The harp of the matter

First-string Colombian jazz musician Edmar Castañeda opens this year’s Hot Jazz series.

The harp of the matter (photo credit: courtesy)
The harp of the matter
(photo credit: courtesy)
All jazz musicians, by definition, must break some new ground, but some venture into completely virgin territory. You could certainly put Edmar Castañeda (pictured) in that category as the first player of the Colombian harp to enter the jazz fray.
“Yes, I suppose you could say I am a sort of pioneer,” says 34-year-old Castañeda, who is the opening act of the new Hot Jazz series. He will perform six gigs here between October 27 and November 3 in Haifa, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Ganei Tikva. He will share the stage with his wife, vocalist Andrea Tierra, and some local musicians, including Brazilianborn Israeli percussionist Joca Perpignan.
Castañeda was born in Bogota and grew up in a musical home. His father, Pavelid Castañeda, is also a Colombian harp player, as well as a singer and composer. Castañeda first set his digits to harp strings at age 10, but he actually started out with another form of artistic expression. “I started dancing to Colombian folk music when I was seven,” he recalls, “and the harp is the traditional instrument for playing this music.”
Things began to change radically when he moved to New York at 16. “That’s when I discovered jazz,” he says. “The music really got to me.”
But there were some more twists and turns along the way to his professional path. “When I was in high school I learned to play the trumpet,” he says, adding that the wind instrument helped deepen his appreciation of his evolving craft. “Playing the trumpet introduced me to playing in a big band, and I learned how to improvise on the trumpet too. The trumpet helped understand the language of jazz. But all the time I played the trumpet, I kept thinking, ‘How can I play this on the harp?’”
Castañeda soon began to learn from the records of the masters. “I listened to the music of people like [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie and [saxophonist] Charlie Parker playing bebop, and I got so inspired by all of that,” he notes. “I listened to all those great musicians and tried to work out how I could transpose their work to my instrument.”
In fact, Castañeda had already got a handle on the art of jazz before he hit the Big Apple. “There is an improvisation element to Colombian folk music too, but in a folkloric way. It’s similar to flamenco. That definitely helped me connect with jazz as well.”
But he felt he had more room for maneuver after he made the transition into jazz. “I had a lot more freedom to improvise with jazz. It is more open.”
Naturally, Castañeda gravitated toward the Latin side of the jazz field and found a willing guide and collaborator in the the popular Cuban-born New York resident saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera. “Paquito helped me a lot at the beginning,” he says. “I learn from everyone I play with.”
Castañeda has accumulated an impressive roster of collaborators, such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, guitarist John Scofield, bassist John Patitucci and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band.
Castañeda displays bewildering dexterity on his instrument, often producing multi-instrumental textures and rhythms. The latter is often the product of necessity. The harp, like other instruments such as the double bass, does not naturally lend itself to a solo role. Hence, amplification takes on paramount importance. With acoustic bass players, this generally means the player incorporates upper register notes in the solo to enhance the bass’s appeal. Castañeda opts for a more demanding line of attack. “I sometimes play three instruments – the piano, guitar and bass,” he explains. “I mix up the textures, and I have to use special amplification.”
Watching Castañeda playing solo is a captivating experience, and it is often hard to believe there is only one instrument being played.
Castañeda has released two CDs under his own name – Cuarto de Colores and Entre Cuerdas. Rather than stick to the tried and tested jazz standard route, he has carved out his own niche. “I play original material. I try to create my own music, which comes from my cultural background and the things I have learned along the way.”
His output is enhanced by the work of his wife. “Andrea is a singer and a poet,” he says. “She writes lyrics for my music, and she also recites poetry at our concerts. We work well together.”Edmar Castañeda’s concerts: October 27 at 9 p.m at Abba Hushi House in Haifa (04) 822-7850; October 29 at 9 p.m at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem (02) 623-7000 and *6226; October 30 at Zappa Herzliya, doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m. 1- 700-500-039 and (03) 573-3001; November 1 at 9 p.m. & November 2 at 9:30 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Museum, 1- 700-500-039 and (03) 573-3001; November 3 at 9 p.m. at Merkaz Habama, Ganei Tikva, Tel Aviv (03) 737-5777.