This story is part of my Soy/Somos series (I am/We are), conversations with Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx in the United States. If you’d like to receive future Soy/Somos, please contact me on my website or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is how Soy/Somos got started: We Are Many.
I recently met a virtuoso harp player who composes what he calls Contemporary Colombian music—a fusion of folkloric melodies from the eastern plains region of Colombia, contemporary classical music, and jazz. I heard him play at a small venue in New York alongside a drummer and a clarinetist. This was music both heavenly and anchored firmly in rhythms I recognized. How do I describe it? Water rushing past stones in a river. Percussive rhythms. An invitation to tap a zapatéo with your feet.
Today we are sitting at a marble “Tulip Table” at the New York City apartment of a mutual friend who is also a musician and prolific writer. The small vestibule is crammed with harps. I also see a cello, a violin, guitar, full-sized keyboard, three recorders. Nico has brought his own, el arpa llanera, also known as the Colombian Harp. It’s a beautiful instrument, a bit smaller than the classical harp, with 32 chords.
Though his English is good, Nico and I slip naturally into Spanish, to the intimacy of our native language.
El Niño Orquesta
Nico, when did you begin playing music?
I was a four years old. I remember the teacher at school—an older woman who moved between us with an accordion while we played on our flautas dulces, plastic recorders. [Literally, this means sweets flutes.] We played songs from Colombia’s coasts on the Atlantic and Pacific. We were in a school for children of employees of ETB, Empresa de teléfonos de Bogotá, the city’s phone company. My mother worked there as operadora de reclamos, like customer service here. The company was famous because it offered so many free benefits to its employees and their children. Healthcare. Travel to school and work. Lunch. Uniforms. Also a vacation club. They wanted students to have art experiences.
When I was seven I moved from the recorder to folkloric percussion. Small drums, maracas, el chucho. That’s the hollow, sugarcane stick with seeds inside. This was the beginning of my adventure with Colombian percussion. At twelve I began with the clarinet, and was lucky to study with Nacor Barón who became director of the Orquesta Lucho Bermúdez, famous in all of Latin America for Colombian folkloric rhythms, boleros, cumbias, porros, and merecumbé. The orchestra would invite me and a few other children to play the clarinet during their band rehearsals. I was like “el niño consentido,” the teacher’s pet. They were very kind to me.
When did you know that music would be the love of your life?
A smile spreads across Nico’s face as he begins to remember. Si. Fué así. Three of us children studying the clarinet were invited to play with the famous band at the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán theatre, one of the most important performing spaces in all of Colombia. I was thirteen. The orchestra director said, “We will all begin together, but there will be a moment when the orchestra disappears behind you. And you boys will be playing solo.”
Having a roomful of people—a thousand people—right in front of me and seeing their happiness as they listened to us three. I knew then that this was for me. Curioso, no?
And the harp?
When I was fourteen, a distant cousin from the eastern plains of Colombia appeared at my house with another cousin who played the harp. “Ese es ‘el niño orquesta,’” they cried out, “the boy orchestra! Let’s make you a bet. If you play the harp for a year, I will give you the harp. If not, you’ll return it to me.” They left the harp at my house. I didn’t have a teacher, so I practiced empírico by ear. Mi papá era amante de música llanera, and so I knew the songs by heart. Música llanera usually involves harp soloing, a cuatro (a four string guitar), fast maracas, also voice and tapatéo.
A teacher at my school told me about a new academy for children and adults called Academia Llano y Joropo. He took me to see it after school. There were two huge rooms and about forty harps. The teacher iba dando ronda, he’d walk around the room from person to person. People of all ages playing at the same time. “Pues aquí te espero. I’ll be waiting here for you,” he said.
I’d go to my school from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m, and from 5 to 6 p.m. to the new academy for harp. I had the unconditional support of my mami, mi super-mamá! In my school at ETB they didn’t give us homework. All the learning was experiential. To understand the concept of Newton’s law, we’d throw an apple around. English was hard for me. We studied physics, electronics, telecommunications. I would take tests, rehearse my music, and travel.
After about a year of studying the harp, I began to participate in music festivals. I would win an award most times. For example, at the Festival Castilla la Nueva I won “mejor artista” in my category as well as “mejor conjunto,” best artist and musical group. I had two brothers, an older and a younger one. The younger one was mi maraquero. He would join me at serenatas, birthday parties, and weddings. He was also studying at the academy. I was earning some money from the time I was fifteen.
So life in Bogotá was lush with music. Why then did you come to the United States?
It all happened because of a bet. The really wonderful Berklee College of Music in Boston would send their musicians to other countries to audition students. Typically they went to Argentina and Ecuador, and in 2012 was the first time they came to Colombia.
