Colombian Harp All-Star Edmar Castaneda Changes the Game for His Instrument

Lorenzo Duaso
Edmar Castaneda

Castaneda teams with Japanese pianist Hiromi for new live album and North American tour

Performing at the 2017 Barcelona Voll-Damm Jazz Festival on Oct. 18, Japanese pianist Hiromi and Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda had the audience leaning forward in their seats with the kind of expectation displayed in the stands at a fútbol game. “Edmar is the Messi of the harp,” Hiromi cracked fittingly during the two-hour set, an exhilarating show during which the two musicians, in the words of Castaneda, alternately grooved and prayed through their instruments. Hiromi and Castaneda have together just released an album, Live at Montreal, and will perform several dates in the United States in November. 

Castaneda, like the charismatic and muscular performer Hiromi, is a full contact player. He acrobatically bends his body as he embraces his harp, while his hands athletically move from a caressing strum of the strings to pyrotechnic plucking.

His harp, a state-of-the-art model that bears the initials of his name, is an updated version of the traditional wooden arpa llanera (plains harp) found in Colombia and Venezuela. Evolving from the European harps that came to South America with Jesuit priests in times of the Spanish conquest, the llanera harp is the lead sound of the traditional joropo, the Colombian and Venezuelan country song and dance. Castaneda, who is from Bogota and has lived in New York for 13 years, remembers first dancing the joropo and falling under the spell of the harp when he was seven years old.

By age 13, he had his own harp. When he was 16, Castaneda moved to New York, where his father lived, and was introduced to jazz.

“I fell in love with that music and those musicians,” he said during an interview backstage at Barcelona’s club BARTS, recalling his introduction to the sounds of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Jaco Pastorius and other greats. “That’s when I started working on a new style for playing the harp.” Castaneda, essentially, plays the llanera harp to make it sound like a bass, a guitar or a piano.

“I never think of the harp as a harp,” he explains. “I use my right hand like a bassist, and my left hand like a guitarist or a pianist. It’s like three instruments.”

The EC Llanera, the harp that he developed in collaboration with the French company Camac, features levers at the top of the strings to change keys without retuning the harp, a microphone inside the soundboard, and other changes to the traditional Colombian plains harp.

“It’s an advance for the instrument,” says Castaneda, who over the past two decades has performed with Cuban saxman Paquito D’Rivera, bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist John Scofield, to name just a few. The harpist, who is now 39, notes that both his unorthodox playing and the introduction of the EC Llanera into the market have sparked new interest in the harp from young jazz players in Colombia. He’s also seen a revival of interest in the joropo, whose passionate feeling Castaneda compares to that of flamenco.

“I don’t know why the harp has never been used liked this before, but this way the harp has a lot of options,” he observes. “For me, it’s about showing another side to the harp and giving a new life to an instrument that was forgotten.”

Castaneda will perform with Hiromi at Newark, N.J.’s Victoria Theater on Nov. 5, on Nov. 8 at The Crossing in Norcross, GA; at Jazz Alley in Seattle on Nov. 11 and 12, at The Broad Stage Theater in Santa Monica, CA on Nov. 13, and at San Francisco’s Miner Auditorium from Nov. 16-19.