The former Sonoma County musician and music teacher was standing in a cavernous Berkeley workshop, leaning over one of the handmade Celtic harps that have made his name a fixture in the world of folk music for the past three decades.

His business, Caswell Harps, moved to this space near the Berkeley waterfront five years ago, after 15 years of on-and-off operation in Guerneville and Occidental.

The relocation has helped Caswell — now 57 and living in Oakland — expand his production and solidify his place among the several dozen North American and European instrument makers responsible for the revival of the Celtic or folk harp.

Fifty years ago, the ancient instrument was nearly obsolete, pushed out of favor by the larger Napoleonic-era pedal harp. Only about 20 of the smaller harps remained, according to Caswell.

In the 1970s, though, Caswell and others latched onto the rising popularity of folk music and began the slow process of bringing the Celtic harp back into vogue.

For a harp maker, that rebirth happens instrument by instrument.

Over the years, Caswell has turned out more than 1,300 Celtic harps. Two weeks ago, in the Berkeley shop, he was putting the finishing touches on a 50-inch-tall nylon-string model he calls the Rhiannon.

Nearby, four workmen in sweatshirts and carpenter's jeans were building walls and cabinets, producing the shop's near-constant hiss of pressurized air hoses, crack of hammers and whine of table saws and power drills.

Caswell, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a bushy salt-and-pepper mane and beard and wearing a billowing bohemian shirt and vest, put an ear to the harp and plucked a string.

He was listening for the bright, clear tone that is now the hallmark of his brand of folk harp, a strong and increasingly light model that uses walnut, Sitka spruce, maple and Brazilian cherry woods.

Part whimsical artisan and part gritty craftsman, Caswell said it is the mix of those two traits that has propelled him to master builder status in the harp world.

"My mother is an artist and my father is an engineer and a physicist," he said. "I've got this innate combination of those two aspects."

Raised in the South Bay in a musical family, Caswell first discovered the Celtic harp during a six-month stay in Scotland after high school.

He took private lessons in both the harp and bagpipes.

"I just got hooked," he said, describing the start of what has been a lifelong dedication to both instruments.

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

Several years later, he started his own shop, moving it to Guerneville in 1982. A flood on the Russian River in 1987 forced him out of business until the mid-1990s, an interval he used to collaborate on a world music radio show on KRCB, help launch the Sebastopol Celtic World Music Festival and start a part-time career as a music teacher.

That broad resum?reflects the diverse role Caswell has played in the revival of Celtic music in the United States, say several local musicians and composers.

"Chris is incredibly well-read and conversant with so many of the myths and legends of the Celtic world," said Danny Carnahan, a Bay Area musician who has toured and recorded with Caswell, starting in the early 1980s.

"He's really an extraordinary person," said Patrick Ball, the Sebastopol harpist. "I tour all around the country and I'm always meeting people who are students of Chris'."

Through the decades, Caswell has performed on about 40 recordings and released four albums on which he's a headliner, including Holy Wood and Celtic Tidings.

"It's not just pretty music," Carnahan said of Caswell's songs. "It's music with a cultural and historical context."

Caswell said cultural mixing has contributed to the growth of the Celtic harp business and wider appeal of Celtic music.

Riverdance, the Irish dancing show, brought Celtic music to the forefront in the United States in the mid-1990s.

Also, the growing number of American bluegrass music fans led to a broader market for folk music, including Celtic, in the United States, Caswell said.

Harp makers have benefited as domestic orders now come from outside traditional harp enclaves, including the West and East coasts and pockets of the South.

Folk harps now fetch prices similar to those for custom acoustic guitars, a change that's led to more stability and quality in the industry, Caswell said.

His top of the line harp now sells for more than $4,500, three times what a Celtic harp could command three decades ago, he said.

"Northern California was one of the epicenters for this revival," he said. "It was kind of the luck of the draw that I got involved in this so early."

Caswell continues to play locally. This Wednesday, St. Patrick's Day, he'll perform at 7 p.m. at the Open Secret Bookstore in San Rafael. On March 21 he'll perform at 8 p.m. at the French Garden Restaurant and Bistro in Sebastopol.

Caswell said his playing still drives his harp making. Like Ludwig van Beethoven, who was known to break pianos with his robust playing, leading later to stronger piano construction, Caswell favors an aggressive playing style that factors into his instruments.

He sums up the approach this way: "I want to play in a pub and have the drunks in the back hear me ... So I'm looking to build a harp that you can play as hard as you want and it's not going to break."

Recently, he's paired a honeycomb-like laminate material used in aircraft construction with his harps' soundboards, making them stronger with little additional weight.

He's also tinkering with changes in string material and methods of string attachment.

"My brain has just been working overtime on this stuff for the last two years," he said.

To many of his customers, most of whom are women, those improvements likely will make little difference, he conceded.

"They want something that is beautiful, sounds good and is easy to play, probably in that order," he said.

But to him, the innovations are part of a self-imposed responsibility to restore the roots of Celtic harp.

"Part of it is getting back to that," he said. "I'm one of the few guys who's in touch with that lineage. What I do is still the old way."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or e-mail brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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