TRANCOSO, Brazil – A Colombian-born harp virtuoso who this week brought his intriguing blend of Latin folk, classical and jazz to a festival in Brazil sees endless possibilities for fusing different musical styles and traditions.
“Mixing popular music and classical music through jazz is a way of connecting with people. It’s showing them who Mozart is, who Miles Davis is, and telling them that you can combine them with Brazilian popular music or any other,” Edmar Castañeda said in an interview with EFE after participating in the Music in Trancoso festival in the northeastern state of Bahia.
The 41-year-old Bogota native is a master of the llanos’ harp, an instrument central to joropo, a popular musical style and accompanying dance that originated in Venezuela and later spread to Colombia.
“I was born to play the harp. It’s a gift from God. I was introduced to it at the age of seven while studying joropo dance at a school in Colombia. I learned to dance and there the instrument was,” Castañeda said.
The musician’s hands move at a frenetic pace, caressing the 35 strings of this ancient instrument and revolutionizing how audiences and critics perceive the harp.
On stage, Castañeda takes romantic and religious chords and melodies and fuses them with Latin rhythms through the improvisation of jazz.
Over the course of 28 years, he has found musical diversity to be the “trick” for hooking people on orchestral music.
Castañeda, who received his first harp from an aunt at the age of 13, began studying jazz when his family moved three years later to New York in 1994, and it was there that he became enamored with the music of Louis Armstrong, considered the founding father of that genre.
Going on to absorb the sounds of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Jaco Pastorius, the Colombian forged his own musical style, which consisted of making the llanos’ harp sound like a bass, a guitar or a piano depending on the manner in which his supple hands pluck the instrument.
Castañeda currently is traveling the world as part of a jazz trio that also includes Israeli saxophonist Shlomi Cohen and Colombian percussionist Rodrigo Villalon.
The recording artist performed this month for just the second time in Brazil, giving concerts in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as well as at the Trancoso festival and offering audiences a mixture of Latin jazz, samba, flamenco, funk and other sounds he experimented with in New York City.
A critically acclaimed artist who has been dubbed the “Messi of the harp,” Castañeda has performed at Carnegie Hall, the DC Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the world’s leading jazz festivals.
He also has played his llanos’ harp alongside major jazz figures such as Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield and John Patitucci and performed alongside his wife, vocalist Andrea Tierra.
Castañeda says another mission of his is to teach music to his two children.
“I believe the music young people are hearing today is of little quality. That’s why it’s good to show them (cultural reference points) and encourage them to leave behind something beautiful in the future,” he said.