Edmar Castañeda: I was born for the harp

18 July 2019, 1:00

Edmar Castañeda: I was born for the harp

One of the musicians who will appear at Folkové prázdniny [Folk Holidays] in Náměšť nad Oslavou as part of a special programme called Harfy nad Oslavou [Harps upon Oslava], is the Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda. In Náměšť, he will also give a solo recital as part of an evening called O duši s lehkostí i naléhavostí [About Soul with Lightness and Urgency]. In our telephone conversation – we called him to New York where he lives – we talked to Edmar Castañeda, for example, about a harp specially constructed according to his requirements, or about his cooperation with the Czech singer Marta Töpferová.

You are definitely an acclaimed master in playing harp, a traditional instrument from Colombian and Venezuelan plains, but I know you also learned to play the trumpet. What came sooner in your case?

I started learning the harp at the age of thirteen, but I started to get familiar with the instrument already as a seven-year-old. Around the same time as the harp, I also began to learn the trumpet, because my father wanted it that way. But the harp was the first. When I was sixteen years old, I left for New York. There I first learned about jazz and immediately fell in love with that music. Since there was no possibility to study the harp at a high school, I dedicated myself more to playing the trumpet. For the same reason I then went to a college to study the trumpet. Thanks to my studies, I learned in detail the language of jazz, but at the same time I played the harp all the time.

Were the years spent playing the trumpet useful to you?

The trumpet was a bridge for me thanks to which I was able to understand jazz. I like that instrument, but harp is my real passion. And that is in fact why I played it every day. I practiced trumpet play during the day and studied Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and other giants of jazz, and then I played the harp in the evening.

When did the moment come about when you said to yourself that even with a harp in your hand you could accompany jazz musicians?

I had never planned it to happen that way. As I said, the harp was my passion, really, since I was seven years old. So it wasn't that I suddenly said to myself: I'll play jazz on the harp. It all kind of came alone, and I see it as a gift from God.

I saw for example a video from your joint concert with the Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi. And it was amazing to watch you interact with each other. What is the most challenging thing in such a collaboration?

The most challenging issue in such collaborations is to accept the fact that the harp has very limited possibilities. It is impossible to play on a harp all that, for example, pianists can play. It does not have all tones available. Playing jazz on the harp is in a way a challenge, and for example you cannot play fully fledged bebop on it. That is why I do not play jazz in the very sense of the word, but I try to put certain elements of jazz into my play – improvisation, groove, etc... The freedom of improvisation is of particular importance.

To what extent are your compositions prepared in advance and how much of what we hear is just improvisation?

Before we appear on stage, we already have our compositions arranged. Hence I know in advance what I can allow myself to do with the harp. And then it is just a matter of improvisation. That is why we have to agree in advance on the song and then one of us takes the lead and the other one responds. And we cannot even play certain songs at all, such as some jazz standards, because my instrument does not allow me to do so.

However, your harp has some improvements compared to the traditional type from the Colombian plains. How was the instrument, constructed for you by the French company CAMAC, created?

For many years I had tried to make some harp improvements myself. I had absolutely specific ideas and then I happened to meet representatives of the company CAMAC in France. I made an agreement with them and they made all my ideas come true. They developed an instrument type called EC Llanera (EC = Edmar Castañeda, Llanera = from the planes; note of the author). This model is based on a traditional Colombian harp, but there is also an additional little lever on each string. Thanks to it, I can produce half-tones like on a piano. Therefore, I have a greater range of options for improvisation, however, certain limits of the instrument still remain.

At Folk Holidays in Náměšť nad Oslavou you will present yourself first with your solo programme and then also as part of a special programme called Harfy nad Oslavou – together with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita as Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. While the two of them routinely perform  and make records together, I don't really know whether you have ever met Seckou Keita at all. And do you already know what you will play in Náměšť nad Oslavou?

Yes, we met each other about two years ago. We jammed together at a festival. My harp and his kora are two completely different instruments. Each of them plays in a completely different way. I don't know what we shall play, we haven't talked about it yet. We will probably resolve this on the spot.

You have gone through jazz education and at the same time grew up on folk music from Colombian plains. So what do your solo recitals look like?

I play folk music from Colombia, which I interleave with what I know from New York. That is jazz, flamenco, funk, classical music and tango. The harp as a tool inspires me, for example, to combine Brazilian music with our joropo style and with flamenco, or classical music with jazz. I blend everything together.

You also have your own band. Is it still a trio with trombone?

In currently play in a trio or in a quartet with musicians I met here in New York. Rodrigo Villalon from Colombia plays drums with me and instead of trombone I have Shlomi Cohen from Israel playing saxophone. My wife Andrea Tierra sings with us. We combine the jazz language with musical roots of different countries. Because they are all busy, I sometimes change the line-up. Sometimes we have a flute or a harmonica instead of the saxophone.

But in most cases it is then a melodic wind instrument – a trombone, a saxophone, a flute…

Yes, wind instruments are very important in jazz. In addition, they inspire me in my play, as they lead the tune. It is an ideal choice for me.

In the past, you also worked with the Czech singer Marta Töpferová. You appear on her album La Marea from 2005. This year, you will have a concert with her in Prague as part of the Jazz Meets World series, just a few days after the evening of Harfy nad Oslavou.

Yes, I'm glad we can meet up again after all those years and appear on stage  together. We used to play a lot together many years ago when Marta lived here in New York. She is absolutely amazing. She is one of my favourite singers and composers. She learned to play traditional instruments from Colombia and Venezuela, she knows our language in spite of coming from Prague. I like the way she sings, the colour of her voice. In addition, she writes very good lyrics in Spanish, which is horribly difficult. And Latin American rhythms are complicated. I always asked her: Are you sure you're from Prague? In fact, her lyrics sound as if she was born in South America .

At the beginning you said that harp is your passion. What attracts you to that instrument?

As I have already said, I see my talent as a gift from God. Music is the way I can worship him, talk to him, this is a way to be in touch with him. I perceive my music as a revelation from God, which I also pass on to other people. It really is my passion. I'm sure I was born for the harp.

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