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
Like so many New York jazz musicians, Castañeda’s big break came at a jam session. Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson Gonzalez was running a weekly jam session where anyone could get up and play. One night, a young Colombian turned up with a big white case.
“I went up to Nelson and said, ‘Hey, can I sit in ?’ and he said ‘Sure, what instrument do you play ?’ When I said ‘Harp’, he just shook his head and said, ‘Haven’t you got anything smaller?’ I said, ‘No man, but don’t worry. I have it all worked out. Just plug me in and if you like it, great. If not, I will leave’.”
Castañeda didn’t leave. Instead, he became an instant member of the band and so began a career that has seen the genial Colombian go on to share the stage with jazz great Paquito D’Rivera, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and guitarist John Scofield.
Castañeda, now 33, is on the unlikely verge of making the harp hip. His instrument, a customised harp of his own devising, is an adaptation of the traditional Colombian instrument. It allows greater harmonic flexibility, and his technical innovations have proved so successful that his design has gone into production with French harp manufacturers Camac.
“Venezuela recently ordered 20 Edmar Castañeda harps for kids to play in the music education system they have there,” he says proudly. “They sent me pictures of all these little kids playing my harp, and I thought: that’s amazing, one day I was like that.”
But for all the international acclaim and the high-profile collaborations, Castañeda’s proudest moment so far came when he brought his music back to Colombia and to a big auditorium in Santiago de Cali, the hometown of his aunt Edilma who, it turns out, is the real angel of the Castañeda story.
“It was an amazing moment. She was sitting at the front row, so I asked her to stand up and I let the people know that I play the harp because of her. We were both crying. She was just happy to see the results of her passion for music.”
Edmar Castañeda plays
The Sugar Club, Dublin on Sunday, then tours to Bray, Carrick-on-Shannon, Limerick, Clifden and Cork. musicnetwork.ie