A harp by any other name

Colombian-born harpist Edmar Castañeda will perform a diverse range of genres with the Israel Camerata.

Castañeda and his harp (photo credit: Courtesy)
Castañeda and his harp
(photo credit: Courtesy)

 Not too many people would think of a harp as a solo instrument, and certainly not in the way that Edmar Castañeda puts it out. That view may change radically after the 35-year-old Colombian-born US resident musician brings his instrument and artistic guile to these shores next week to perform with the Israel Camerata.

As far as Castañeda is concerned, barriers are there to be pushed back and melded rather than used to define, and confine, some style or genre. That is reflected in the repertoire for the harpist’s four-date tour here with the Jerusalem-based ensemble, with shows lined up between January 21 and 25 in Jerusalem, Karmiel, Kfar Saba and Tel Aviv. The program typically covers expansive chronological and stylistic terrain, taking in a work by Italian Baroque composer Domenico Zipoli, 20th-century Argentinean nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s compatriot contemporary classical composer Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes for Chamber Orchestra op. 23, and a couple of works written by the harpist himself – Jesus of Nazareth and the world premiere of A la Tierra, dedicated to his wife.
Castañeda comes from the requisite musical stock. He started out on the harp at age 13, although he wasn’t necessarily following in the footsteps of his father, celebrated harp player and vocalist Pavelid Castañeda.
“I actually never lived with my father as a kid,” says Castañeda.
“My parents separated when I was very young. I learned the harp in Colombia with a friend for a couple of months, and after that I just worked things out for myself.”
Although 13 might sound pretty young for trying to come to grips with such a hefty-looking instrument, Castañeda says it is very much a personal thing.
“My daughter is only four, and she is already learning to play the harp,” he points out, with more than a hint of paternal pride. “We are keeping the family tradition going.”
As a teenager, Castañeda largely imbibed the folk sounds of his native country, but all that changed when he relocated to the US.
“I moved to the United States when I was 16 and met jazz for the first time,” he recalls, adding that another instrumental avenue helped to pave the way to the intricacies of African American improvised music.
“I studied trumpet when I was in high school, and when I fell in love with jazz I wanted to study it but there was nowhere I could study jazz harp, so I played the trumpet at college. I played the trumpet during the day and tried all of that out on my harp at a restaurant where I played six nights a week. I always played the harp and tried to adapt the language of jazz to it. The trumpet was sort of a bridge that helped bring whatever I’d learned in jazz to the harp,” he explains.
Considering the stark contrast between the sound and way of playing the trumpet and the harp, one imagines it would take some leap of faith to transfer jazz sentiments from the former to the latter.
“There is absolutely no similarity between the two instruments,” Castañeda admits, “but the trumpet gave me this feeling of how to improvise with a big band or a trio. I had never had that before. It was like learning a new language.”
Castañeda has been doing that with gusto for some years now.
Watching him pluck at the harp, it is not difficult to get a sense of his ceaseless efforts to explore new ground and to go where no harpist has gone before, so to speak. His debut recording, Entre Cuerdas, which was released in 2006, fuses folkloric elements typically associated with the arpa llanera, or plains harp, from Venezuela.
But there is much more to Castañeda’s sonic palette, which also takes in African and Brazilian rhythms and tango and flamenco, as well as the music of iconic jazz alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Chick Corea.
Castañeda feels that his auto-didactic approach to the harp has given him a more unfettered approach to expressing himself musically.
“I never had a harp teacher, so I just figured my own way around the harp from other musicians and other instruments,” he says.
That certainly comes across in his performances. He appears to attack the harp from a unique physical and mental angle. It is not difficult to imagine him setting off on a long, meandering improvised solo or even letting fly on some feral rock departure a la Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend.
Castañeda attributes part of that to the way he utilizes technology, and the rest to dexterity.
“I found a way to mic the harp so it sounds different in different situations,” he explains. “You can use a classical sound with a big ensemble. But it is also down to the way I play the harp. I can use my left hand as a space player, like on a guitar or a piano, and I play [with my right hand] at the same time. That way, I can produce two or three instrument sounds at the same time.”
Most audiences might be surprised by what Castañeda produces on an instrument more readily associated with Celtic or classical music, although it must be said that the musician is not the first to take the harp into the jazz domain. Jazz pianist Alice Coltrane experimented with the instrument in the 1960s and, three decades earlier, Casper Reardon took what is probably the first recorded jazz harp solo on trombonist Jack Teagarden’s “Junk Man.” That venture paved the way for Adele Girard to take the jazz harp to new heights in the Swing and Dixieland genres.
And in the 1950s, Betty Glamann performed on Duke Ellington’s 1956 album A Drum Is a Woman.
His predecessors notwithstanding, Castañeda says he does his best to educate audiences about the musical possibilities offered by the harp.
“For me, it is a way to show a different face of the harp, a different way of playing an instrument that is not very popular, so it’s great to take it to different places in the world,” he says.
A couple of hours before we spoke, Castañeda had returned from Tokyo, where he performed with Cuban-born jazz pianist Gonzala Rubalcaba. He maintains a pretty busy globetrotting schedule. Castañeda last performed here with the Camerata four years ago and says he is delighted to be coming back.
“There is something special about Jerusalem and Israel. You read all this stuff about violence and conflict there, but I felt wonderful in Israel last time.
Things were calm, and the people were great. I got the impression that Israelis are open-minded people, which is good for me,” he says.
Edmar Castañeda will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on January 21 (8 p.m.); Heichal Hatarbut in Karmiel on January 22 (8:30 p.m.); Kfar Saba on January 23 (8:30 p.m.); and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on January 25 (8 p.m.).
For tickets and more information: (02) 560-5755; (04) 988-1111; (09) 764- 0810’ and 1-700-552-000