By now I’d been studying music for seven years at the Academy of Arts at the Universidad Distrital in Bogotá and needed thirteen more months to complete my requirements. A singer at the University piqued my interest. “Let’s both audition,” she said. “If we get to the United States, we’ll eat a bag of Cheetos at the entrance to Berklee.”
I did very well at the audition—es la verdad. I won a scholarship for half of my tuition for the entire career, with opportunities to add scholarships toward the full tuition. It’s usually a four-year program. I completed it in two and a half to three years. Near the end of my schooling I was able to win a BMI Foundation scholarship. I am very grateful to Oscar Stagnaro, an amazing Peruvian musician.
What other subjects did you study at Berklee?
I did Contemporary History, Sociology, the Civil War in the US. How for example, the music of the Delta and New Orleans provided a transformative expression of the times. I studied the Celtic harp and the music of Ireland. The Celtic harp also has its origins in folkloric tradition. As with the llanera, there are variables, but it is accompanied by a singer and almost always by dance. The harp and the dancers are in conversation. A soloist harp is really something new.
My friend was not selected at audition, but she is still an outstanding musician. I ate the bag of Cheetos alone in front of the school.
“Soy un bicho raro.”
Nico, for the uninitiated, can you explain the folkloric music of Colombia?
It’s music of oral tradition. There are no European annotations, what is called “theory.” Folkloric music is improvisational and relies on its melodies. Because Colombia has a diverse geography, and cities even are separated by mountains and rivers, the folkloric expression is very variable. The music and the lyrics change, but the content always involves flora and fauna and love, and always exists within the socio-political context of the day.
You sound like a professor.
There has always been an attempt to write this music in a more academic way, to play it in church choirs and such. This is one of the things that excites me, creating music annotations not in a European way but in a way coherent with the tradition. Academic attempts in the past have not been able to capture folk music completely.
Soy un bicho raro—an odd kind of bird. I first learned everything empirically. When there was no harp teacher at the Universidad Distrital, I decided to change my emphasis to classical composition. There I negotiated with professors to let me apply the concepts of classical music to Colombian music, so I began studying theory early. At Berklee I studied improvisation in an academic context. I tried to use my knowledge of classical music, jazz composition, and the rich exposure to other students at Berklee to create Colombian musical phrasing in my EP called Renacer, meaning Reborn. I want to conserve Colombian traditions and mix them with swing and jazz from the United States.
So, creating mezcolanzas de cosas fundamentals is one of your aspirations. The other is to return to Colombia with new projects. What are these?
One of them is creating a book for the llanera harp with annotations that can be used for various folkloric instruments, in order to unify that form of expression. Another project is to continue what I started with my Renacer EP that mixes tradition and improvisation. Many musicians in Colombia are now interested in jazz and contemporary music, so I have thirty to forty compositions based on traditions from different regions of Colombia. I want to record them so musicians have them as a reference.
I am open to so much, especially music from Latin America. The music for harp in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, is different. Also in Paraguay and Peru. I would like to travel there and learn.
I’d love to get your thoughts about living in this country. What can you do here in the US that you can’t do there?
I discovered that here in the United States hay un campo de acción mas amplio. There’s a bigger playing field than I could have right now in Colombia. Here we are exposed to music from the entire world. If this existed in our countries in Latin America, we would have a deeper culture, perhaps less war, more education. This is what I love here.
The arpa llanera has opened doors for me because it’s such a unique instrument. In the most difficult moments she has been mi compañera de lucha.
At the same time, the music industry is so difficult. Performing near Boston, New York, and Los Angeles is hard. You have to understand the industry, to be your own representative, the one who negotiates and records, the composer of course, writing, even. Publicity and communications. Booking the venues. You can get exhausted by all this. The artist may be excellent at his music but not good at handling proposals and contracts.
In many cases you play only for tips. I often drive a total of eight hours to a venue. You practice before arriving, carry your instruments to the site. That all might include four hours before you arrive. In other venues the musicians get a percentage of the cover charge. To make a CD the cost is five to six thousand dollars—to sell one thousand copies. A record label wants to make money. Percentages are low. My complaint is that you arrive with a lifetime of effort and then discover that you have to give away your art for free. Musicians don’t dare complain.
Let’s do something to make people more aware, to appreciate the importance of art. In Colombia there is some money destined for artists to play at festivals and contests where they offer, say, $5000 as a prize. But Colombia is moving away from this effort. It’s become more of a business than culture. Art is seen as a commodity. The magic that transports you to another world dies. The importance of art to communicate what is happening in the world deserves support.
Here is Nico’s website, where you can hear more of his music.