When one considers the harp, the immediate connotation is a vision of heaven. An instrument with thousands of years of history behind it, it is often depicted in classical art in the arms of angels or as a rich addition to orchestral music, thanks to its unique tone. Angelic it may seem, but for 25-year-old [...]


Building an instrument that pulled at his heartstrings

Driven by a great desire to play the harp, but unable to buy one, Carllin Perera and his father came up with the next best option, to make one from scratch

A rare skill: Carllin at his harp. Pic by Beurant Photography

When one considers the harp, the immediate connotation is a vision of heaven. An instrument with thousands of years of history behind it, it is often depicted in classical art in the arms of angels or as a rich addition to orchestral music, thanks to its unique tone.

Angelic it may seem, but for 25-year-old harpist Carllin Perera who has the distinction of not just being able to play the harp but also build it, it is certainly a lot of work to tune that many strings! And yet, ever since he first heard the instrument played on a classical record, he was enthralled  by its calming natural reverb.

Proficient in the guitar, piano and drums, Carllin was drawn to the challenge of mastering the harp, one of the oldest known musical instruments in the world. The specialist nature of the harp also means it is a rare instrument to find, impossible to purchase in this country, and too expensive to import from abroad.

The solution came from Carllin’s father, Collin Perera, who Carllin proudly asserts can design and build anything, and always has a creative and practical solution for everything. In 2013, they began building a harp from scratch.

Their research into the subject showed that there was a huge variety and no proper standard for harps. Their search  led them to a manual for a harp kit online with photographs of the wood pieces that gave them a general starting point. The discovery of the string chart that listed the resonating length of the string allowed Carllin’s dad to design the curve of the harp. After making a plan through computer-aided design software, they took it to his father’s cousin Rohitha Fernando’s  workshop to create the final frame.

A testament to innovation: The harp that Carllin and his father Collin built. Pic by Janith Deshitha

The next hurdle was the stringing, as specialised strings were also expensive and this harp required 29 in five different gauges. In the end, the unlikely but brilliant solution was to use fishing line, as it is made of the same material and was available in all the necessary gauges. “Honestly I didn’t think it’ll sound this good. Even now, no one could tell the difference unless I tell them,” Carllin says.

Carllin’s collection of unusual instruments doesn’t stop there — it also includes a Washboard from New Orleans, Louisiana and a classical guitar that he personally converted to be fretless.

“If I hear a unique instrument or if I see something new, I’m inspired right away to learn about it and learn how to play it,” Carllin tells us.

This curious and enterprising nature means that at just 25, Carllin is already a man of many talents. A proud alumnus of Maris Stella College in his hometown Negombo, Carllin graduated with a degree in Software Engineering, but his constant ‘think outside the box’ approach to life has helped him expand his horizons even further. He has since successfully run his own photography and videography production house, as well as a laser engraving gallery that has grown into a full-fledged gift shop.

However, his greatest passion will always be music. Carllin’s earliest memories are of his mother and father doing “amazing duets” together as they sang him to sleep with lullabies. At his grandparents’ home, there was always music in the air from Mozart and Debussy to W.D. Amaradeva and Nanda Malini as well as Anthony Ventura and his mother’s favourite Jim Reeves. This also gave him a lasting appreciation for a wide variety of genres.

His aunt’s constant piano practice added to the atmosphere and she eventually taught him how to read and play the notes, then encouraged him to sit the exams and obtain a qualification. The joyful sing-alongs at family gathering played a pivotal role in his passion for music.

“Earning a seat in those family gatherings was a privilege back then, and as the youngest in the family I earned my way into the song with nothing but a five-gallon water bottle used to imitate a congo drum when turned upside down,” he recalls fondly.

At school, Carllin seized every opportunity to take part in music related activities, and was even in a band called ‘The Bricks’ which gave him valuable experience as a performer and professional musician.

Singing with the school’s St. Marcellin’s Choir, and eventually its choir leader, Carllin developed a deep and lasting appreciation for choral music and direction under their choral director Francis D’Almeida. The school choir toured Rome in 2012 where they performed at a concert and also sang for Pope Benedict at a papal audience.

Still an active and enthusiastic member of the Old Maris Choir, “every time I’m there singing, conducting, arranging, it feels like home,” he says. And between solo gigs with his guitar, performing at weddings, and collaborating with artists and choirs as a freelancer, Carllin also posts performances onto his Instagram and YouTube accounts, covers with his own unique twist to it, and more recently some originals as well.

“I’m now mostly focusing on making original music as I want my name to be out there as an original artist,” he explains.

Yet pursuing music  has its challenges especially  maintaining financial stability, and Carllin admits that after building the harp back in 2013, he had put it aside thinking they had got it wrong, particularly because of the string gap. It was when he was contacted last year by  musician Nishantha Warnakulasuriya who had heard rumours about a young harpist from Negombo that he was prompted to take it up again.

Nishantha, describing his own experiences, succeeded in motivating him and  even laid out a plan for him.  Inspired, Carllin began to look for more online tutorials and lessons, and found there was more content now online than when he  had begun. He began afresh with the fingering techniques, scales and arpeggios, and hasn’t stopped since.

Today, Carllin firmly believes that when it comes to music, everything can be an inspiration. He feels if you have the passion, dedication and willingness, you can do anything.

Despite the toll the pandemic lockdowns have taken on the industry, Carllin feels the days where there may be no gigs are also a blessing in disguise since it gives him plenty of time to revisit and hone his old skills. He has upgraded his harp meanwhile,with levers that were also homemade.

Presently working on a few harp covers of his own, also collaborating with Nishantha and other artists, Carllin looks forward to some exciting projects on the horizon.

Carllin’s work can be found on his music page on Instagram @__carllin__ and his YouTube channel at ‘Carllin Perera’. He also does a few live performances on Facebook when time permits.


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