An Encounter with Michael Rugg and CapriTaurus Dulcimers

By Peter Tommerup with Julie Horner

It began with a bike ride through the Santa Cruz Mountains on the summer day in 1974 that fundamentally changed my life. I was about to become a senior in college, was studying traditional Appalachian culture and folklore, and was learning to play the Appalachian mountain dulcimer—a 3-string hourglass shaped folk instrument you play on your lap. My friend Chris Finelli and I planned a fun bike ride coasting downhill along Highway 9 from Saratoga Gap to Santa Cruz. When we reached the southern end of Felton, something transfixed my eye and forced me to stop. That something was the “CapriTaurus Dulcimers” sign on a cute little clapboard store. Inside was proprietor, dulcimer maker, and dulcimer playing prodigy, Michael Rugg. He was soft-spoken, welcoming, and knocked my socks off with his amazing creativity, artistry, and musicianship. Unlike every other dulcimer player I had ever seen, Michael played the instrument more like a mandolin or flat-picked guitar, totally transforming the traditional sound. When he demonstrated his beautiful dulcimers to me that day, he played spritely Irish and American fiddle tunes, especially favorite musical genres. I was hooked!

Michael Rugg and Peter Tommerup Play Mountain Dulcimers in Felton

Peter Tommerup Plays the Mountain Dulcimer

Over the next couple of years, I took lessons at CapriTaurus to learn their approach to dulcimer playing, and started performing and teaching dulcimer myself in the Los Gatos area. I also thoroughly enjoyed catching Michael Rugg and his friends performing, which they did a fair amount and in several guises. In Capitola, they performed at a popular deli called The Annex as “Hubert’s Hotshots,” a cutting-edge string band featuring Michael Rugg on dulcimer; Michael Hubbert on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and hurdy gurdy; and Dan Warrick on banjo. So captivating you could hear a pin drop when they played. Michael and friends also performed seasonally at the Northern and Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faires, and the Dickens Fair in San Francisco, where they also had a booth stocked with their beautiful handcrafted dulcimers, scheitholts, bowed psalteries, kalimbas, and a few hammered dulcimers. As you might imagine, they had a lot of interesting experiences “doing” these fairs, including meeting famous musicians like Ravi Shankar, the celebrated Indian sitar player, along with a few well known rock musicians.Watch Michael Rugg and Peter Tommerup playing a tune together at the CapriTaurus Bigfoot Discovery Museum: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXybOXF_2cQ

The Dulcimer Connection

In addition to Michael Rugg, there were another dozen or so other very creative and innovative dulcimer players who were experimenting with new ways to play the instrument scattered along the West Coast, as well as a few inland to about Colorado. One animating characteristic of these creative folks was that, unlike dulcimer players in the Appalachian Mountains where the dulcimer was played traditionally, these aspiring players did not have a tradition to guide or channel their efforts. In a way, they were exploring new musical territory and starting from scratch in exploring their chosen musical genre and playing style. They periodically gathered, played together, and ultimately recorded a groundbreaking LP album, “The Pacific Rim Dulcimer Project.” And you could tell from this LP, they were having a lot of fun playing and exploring the dulcimer together! In fact, they were having so much fun exploring the dulcimer, that these creative souls started their own very non-traditional festival to support their musical forays into the avant garde. It started in 1975, and became known as the “Kindred Gathering for Friends of Modes and Dulcimerie” (KG). You can read more about the festival here: https://robertforce.com/HisStory/KindredGathering.html

Unlike most music festivals, this one differs in a number of ways. First, it was really more of a retreat for kindred spirits (who wanted to spend time discovering what was possible on their dulcimers) than a public festival. It was also largely created by the folks who showed up to participate, and marked by a lot of playful spontaneity: the “Unnatural Acts” segment, for example, has become a much enjoyed KG annual tradition. As with much of the KG, it’s an open-ended event, and also open to interpretation. In 1975, it included participants doing a limbo dance while playing their dulcimers. Ironically, this frame breaking dulcimer gathering is now also the oldest continuing dulcimer festival in the US.

Another example of how much this largely underground progressive dulcimer movement tied in with the Santa Cruz Mountains is that Kindred Gathering # 3 was sponsored this time by CapriTaurus Dulcimers. It was held a bit south of Los Gatos on Bear Creek Road, just off Highway 17. Originally, this was the site of a Catholic college. In the 1970s, the school buildings & the beautiful campus had become Daybreak Free School. Today it’s the site of Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. In that summer 1977 weekend, however, it was the temporary home of the largest, most populated Kindred Gathering that had yet occurred. It was unusually churning with activity that year because there was a lot of interest in the dulcimer in this area. The event was attended by all kinds of folks, many of whom had an abiding passion for this unassuming little instrument. Several out of town dulcimer aficionados who attended this festival actually moved here after the event. These included Neal Hellman, Robert Force, and Albert d’Ossche, who then further stirred the bubbling pot in the Santa Cruz Mountains by adding their passion, discoveries & approaches to the progressive dulcimer stew.

