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Edmar Casteneda

By Paul Dryden
Published January 23, 2008

Since 1994, Edmar Casteneda has been dazzling New York City audiences with his Peruvian harp playing, often providing melody, lead and rhythm in one fell swoop.

Extending from the foothills of the Andes mountain range in eastern Colombia, the plains of Los Llanos are home to a genre called musica llanera (plains music). More than two centuries ago, the Spanish introduced the harp to this cowboy culture, and it somehow became the percussion backbone to their musical and dance traditions. Now, Colombian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda has taken the instrument even further by redefining its place in modern jazz music.

The harp first inspired Castaneda at age 7, when he began performing the popular joropo dance, which is dominated by the music of the Colombian harp. After he turned 13, he decided to learn how to play the difficult instrument, and enlisted the help of friends and local musicians.

In 1994, Castaneda moved to New York, where he started a regular restaurant gig on Long Island that would help shape his original style. “That was my school of harp,” he explains. “I played solo interpretations of international music, so I was looking for ways to play all the parts of songs without a band. I figured out that the harp can make two instrument sounds in one.” Playing heavy bass lines with his left hand and picking melodies (and improvising solos) with his right, Castaneda creates a rhythmic pulse that surges with a bright, flamenco-like sound.

Although the harp is most often played in classical or folk settings, Castaneda’s unique style quickly drew acclaim on the international jazz scene. Jazz legends Nelson Gonzalez and John Scofield recruited him for live dates, and Czech-born singer Marta Topferova has worked with him in folk settings. Meanwhile, Grammy-award winning saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera took Castaneda under his wing. “Paquito has been a great inspiration and help for me in my career,” Castaneda says. “It’s fun playing with him and he is always teaching me something new.”

Castaneda’s explosive live show has recently expanded to a trio with trombonist Marshall Gilkes and percussionist David Silliman (Castaneda’s wife, Colombian singer Andrea Tierra, often sits in). After performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and on the European festival circuit, the group embarked on their first tour across Colombia. “The people at home here have received us so well,” Castaneda says warmly. “It’s very exciting to finally be playing my own country.”