Trending: Harp Music in Latin America

Tatiana, 14, and Sergio Nicolas, 15

Harplist friends and others,

Latin American harp music is “trending” - growing in popularity. I'm convinced.(see Youtube links below for evidence)

I'm in Day 14 here in Bogotá, two weeks into this 5-week adventure. I'm being treated like a king by Hildo Ariel and his family at Academia Llano y Joropo. Each day, DOZENS of musicians filter through the establishment. Young and old (mostly young), all ages and skill levels.

Why do I insist that harp music – specifically, the joropo tradition of Colombia and Venezuela – is solidly grounded and growing?

Well, three examples would be the young people involved. I posted Youtube videos in the last couple of days: eight-year-old Martin Cortés; 10-year-old Juliana Gomez; and the combo of 11-year-old Pablo Enrique Camacho and 13-year-old Juan Zambrano. These are just a few of the dozen or more sub-teens who are already advanced in the tradition. When they grow up, they will make their marks.

In 2013, the Academia celebrated 25 years in operation as a private music school. In that time, Hildo Ariel claims that 4000 students have come and gone. He says that when he started, there were in Bogotá perhaps 15 harpists making a living as musicians; now he thinks there are at least 250. Many of them, perhaps most, got their start, directly or indirectly, at Academia Llano y Joropo.

After 14 days I can glimpse the weekly routine. Each morning, recorded music begins before 8 AM. As morning progresses, family members and visitors begin musical practice, but it remains relatively quiet in that no more than two or three people are playing simultaneously. After almuerzo (a full lunch), it may actually be quiet for an hour of siesta.

Through mid-afternoon and evening, there is a crescendo of activity. After school, after work, the place fills with children and adults. Amid the noise (bulla in Spanish) of everyone playing at once, individuals practice, listening closely to their own instruments. Groups of two or three may clump together. Hildo Ariel rotates among the students, instructing. A relatively isolated space for groups is the garage, which is really just a separate room in the house.

On Friday evening, there is a meeting of Arpas de Colombia, a group made up of a dozen or more harps, several cuatros, and several participants playing maracas. This group is currently rehearsing for a public event set for September. After rehearsal, individuals come forward for performance practice, with the group as an audience. Hildo Ariel instructs them on fine points of a gracious presentation, such as pleasant expression, eye contact and stage position.

Saturday is the busiest day. Parents show up with younger children, who are given special attention by all present. These children are brought by their parents, and in some cases a parent takes the opportunity to begin or to resume instruction as an adult student. There are refreshments for all.

Sunday is a day reserved for family, but of course, it is a musical family so there is always music.

In conclusion, this musical tradition is alive and well. Furthermore, this is no revival, but a continuation and resurgence of a centuries-old tradition. I must wonder why music historians do not pay more attention to Latin American harps. This music clearly has roots in Spanish and Arabic culture of the 16th century. Whereas the harp in Europe was displaced by keyboard and other instruments, in Latin America the tradition has continued unbroken to the present day.

And I'm happy to say, once again, that joropo music is trending.