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High voltage Venezuelan harp.

It was just another casual outing for an eight year old boy and his father, but for Caracas native Carlos Guedes, it may have been the most important trip of his life. At a bustling street corner in the Venezuelan capital, the youngster stopped to marvel at sounds he had never before heard -- the rhythmically robust, majestic waves of notes produced by a single musician on an instrument Carlos was seeing for the first time.

It was the Arpa Llanera (llanera harp), one of Venezuela's most distinctive folk instruments, interpreting the joropo music of the countryside. The youth was enthralled. "This is what I want to play," he announced to his father, who suspected the fascination would eventually fade like other childhood dreams. But the dream quickly became an obsession, and the Caracas boy would grow up to become one of his nation's most celebrated modern musicians.

By the time he got his first harp and started formal lessons at age 11, Carlos was already something of an accomplished musician. By age five, he had begun to learn how to play the fourstring cuatro, a small guitar native to his country. Expertise on the full-size Spanish guitar and bass followed. Like many other aspiring Venezuelan musicians, Carlos also sang and played a variety of percussion instruments. Indeed, his many talents and dark good looks almost succeeded in detouring him from his self-appointed musical mission in life. By choosing to remain true to his goals, Carlos may have passed up a chance at popular stardom.

"CBS Records in Venezuela was looking for a young singer who played the guitar," Carlos recalls. An executive with the company pressed Guedes to take the offer. "He said, 'Carlos, I can make you famous,' but I told him, 'No, I don't want that image.'"

By the time he had graduated from high school, Carlos' obsession to master the harp literally ruled his day-to-day life. "For almost two years," he remembers, "I told my mother and father that I needed to practice as much as I could. So, I was practicing all day, just taking time out for quick meals. After dinner, I'd practice some more and then go to bed. I didn't watch TV. I didn't want to go out with my friends. I didn't go out with my girl friend. Nothing! Every time they called, I told my mother to tell them I wasn't there! I did that for almost two years because I wanted to be the best harpist in the world."

The music that Guedes fell in love with is the product of a culture deeply steeped in Old World Spanish traditions and invirogated by a wealth of New World innovations. Although overshadowed on the world stage by the musical identities of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, Venezuela is home to a surprising variety of folk music and boasts some of the Western Hemisphere's most unusual rhythms.

This unique musical heritage has been shaped by both the geography and ethnically diverse population of the country. Venezuela, like its neighbor Colombia, is where the Andes and the Caribbean collide. But unlike Colombia, Venezuela has been subtly influenced by the proximity of strongly contrasting societies, like the English-speaking island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. That no doubt accounts for the presence of a calypso-style music performed on steel drums in the area around Ciudad Bolivar.

At the northern most extreme of the Andean mountain chain, Venezuela presents a variety of highlands folk music different from the traditional form heard throughout the mountainous regions of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Rather than the bamboo pan pipe, Venezuelan natives use traditional flutes. The commonplace charango guitar, so visible in areas like the Bolivian altiplano, is also absent.

On Margarita Island, a Venezuelan Caribbean resort destination, the local music, Polo Margariteno, is strummed on mandolins. Elsewhere, Afro-Cuban tropical music has a large following. For almost half a century, a band called Billo's Caracas Boys has been a respected exponent of the tropical sound, while bassist Oscar De Leon's salsa group is one of the movement's hottest attractions today.

Even Venezuela's historically close relationship with the Dominican Republic has produced a hybrid--a continental version of the island nation's native music, the merengue, only rendered quite differently in a brisk 5/4 rhythm. Add to all the jazzy, sophisticated style called onda nueva (new wave), largely the invention of national symphony director Aldemaro Romero in the late 1960s, and a picture emerges of a country with an abundance of musical expressions.

Yet it is the image of the harpist and the deceptively complex rhythms of the joropo, pasaje and gaita that most successfully capture the eseence of the Venezuelan musical personality. When Carlos Guedes combined the folkloric music of his country with jazz and improvisational music, a wealth of new possibilities opened up. But it wasn't easy, and there were some who looked upon his new venture as a kind of heresy.

"When I was 13, a friend played a jazz recording for me by Oscar Peterson (the famous Canadian pianist)," Carlos says today. "When I heard that music, I said, 'Wow. This is excellent!' I loved the harmonies, and I said to myself, 'This is what I want to play.'"

But his chosen instrument, the llanera harp, posed strong limitations. Being diatonic (tuned to one key), he could not modulate from one key to another, and could not create the harmonies he heard on recordings by Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and other jazzmen. Finally, exposure to the music of French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in the mid '70s galvanized his concept. "I really liked Ponty because he had converted an acoustic instrument into an electric instrument." Today, Guedes' wooden harp, essentially a folk instrument, has been electrified to capture the best of both worlds.

In 1981, Guedes travelled to the U.S. to continue his formalized study of music--first at the University of Nebraska and later at North Texas State. Initially, he had planned to attend the internationally famous jazz college in Boston, the Berklee School of Music, but learned to his great dismay, that it had no jazz harp program. When he attempted to seek out Dorothy Ashby, the long reigning queen of the small jazz harp colony in the U.S., he learned that the musician had passed away just months earlier.

By the time he travelled to Germany on tour in 1983, his skills were equal to Switzerland's world renowned harpist, Andreas Vollenweider, one of the cronwed princes of the New Age movement.

"Someone who heard me play in one German city said, 'Hey, you sound like Andreas,'" Guedes laughs. "At the time, I didn't even know who he was -- I had to look for his recordings in the stores to find out. Later, we got together and found out we were doing many of the same things -- it was really amazing."

Unlike Vollenweider and Deborah Henson-Conat, a popular New Age artist who plays the larger classical harp, Guedes uses a finger nail technique with his right hand, to produce the melody and improvise, and the nail of his left hand to sharpen his attack and produce a brighter sound.

His technique is similar to that of another young Latin American artist, Paraquayan Carlos Reyes, who is working to make the harp a more accepted instrument in jazz and popular music. Reyes also plays a non-chromatic instrument, but the better known harp of Paraguay is significantly different. "I don't know how people play that harp," Guedes marvels. "I've tried, but it's very uncomfortable"

Today, with his trio Desvio (detour), Guedes is creating music that is as charming as it is original. "Potentially New Age, the collection is saved from that spongy fate by Guedes' facile technique and the snappy, dense rhythms the group employs," is how one critic described his debut recording.

That album, Churun Meru (the indigenous word for Angel Falls), casually mixes jazz, Brazilian and Cuban styles with the joropo and other Venezuelan influences. With guitarist Tim Kobza, an old college friend, and Sao Paulo-born drummer Tonico Vanalli, Desvio is bringing at least a hint of Venezuelan music to the U.S. for the first time in years.

But at home, not everyone has been open to the new approach. "Some of the musicians there who play the traditional styles thought I was destroying the folklore of the country," says the Dallas, Texas-based Guedes. "But my reaction is that I'm looking for other ways to enhance our music and to give it more beauty. When people in Venezuela hear my music, they can hear the joropo style in the way I combine the notes."

Perhaps it's true that such legendary Venezuelan harpists as Juan Vincente Torrealba, composer of "Por El Camino Real," a classic of the genre, would be momentarily puzzled by some of Guedes' concepts. But the musician's bond to his roots is secure.

"It's how I grew up, so I want to keep that feeling in my music," Guedes says without apology. He believes his originality and upbeat spirit will win and keep fans, both in Venezuela and throughout the world. "I hope my music hits everyone's heart, because I feel great, and I hope I can give that feeling to people!"

Contributing editor Mark Holston, a lifelong musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:Music
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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