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Harpist Moves from 'Backwoods' to World Stage

Raised in a mud hut in Paraguay, Eduard Klassen, now a world-renowned harpist, has performed more than 3000 concerts internationally.

From backwoods bush to the modern stage. This is how Eduard Klassen, Paraguayan folk harpist, describes his life and music ministry. Since Klassen came to Canada from Paraguay in the late 1980s, he has produced 14 recordings, has performed across North America, and has completed 12 tours in Europe.

Eduard Klassen

His full-time music ministry includes up to 250 concerts a year. He plays in correctional institutions, on television and radio, anywhere, "so long as it is for the honour and glory of God, and allows me to express my faith," he says. He has played in churches of many denominations. Only five percent of his appearances are before Mennonite audiences, he says, perhaps a little wistfully.

Klassen was born in the Paraguayan Chaco. His ancestors had moved there with other Sommerfelder and Chortitzer Mennonites who left Canada in 1927 to isolate themselves from the modern world, as Klassen puts it.

"My mom and dad were of the poorest among the poor," he said, describing life in the south colony, the most isolated part of the Menno Colony. The family lived in a house with mud walls and a grass roof. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing, and no car. His mother was a self-taught massage therapist.

Worship, conducted in High German, was simple, with ministers reading sermons. The music was unaccompanied plainsong; there were no notes in the hymnal and certainly no four-part singing. Klassen's father, a blacksmith, was a Vorsanger (song leader) in church.

Eduard heard his first "outside" music at age 17 when his father brought home a short-wave radio. The music came from HCJB, the Christian station in Quito, Ecuador. Eduard begged his parents to buy him an instrument, but they had no money. Finally, his father bought an old Paraguayan folk harp with a few strings left. Fish line provided the other strings.

Another significant event was the ministry of missionaries from Saskatchewan, J.D. Friesen and J.J. Neufeld. Colony members now saw preachers not just reading sermons but preaching a heart-felt evangelical message. Many accepted Christ as their personal Saviour. For many, this also meant freedom from the vices of smoking and problem drinking. These itinerant ministers also brought the four-part harmony of the Gesangbuch (Mennonite hymnal).

Other missionaries urged young people to study, so Klassen went to study music at the Mennonite seminary in Asuncion. He received a bachelor's degree, followed by two years of study at the music academy in Asuncion.

In 1985, he received an invitation from Gerhard Hamm, an evangelist in Germany, to tour with the evangelistic team. For three months, Klassen performed daily in churches, opening the way for his current music ministry.

He came to Canada in 1986 "for a year," he thought. He played harp at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Manitoba and worked as a carpenter. After four months, he decided to make music his career.

Klassen readily admits that he himself did not live up to the Gospel he professed through his music. He felt he was a hypocrite, hiding the fact, for example, that he continued to smoke.

"It's not so much the cigarettes that were the sin; it's the fact that I lied continually about it, pretending to be what I was not," he said. The situation came to a head for him on November 27, 1990.

"I couldn't carry it any more; I felt like dying with the guilt of my sins," he said as he described his conversion experience in a Winnipeg apartment. As he read John 3:16-21, he knelt by his bed and begged God to rid him of his sin. Now he feels that his music ministry has integrity.

He admits that while his music is not likely to appeal to teenagers, it has meaning for young families and older persons. And his music is changing as he increasingly hires professionals as back-up, and produces his music at the state-of-the art Emmanuel Productions in Toronto.

Three months after his conversion, Eduard met Christine Plett, a young woman of Mennonite Brethren background, in Tavistock, Ontario. Christaine is now his wife and business manager. Their two sons are home-schooled, allowing them to travel with Eduard on his tours. The Klassens are members of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ontario.

To enquire about concert bookings, or for more information, visit the website Christian Instrumental Music. Tel: (519) 271-2064. Toll free: 1-888-855-5537. E-mail: Eduard and Christine Klassen, Christian Instrumental Music, P.O. Box 541, Stratford, Ontario N5A 6T7.

Originally published in Canadian Mennonite, December 17, 2001, updated August 2006.




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