CCC Blog

La Habana, Cuba

Little known to some harpists, the harp is a quite versatile and multifaceted instrument. This was proven during the Dutch Harp Competition and Festival 2016, where we heard and played music from a great range of countries, time periods, as well as known and unknown styles of playing. Both the competition and the festival enjoyed of this diversity and demonstrated that we should embrace all of these options to express ourselves through music. With this in mind, my CCC Program will focus on Latin American Traditional music, as well as on Baroque performance practice, which is directly related to the former.

I grew up listening to Latin American Traditional music, but never quite performed or studied it. This is why I am focusing my CCC Program on Cuban and Argentinian traditional music, as well as Baroque music. The relation among these will let me connect my concert music side to the traditional one, through to their directly related harmonic and improvisatory qualities.

Last week I came back from La Habana, Cuba, where I had an intensive Cuban music workshop with pianist Harold López-Nussa. The first three days we worked together on the basics of the following Cuban genres: Danzón, Cha cha chá, Cuban Son, and Conga. Specifically, he showed me the bass patterns with their variants and the “tumbaos”, which are the accompaniment figures usually played by the piano or the tres (three-string small Cuban guitar) above the bass. We met in a living room with an old Steinway piano and a Salvi harp to cover all the basics of this music.

On the fourth day, we met in Harold’s father’s studio, where I met his brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa along with another percussionist, Oto Santana, and a bassist, Julio César González. They all showed me how the percussion and bass traditionally fit into this music and prepared five songs each of a different Cuban genre: El Manisero (Son Montuno), Olvido (Bolero/Cha cha chá), El Cumbanchero (Conga), Footprints (Latin Jazz), and Bilongo (Son).

The work I did with Harold was somewhat traditional, like a lesson you would have in a regular music school. But when we met with the percussionists and the bassist I experienced another form of music making, similar to jazz ensembles, with a lot of improvisation both on the structure of the pieces we performed as in separate “solos” we all had in them.

I was not so sure of what to expect when I arrived in Cuba; the pedal harp is not associated with this kind of music, and, as expected, my several blisters were proof of the intensity of this music which pianists usually barely survive. When this music is played live, each song can last up to 20 minutes, and the piano rarely ever stops or plays quieter than forte. I believe all music can be played on our instrument, if the performer has good ideas and tools to make it work. Later on, I plan to use a loop pedal to include the percussive element into the pieces performed by a solo harp, as well as for helping me play the bass, tumbaos, and melodies simultaneously.

On the last day of my week-long visit we performed a short concert with these pieces, here is a video of Bilongo, which is a Cuban word for witchcraft or spell. We did not sing, but originally the lyrics tell the story of a black woman who seduced a man through her charms and/or spells. I hope you enjoy it!