By Liza Wallace, a student in the IU Jacobs School of Music Harp Department
Harp music exists in almost every ancient culture, the most famous probably being the traditional Celtic harp, but harps are found in the histories of ancient Egypt, West Africa, Mexico, and many countries in South America including Venezuela. As a young girl, I started my harp training with San Francisco Bay Area harpist, composer, musical director, and head of the Multi-Cultural Music Fellowship, Diana Stork, who emphasized learning traditional harp music and instructed me almost entirely by ear. Of all the forms of music she taught me, the energetic music of Venezuela spoke to me the most. The intricate rhythms and driving melodies influenced my musical development as a performer and composer and I have always wanted to learn more of this music and discover why it makes me feel so alive. Under the sponsorship of the Multi-Cultural Music Fellowship, I traveled to Venezuela in July for three weeks in order to study with two Venezuelan harpists.
I spent the first portion of my journey with Angel Tolosa in Caracas. Starting his professional career in his early teens, his work is deeply rooted in the Venezuelan music and dance traditions. However, he has developed a unique dynamic yet lyrical style of playing, creating an extraordinary musical dialogue with his ensemble, Ensamble A Contratiempo. Each day, I had a two-three hour lesson in the morning. We would work on one or two new pieces each class in addition to a variety of the hand techniques. I was so inspired watching his hands. He would improvise using the songs he taught me, making up more and more complex variations, his hands moving faster and faster across the strings. I wanted to say, “Teach me all that right now”, but I just had to breathe and think, “One step at a time Liza, one step at a time.” At the end of each lesson, Angel would accompany me in order that I felt the syncopation between the rhythms of the harp and the rhythms of the cuatro. This helped tremendously not only to cement what I had just learned in my lesson but also to understand the unique interplay of the rhythms in Venezuelan music.
The traditional Venezuelan ensemble consists of arpa llanero (“harp of the plains”), cuatro (the small Venezuelan guitar), maracas, and electric bass (a more recent addition so that the bass lines can be heard in larger performance venues). The main classifications of harp music are Joropo, Vals, and Pasaje although within each of these groups are different styles such as Joropo Tuyero or Joropo Andino; Vals Pasaje or Vals Caraqueno. All the harp music is in a ¾ or 6/8 meter and most of the syncopation is created by juxtaposing the feel of two against the feel of three. The different hand techniques are unique and turn the harp into a percussive instrument as well as a melodic and accompanying instrument. The harpists are able to make these surprising sounds by placing their palm against the strings, facing inward or upward instead of downward as is tradition in classical harp technique. The most striking hand technique for me was a growling affect used in various bass lines. The harpist plays a very fast arpeggio followed by an immediate muffle. Unlike in classical harp playing, this muffle is rough and unclean so that the strings strike against each other and against the harpist’s hands. Other common techniques include playing very close to the arch of the harp only with the thumbs to create a sort of twanging walking bass line. I loved one technique where the harpist actually uses the harp as a drum, alternating between playing a chord and tapping the side of the harp. In general, most of the bass or left hand techniques are designed to make the harp sound like a drum, imitating the hissing sound of the maracas, the scraping sound of the guido, or the thump of the tambora. Although the right hand is mostly devoted to the melody, the artistry of the harpist exists in how many different variations of that melody he/she can make up. The variations become more and more complex, utilizing wickedly fast arpeggios, leaping octaves, repeated chords, and syncopated rhythms. Playing this music develops independence between the two hands as they very seldom play the same rhythm. I found myself walking down the street muttering “un, dos, tres, un, dos, tres”, practicing emphasizing the “tres” instead of the “un”.
Venezuelan music is immensely festive but at the same time, it contains all the components that make up life. The melodies express sadness and grief as well as happiness and release. The strong bass lines reflect connection to the earth. The intense rhythms illustrate the tension and fire of this very masculine culture and the hardships in its history. One of my favorite moments was sitting at a table with Angel Tolosa in a restaurant when we had dinner with his family and practicing the technique of using the harp as a drum. We treated the table as the side of the harp and the air as the strings. For Angel’s wonderful family and apparently everyone else in the restaurant, this was completely normal which speaks to the wonder of music in Venezuela. It is not something to be placed outside of the home or the work place. In Venezuela, music is as common as food but as valuable as gold.