When Ken Kolodner first entered the realm of traditional world music, he had no aspirations to play in public. His only goal, he said, was to one day play with other people.
Now, about 30 years later, Kolodner, 53, a Baltimore resident since birth, is viewed as one of the most influential players of the hammered dulcimer, a string instrument, in the country. Also a dulcimer teacher, fiddler and hammered mbira player, the self-taught musician has released several recordings and books and performed for nearly two decades as one-third of the Baltimore-based world folk-music trio Helicon.
The name Helicon, he said, comes from Mount Helicon in Greek mythology. This was the home of the nine muses that each inspired a different discipline in the arts. After finding this in a literary textbook, the trio realized, Kolodner said, that "it's an obtrusive thing, and it sounds good."
With Chris Norman on flutes, pipes and vocals, and Robin Bullock on cittern, guitar, fiddle and piano, Helicon toured the United States and Europe from 1986 to the mid-1990s, releasing four recordings. Before the genre known as "world music" existed, the trio performed traditional music from Eastern Europe, South America and Appalachia, as well as Celtic music and that of the Far East.
Though the group broke off into solo projects (releasing more than 50 recordings combined), its members reunite every year for what has been their biggest concert in the Baltimore area. Helicon's 22nd annual Winter Solstice Celebration returns to Goucher College on Saturday; the trio will perform a mix of seasonal and traditional music from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Appalachia, Africa, Europe and the Far East.
"We didn't want to have just another presentation of standard Christmas carols," he said. These multicultural seasonal tunes "break the mold."
"People still want to come," Kolodner added. "It means a lot to a lot of people. People send e-mails and notes saying, 'It kicks off the holiday season for us.' For us, too. We have a great time doing this reunion."
The concert's audiences have grown from 400 people to about 2,000 over the years, and the show was broadcast nationwide over National Public Radio as its seasonal special in 2003. Though previous Solstice Concerts featured guests such as Doc Watson, Paul Halley and members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, this year's will feature only the trio.
In 1999, Helicon's recording of Winter Solstice Celebration won an Indie for Best Seasonal Recording. Kolodner said it is comparable to a Grammy in Helicon's genre. Today, the trio is considering releasing a live recording of its concerts.
While Helicon sees "no end in sight" for its reunion shows, he said, the process has not been without hardships.
"The big challenge is keeping the word out there," Kolodner said. "Someone called me and said they lost track. They said they saw us in church 22 years ago and didn't know where we went. We've been here."
This is the 20th anniversary of the first Helicon recording, and the trio will incorporate songs from that album as well as others into the concert.
"The tunes we used to play will get a fresh treatment," he said. "We're not gonna sound how we did 20 years ago."
The folk music will span about 15 countries, Kolodner said, but Helicon does not try to sound authentic within each culture. Without homogenizing, the group tries to "retain the spirit of the music."
Helicon's craft has always been taking traditional songs from around the world and linking them. Still, Kolodner recognizes the opposite viewpoint, in which musicians strive to perform the music as accurately as possible, in a museumlike manner of preservation.
"There's a place to celebrate the differences between musical cultures and centuries that have past, but there is something that unifies the music," he said. 'The big debate is the difference between styles, but rarely do we talk about what unifies them. That is what Helicon did."
Helicon's 22nd Annual Winter Solstice Concert returns to the Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College at 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday. Goucher is at 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson. Tickets are $19-$26. Call 410-243-7254 or go to kenkolodner.com.