CapriTaurus Dulcimers

Michael Rugg and his business partner and brother, Howard Rugg, stayed in the folk music business until the late 80s. From 1969 to 1989 the brothers and another crafter, Stephen Jackel, produced approximately 20,000 dulcimers from their workshop in Felton under the CapriTaurus and Folk Roots labels. In 2003 Michael and partner Paula Yarr launched the Bigfoot Discovery Project, and Michael opened the Bigfoot Discovery Museum at the family compound where the Roaring Camp train whistle (and other mournful howls) raise goosebumps. In 2011, Howard Rugg started making mountain dulcimers again, and you can order them online: dulcimuse.com/capritaurusdulcimers

Redwood Dulcimer Day

The playful dulcimer counterculture lives on in another Santa Cruz Mountains tradition: Redwood Dulcimer Day. Starting in the early 1970’s, Santa Cruz and the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains were a hotbed of creative activity and exploration which culminated in a variety of progressive playing styles within the local mountain and hammered dulcimer communities. Redwood Dulcimer Day is a place for contemporary players of both dulcimers to gather, learn, enjoy playing together, and further explore new possibilities in playing styles and repertoire. 

Redwood Dulcimer Day at Boomeria

Local dulcimer player, Janet Herman, organized the first Redwood Dulcimer Day at the Boomeria (boomeria.com) in July 2000 under the auspices of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz. The Boomeria, a colorful Renaissance estate created by San Lorenzo Valley High School science professor Preston Q. Boomer and his SLVHS students over the last 60 years or so on private land in Bonny Doon, was the perfect place to rekindle dulcimer magic! The estate features (among other interesting aspects) a miniature wooden chapel dominated by a 40 rank pipe organ which has been played by many world class concert organists. You can read more about that here: http://scbaroque.org/community/boomeria-organ-extravaganza-2

The estate also contains a series of catacombs, a science lab, a miniature castle, a working guillotine, and a swimming pool. And it plays host to weird, wondrous, and very playful events cooked up by PQ and his science students, like water cannon fights and more! But one day a year for 10 years, this playful miniature fantasy world hosted dulcimer workshops and a much enjoyed playing circle which culminated the day’s dulcimer activities. 

Redwood Dulcimer Day Goes Virtual

Beginning in 2010, Redwood Dulcimer Day moved to more easily accessible locations in Boulder Creek, Scotts Valley, and Santa Cruz. Interestingly, Redwood Dulcimer Day is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of helping folks feel more connected to their dulcimers, to one another, as well as to the creative process and life enhancing experience of making music.

In August of 2020, Redwood Dulcimer Day went virtual. If you’re wishing you had a new hobby to sink your teeth into while riding out the pandemic, consider learning to play the Appalachian or the hammered dulcimer by beaming in to the virtual event: redwooddulcimerday.org

Enter the Hammered Duclimer

Saturday, August 15 offerings will also bring something comparatively new to Redwood Dulcimer Day: workshops in a second kind of magical dulcimer, the hammered dulcimer. In some respects, this is a very different musical instrument. Unlike the typical 4-string mountain dulcimer with an hourglass-shaped body, the hammered dulcimer has a trapezoidal shaped soundbox across which are strung anywhere between about 46 to 98 strings. Another difference is that while the mountain dulcimer is usually placed on one’s lap while being plucked or strummed, the hammered dulcimer is placed on a stand and its strings are activated by a pair of small hand-held hammers. The mountain dulcimer is considered to be an American folk instrument, while the hammered dulcimer has roots in the Middle East.

Hammered Dulcimer Belonging to Julie Horner

What the two dulcimers share is a distinctive yet comforting sound that many folks find appealing. Also, and perhaps most importantly, they are unusually accessible to beginning aspiring musicians. For one thing, both kinds of dulcimers are easily viewed while being played, which makes a big difference. In addition, aspiring dulcimists don’t have to contort themselves in unusual ways to play either of these instruments. In that sense, they are a bit like a piano: capable of sounding good the very first time a neophyte tries to sound a note!

Save the Bigfoot Discovery Museum

For wildlife aficionados, the legend of Bigfoot makes a last stand at the museum during difficult times. You can support Michael Rugg and his Bigfoot Discovery Museum: gofundme.com/f/Save-the-Bigfoot-Discovery-Museum

Bigfoot Discovery Project and Museum 5497 Highway 9, Felton, CA.
(831) 335-4478
http://bigfootdiscoveryproject.com

Copyright August 2020, Peter Tommerup with Julie Horner for the San Lorenzo Valley Post: https://slvpost.com
This article appeared in shorter form in print in the San Lorenzo Valley Post August issue.

#slvpost