Edmar Castañeda: the Colombian who is making the harp hip
The virtuoso, who plays jazz infused with the traditional sounds of his homeland, is changing perceptions of his chosen instrument
Edmar Castañeda: ‘They sent me pictures of all these little kids playing my harp, and I thought: that’s amazing, one day I was like that’
Airport security being what it is these days, there are probably easier things to drag around the world than a full-sized harp. But when it comes to dealing with check-in counters, harpist Edmar Castañeda has a cheesy line that works every time. “I just walk up to the check-in desk with my big fibreglass case,” says the Colombian virtuoso, “and I smile at them and say ‘Hey, I’m an angel playing the harp, can you help me ?’”
There is something almost angelic about the way Castañeda plays the harp, making one pair of hands sound like two or three, creating intense cross-rhythms that defy expectations about such an apparently sedate instrument. It’s a virtuosity born of sustained and intense application, and one imagines a back story of childhood prodigality. But in fact, growing up poor in Bogotá, he couldn’t afford a harp; it was dancing that initially filled his head with music.
“When I was seven, my aunt Edilma told my mother about these free dance classes that were happening in the neighbourhood, and my mother enrolled my sister and I,” says the harpist. “So we learned the dances of musica llanera, the traditional music of the plains of Colombia and Venezuela. That is played on the llanera harp with cuatro [a four-stringed guitar] and maracas. My aunt Edilma actually had a harp in her home, which she let me play sometimes. The first time I saw it, I said, ‘Wow man, that is the instrument I want to play’.”
Move to New York
When Castañeda finally got his hands on aunt Edilma’s harp at the age of 13, he began to apply the rhythms and melodies he had learned in his dance lessons to his new instrument. Then, three years later, his family moved to New York, and he found himself enrolled in a Long Island high school.
“It was like a movie, man,” says Castañeda laughing, “I couldn’t speak any English, so I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I was just watching everyone else, and when they moved, I moved.”
He soon found himself playing trumpet in the school band, and, after graduation, he enrolled at Five Towns College in New York, ostensibly to study jazz trumpet. But every night, he would go to a local restaurant and play his harp to earn cash, and it was there that he began to piece together his individual hybrid of jazz and musica llanera.
“Whatever I learned during the day, I tried it out on the harp at night. Because it was a solo gig, I was forced to find a way to play all the parts. So that’s when I created this style, playing the bass lines and playing the melodies at the same time.”