The Accidental Harpist

For more than 20 years, I’ve played the Venezuelan & Paraguayan harps with the ‘Bahareque’ Latin American Rhythms Band. During that time, the group has produced several albums, toured in France, Italy, Spain and ( most memorably, to a TV audience of 8 million ) Bulgaria, performed at gigs (large & small) around the UK and held down a regular venue at La Rueda Spanish restaurant in the Kings Road. The rest of the line-up ( initially Chilean during the Pinochet protest era but thereafter mainly Argentinian, Bolivian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian & Venezuelan ) has fluctuated in accordance with the musicians’ visa circumstances. Some achieved permanent residence, others had to return home once the Home Office decreed their time was up. Currently there are three Colombians ( lead vocals, guitar & bandola ), a Bolivian ( zampona & pan-pipes ) and a Venezuelan ( cuatro ).

The unifying factor among all of them ( & their predecessors ) is that they are consummate and accomplished instrumentalists. Many of them honed their talents at conservatories back home before coming to this country. Yet who tends to be the focus of attention on stage and gets the accolades from the audience? The one who only occasionally produces a semi-tone ( achieved by pressing a finger-nail or ring-key onto a string to shorten it ). Unlike its European concert counterpart, the Latin American harp traditionally doesn’t have pedals ( though these are now being introduced in Paraguay ), so changing key while in action isn’t usually an option. If the lead singer wants to alternate from E to G to F during a concert, three separate harps have to be prepared and conveyed to the event.

An additional complication ( and risk ) when switching over from Venezuelan to Paraguayan harp in between numbers is that the string space on the former is wider (and the tension slacker ) so the hands have to be promptly bunched up to avoid hitting the wrong notes. It doesn’t help much either if the colours denoting the octaves are different, though this can anyway be rendered totally irrelevant if the auditorium features revolving & flashing illumination, which is often the case. The only solution then is not too look at the strings at all while playing – normal practice in Mexico where the top ten ( which what they mainly use ) are invariably multi-coloured.

The treble strings on the Venezuelan harp are more prone to breaking ( predictably, five minutes before a concert is due to begin ) but much easier to change under pressure as they are threaded through rivets mounted on the side of the instrument’s neck. On the Paraguayan harp, they have to be pushed up through the centre ( by means of a straw ) and then wrapped around the correct bolt – a far more complicated ( and stressful ) procedure.

Acquiring a Paraguayan harp ( whether imported or constructed in the UK ) is fairly straightforward: there is no shortage of suppliers. The current going price is around £600 and upwards. Finding a ‘llanero’ harp ( from the Venezuelan or Colombian plains ) presents far more of a challenge. The surest way is to take an off-season BA flight to Caracas and then head for the capital’s ‘ranchitos’ ( shanty towns ). There a decent harp can be purchased for the equivalent of £50 plus the cost of the box to bring it back as accompanied luggage. On both types of harp it is possible to screw legs into the base of the instrument and so play standing up alongside everyone else. Indeed it can feel ( & look ) distinctly odd being the only one sitting down. There is a Paraguayan Harp Weekend every summer in Oxfordshire attended by 30-40 enthusiasts but no equivalent event for the handful of ‘llanera’ harpists in Britain There are said to be more Paraguayan harps in Japan than anywhere else (apart from Paraguay itself ). A move has been initiated to have Paraguay declared ‘The World Capital of the Harp”, which might not be too well received in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile. Or indeed in Ireland & Wales, where the harp also forms an important part of their culture and history.

In Paraguay, they are by now accustomed to overseas ‘aficionados’ arriving to buy a harp or take instruction. In Caracas, a foreigner turning up for a harp lesson at a ‘Casa de Juventud’ is still likely to be greeted with some bewilderment and probably re-directed to the percussion department. In my case, the teacher ( Ramon Narvaez, a virtuoso musician well-known in Venezuela ) finally relented and handed over a harp. There were at least another twenty students, also all with harps. Ramon would demonstrate a technique or sequence which everyone would then attempt to replicate. Desultory attempts at learning the violin & cello and brief illusions of emulating Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano had come to naught. But Juan Vicente Torrealba ( composer of a vast range of melodies including ‘Concierto en La Llanura’ and the doyen of Venezuelan harpists ) on early morning Caraqueno radio was riveting, a revelation.

Memorising chord positions, co-ordinating the base & treble plus a genuine feel for joropos and merengues were the initial essential criteria. Six months later and well past the blistered finger-tips & aching hands stage, it was already possible to perform classics such as ‘Josefina’ & ‘Tonada Venezolana’ with full backing accompaniment. Though being groomed for the first appearance by an ‘arpista ingles’ on national TV, the stint as BBC World Service correspondent was almost over and it was time to leave.

Until 2001, aspiring students ( London-based & beyond ) of the Latin-American harp would beat a path to the door of a Welshman living in Harrow: the late Bill Morgan. One-time flamenco guitar tutor to Paco Pena, he acquired his first harp in 1957 at a cost of £100 ( to his wife’s considerable annoyance: it was a considerable sum in those days). In the intervening years he became indisputably the senior figure on the UK Paraguayan harp scene, much admired by top Paraguayan harpists such as Sergio Cuevas, Alfredo Rolando Ortiz and Luis Alberto de Parana (of Los Paraguayos fame).

The transition from a thoroughly ingrained ‘joropo’ tempo on the base hand, firstly to Chilean cuecas then to polkas, guaranis, guajiras and cumbias could only have been achieved by the subtle and patient moulding of the ‘Narvaez method’ to the ‘Morgan style’. As a bonus, Bill discovered Venezuelan music ( notably Hugo Blanco and his hit melody ‘Moliendo Café’) and subsequently named his band ( ‘Los Madrigales’ ) after the Venezuelan waltz ‘Madrigal’.

The name ‘Bahareque’ originates from the ‘barro’ (earth) traditionally used for constructing houses in the ‘llanos’ (plains) of Venezuela & Colombia. The title is an expression of the group’s commitment to conveying the heart & soul of ‘musica folklorica latina’ to both Latin & non-Latin audiences. This is especially appropriate now, when countries across Latin America are experiencing a resurgence of pride in their roots, indigenous culture and traditions – in which the harp ( albeit initially introduced by the Spanish ‘conquistadores’ to buttress the hymns during Mass ) has occupied a significant role. For Venezuela & Paraguay, the harp is a symbol, an integral part of their national identity.

Filed under: Biographical | Posted on May 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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