For Pavelid and Edmar Castaneda, father and son harpists from Bogotá, Colombia, overcoming obstacles with the harp has been a family tradition. This Sunday, Edmar, a rising international jazz artist, will join his father, Chapel Hill-based Pavelid, for their first-ever duo concert at The ArtsCenter. But their journey to the stage hasn't always been easy.
"I bought my first harp in 1980, when Edmar was just 2 years old," says Pavelid, who remembers his son crawling around it. A year later, when Pavelid tried to enroll in music school, they put a stop to his dreams of majoring in harp. "Harp wasn't accepted at my college. So I had to forget the harp and start playing piano."
For the next 12 years, he played piano in salsa bands to make a living. But when he sought a new life in the States, it was the harp that helped him make the leap from an entry-level immigrant job in a kitchen on Long Island to performing.
"I told the restaurant owner I could play some instruments, and he said, 'If you can play harp, I can move you into the dining room.' That night I called my wife in Colombia and said, 'Clean my harp, and bring it to me. It's the only way I can survive here.'"
Finally given a regular outlet for his playing, Pavelid began honing his technique, taking lessons with well-known harpists and translating all the music from his salsa days to harp—and before that, his long-haired rock 'n' roll days.
"When I was young, I played electric guitar, so I started playing some music by Santana, and I just loved it," he says. "It was the '70s. I had long hair—very hippy style. Santana is still in my repertoire."
In 1994, 16-year-old Edmar joined his father from Colombia, where he'd already been playing llanera harp.
"When I went to high school in New York, I met jazz. I fell in love with that music," Edmar reminisces.
But, in a déjà vu of his father's career, harp wasn't considered a jazz instrument in his high school or college, so he switched to trumpet to learn jazz vocabulary and improvisation. What Edmar learned from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis by day, he translated to the harp by night—playing that same Long Island restaurant his father did.
"Because I was playing solo harp, I was forced to find a way to play all the parts," Edmar says. "What I introduced to harp improvisation is groove, you know. You need to have groove to improvise. You need it all: improvisation, groove and the bass lines—to play as a bass player, too [on the harp] is something new. At that restaurant, that's where I created all that."
Edmar starting going to Latin jam sessions—places where strict rules applied about who could play, and where the first reaction to a harp was often skepticism.
"The first time I showed up, they said, 'Can you play another instrument?' And I said, 'No no, man, let me just try it, and if it doesn't work I'll leave, man.' And I started playing and it was great," recalls Edmar. Now, nine years later, he's a staple of New York's Latin jazz scene, championed by Cuban jazzman Paquito D'Rivera.
"It's a little difficult for me to play with Edmar. I know who he is playing the harp," says Pavelid, acknowledging his son's stature as an artist. "But we are good friends, and we work together, and he advises me on what to do, and I advise him."
"This is the first time we're going to play together as a harp duo. It's very special for me," adds Edmar. "We're going to do a mix of traditional and original music to tell our story, to show how it developed and where we came from."
"They say that angels played the harp," Edmar says. "But we can party with the angels, too."
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger is a contributor to Onda Carolina.