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Harping on Jazz

Listening to Edmar Castañeda play the arpa llanera, or Colombian harp, the fi rst question that comes to mind is, why is this instrument so rare in jazz? The 36-year-old Castañeda—originally from Bogotá, Colombia, and a New York resident for the past two decades—makes the harp seem as naturally suited to the music as the saxophone or piano. In advance of his Carnegie Hall debut in March, he discussed applying the jazz idiom to his instrument of choice with Jeff Tamarkin, associate editor of JazzTimes.


You practically have the field of jazz harp to yourself.
There are some amazing harpists in South America—people who are creating great new things, but not so much in jazz. I’m glad to have people inspired by my music. It’s really an honor. I feel that I was born to play the harp, to share a message through my strings.


 


You played the trumpet before you ever touched a harp.
When I was seven, I actually started with folk dancing to the plains music of Colombia and Venezuela, llanera music. The family of instruments used in this folk music included the harp, as well as the cuatro (a four-string guitar that is like a ukulele) and the maracas. So I started with dancing and then the maracas and the cuatro. The first time I saw a harp was when I was taking dance lessons. I felt that I could play it, but I didn’t have the money for lessons or for the actual instrument. Years later, my aunt saw that I wanted to play it, so she gave me one when I turned 13.

How does Colombian harp differ from traditional classical harp?
All harps are different: the tension, the size—it affects the music that you play. With classical harp (or pedal harp), you sit and you have seven pedals to modulate the keys. In South America, we have different kinds of harps. Mexico and Paraguay have one kind. In Colombia and Venezuela, we share the same harp, the arpa llanera.


 


Is it true that you didn’t hear jazz until you came to the US at age 16?
It is true. I was listening to folk music before I came to the States. I came here not knowing any English. After a few days, I went to register for high school. They took me to the music room where the jazz band was playing. After they finished, I asked them the name of the tune they were playing and it was “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington. That was my introduction to jazz. I learned that you can improvise, and I liked that because in llanera music, we improvise a lot on a 6/8 rhythm, which is very much like flamenco, very percussive.

Other than Ellington, who influenced you the most?
After I heard Ellington, I started to look for other jazz. I attended Five Towns College on Long Island, where I studied trumpet because there were no studies for harp, and I wanted to learn the language of jazz. So that’s when I started listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Every day, I was in the library listening to all these great musicians. I wanted so much to learn to play the harp that way. But it’s not possible to play real jazz, like bebop, on the llanera harp because of the nature of the instrument. It’s very limited because it’s diatonic. So I use elements of jazz—I improvise in modes, phrases, and intervals.




You don’t perform with other chordal instruments like piano or guitar. Why?
Sometimes I do, but I have developed this technique where I play bass lines in my left hand, and with my right hand I play melodies and chords. It sounds like two or three instruments playing at the same time. So my trio of harp, trombone, and drums is actually a quintet. Traditionally with llanera harp, you have a bass player and the harpist plays more melodically. When I came to New York, I used to have a gig playing solo harp in a restaurant, where I was forced to play all the parts myself. Little by little, that’s how I started to create my style. Playing this instrument has been a gift from God, a revelation.

After you learned how to apply the harp to jazz, was it difficult to get gigs?
In the beginning I would tell people I played the harp and they’d say, “What? The harp?!” But I’ve been doing this without a booking agent throughout my whole career. Now they know me. But it was a process. I went to jam sessions and then I met Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, who was a great influence and a mentor to me. He helped me a lot and put me in the right spots, which opened a lot of doors.




You’ve said that playing lead, rhythm, and bass lines simultaneously on your instrument is like having two brains.
It comes naturally to me. I divide my hands, so I’m playing bass lines with the left and finding a groove. Then I improvise with my right hand. Sometimes I do workshops and I’m asked that question, and I tell them I’m still figuring it out!



Edmar Castañeda
Edmar Castañeda
Friday, March 6 at 9:30 PM
Edmar Castañeda Trio

When Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda plays, it’s hard to believe only one man and not a trio of harpists is performing. Castañeda’s remarkable technique—he plays lead, rhythm, and bass lines all at once—is equaled only by his soulful improvisations. He leads his acclaimed global jazz trio in this concert.