By Scott MacClelland
“I HAVE never had a problem with termites, but kittens seem to love crawling inside the harp, wherever I go. One even crawled inside as I played.” So says William Faulkner, Jalisco harpist well-known on the Central California Coast, as he is in the SF Bay Area, Texas, the British Isles and all over Mexico. (He was recently anointed hijo adoptivo of Zapotiltic in Jalisco State.)
Faulkner’s local reputation expanded exponentially after he founded Mariachi Mixtlán in Monterey County, but today 90 percent of his performances, public and private, are solo. His harp is a virtual orchestra of timbral colors enriched by a wealth of overtones. To hear his recording of the popular old Mexican folk song, La llorona, click HERE.
The top of Faulkner’s favorite Jalisco harp (arpa jalisciense) is made of tacote wood, light as balsa and strong. Unlike most string instruments with sound holes, the four here gape like wide-open mouths that have tempted more small animals than just kittens. The rest of the sound box is made of cedar, like tacote a traditional wood in Mexican guitars as well. Some harps from other regions of Mexico have similar sound holes, but most have none on their tops. Unlike other style Mexican harps, “The Jalisco has a very strong bass register. It was the original bass instrument for mariachi,” he says. He calls the Paraguayan harps “fantastic,” but “I can’t get them to cry; they don’t have the same voice.” On the Jalisco, “The treble strings are relatively loose. When you play it hard they start sharp then drop into pitch.” He describes the Jalisco harp as rural, relatively simple. “I can make it weep, like La llorona.” (Left, Faulkner with Daniel Torres and his salterio.)
Faulkner was born in Annapolis and came to Carmel as a toddler when his father’s employer, the Naval Postgraduate School, moved to Monterey in the early ‘50s and took over the historic Del Monte Hotel. “My father was a ‘distinguished’ professor of math and mechanics.” Young Bill attended public schools, Carmel Woods, Sunset School (today’s Sunset Cultural Center) and Carmel High, pursuant to studies at UC Berkeley where he intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, emphasizing math and computer technology. At Cal he discovered his true calling and finished a degree in music.
“I started playing harp in 1979, having previously played piano, banjo and a number of other instruments.” (He credits his early piano teacher at Carmel’s All Saints Church, Bob Forbes, for inspiring his love of music.) “I had been listening to Mexican music since 1971, particularly mariachi, jarocho, huasteco and norteño, and started actively playing mariachi in 1976.” He taught himself guitar, vihuela and other plucked instruments. “I knew enough that my fingers would position themselves. The first mariachi instrument I played was guitarrón.”
Faulkner tells a favorite story about El Melón, an internationally-known thoroughbred horse at Lienzo Charro Zermeño, a large events center in Guadalajara featuring equine performances. The animal is often used therapeutically to “give legs” to the handicapped. “He had heard my music from a CD. When I went there I played Son Jalisco for him. He came over five times to investigate, putting his nose about 18 inches from the strings. On the fifth time he licked my hand.” Then, to Faulkner’s dismay, “he started chewing on the harp. But the encounter inspired me to write a song.”
In 1980, Faulkner formed the local Mariachi Mixtlán, which, in the summer of 1981, made its first tour of México, “starting in Guadalajara where I purchased a Jalisco harp and guitarrón from Roberto Morales. I have played on this harp ever since.” Faulkner, who is as keen on the history of Latin American harps as he is on his prized jalisciense, explains, “Abundio Morales, a famous harpist, got into a tiff with his harp maker and then insisted his son start making them. Roberto, who was a modest carpenter, grew up to become the most respected maker of Jalisco harps.” (Below, William visiting Don Roberto Morales in his workshop, December, 2014.)
In 2002, the leader of Mariachi Cobre, the house mariachi at Epcot Center in Florida, called Faulkner and said, “‘William, we’re playing at the San Jose Mariachi Festival and will be backing up Linda Ronstadt and she insists we have a harp. Would you like to play with us?’ Naturally I agreed, but as we went over the concert list and keys, I realized I had a problem: My harp was very traditional, which in this case meant diatonic, the strings coming straight off the tuning pegs.” This meant that Faulkner had to retune for each piece of the set, which always took a long time. An alternative was to use levers. “But levers change the sound,” and anyway he wasn’t about to put new hardware on his favorite instrument. Using another harp was the solution. A month later he got another mariachi call and played on a levered harp, which allowed him to “always be in the right key.”
In 1991 Faulkner started the short-lived (four years) Festival del Mariachi de Alta California at Hartnell College in Salinas, where he teaches to this day. About ten years ago, Faulkner was called upon to play with the Carmel Bach Festival when they did a Spanish Baroque Mass at Carmel Mission, and at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Today he travels to Mexico at least once a year, to Guadalajara “usually in October.” He is as busy as he wants to be, and takes added pleasure from his two adult daughters, both of whom are musicians in their own right.